“You look better than I expected,” said Ageha as he approached the patient’s bed.
“Is that sarcasm, Ageha-sama?” Saya was wearing a loose hospital gown, and her arms were covered with bandages. A tube connected her to an IV drip. She slowly sat up and smiled at the young man.
Ageha smiled back and took a seat beside the bed.
“No, I really am relieved. You were in really bad shape when I found you.”
“Thank you for saving me.”
“I didn’t bring it up for that. I only did what was necessary.”
“I know, but I am thankful all the same. Kai-Ojousama mentioned how worried you were, so I would like to apologize as well. I was too careless.”
“…What did Kai say?”
“She said that you frantically asked her what you should do after carrying me back to the apartment, and that you drove like a madman until you got here.” Saya looked as if she remembered something and giggled. “She also said that you nervously paced around Kanou-sensei’s living room like a husband whose wife is in labor.”
“The last one was a lie.”
Ageha looked surprised. His reaction was expected because even Saya was surprised at herself. It had always been him who poked fun at her, and she had never attempted to turn the tables in this manner.
“I guess you’re doing fine if you can joke like that,” he said with a wry smile.
Saya locked eyes with him. “I know I should not be, but I am a little happy you worried as much as I did that time you got shot.” She smiled bashfully.
It’s so much easier to be honest after accepting my feelings.
Ageha fell silent with a complicated expression.
She noticed Ageha’s confusion and immediately understood that he was unaccustomed to her current behavior. However, she did not want to return to her old self anymore. It had been a long time since she was this comfortable with herself.
“How is Kai-Ojousama?”
“She’s behaving for now. Has she contacted you?”
“She has been sending me updates on the current situation. She is staying at Natsume-san’s apartment, right?”
“Why do you keep calling me with ‘-sama’ but refer to Rin using ‘-san?’”
“It is a matter of standing. You are Kai-Ojousama’s partner. Natsume-san is merely an acquaintance.”
And a rival should be treated as an equal.
Ageha shrugged his shoulders. “Kai treats me like a pet, though.”
“No way. If anything, it is the other way around. You are the one who prepares her meals.”
“I’ll pass on a pet honey badger.”
Saya could not help but laugh. The gap between the animal’s unassuming name and its true nature perfectly matched the disparity between Kaika’s facade and interior. Her laughter caused the wound on her belly to ache. She winced.
“Are you okay?” asked Ageha, clearly worried.
Saya controlled her breathing. The pain was significant, but she did not want him to fret, so she endured it much like Ageha had done when he was the one stuck in bed.
“I am fine. I just laughed a little too hard,” she said with a forced smile.
“Don’t push yourself. Maybe I should get going so you can get some rest?”
“No!” She reflexively raised a hand and beckoned him to stop. “I mean, that is all I have been doing for the past few days. Chatting with someone makes me feel a lot better than being cooped up in here alone.”
And I missed you.
“…If you say so,” he said.
“According to Kanou-sensei, I am recovering quicker than expected. He even offered to upgrade my left eye this morning. A doctor would not operate on someone in bad condition.”
“…Upgrade your left eye? What?” He looked completely perplexed.
It dawned on her that she had never told him about it. “My left eye is bionic.”
Ageha eyes widened. “Not that I mind, but why did you keep it secret?”
“It is not really a secret. It is just a boring story.”
“Hey, you’re the one who wanted to chat. I don’t have any stories to tell except for Kai’s ranting or bragging, and I’m sure both of us have heard enough of that for a lifetime.”
Saya giggled. “True.” She thought for a moment and decided to tell him about it. She felt glad that he was so eager to know about her.
“Do you remember how I was sold to NGC for ARMS experiments?” she asked.
“I had a boyfriend there. He was very popular with the girls, but for some reason he chose me.”
“The fact that you’re not faking humility right now is one of the things I like about you.”
Saya felt her face burn. “…Do you want to hear the story or not?” she asked with a slight frown.
“I do, I do. Sorry for interrupting,” he said with a placating smile.
“Well, during our… first time, one of his admirers went berserk. She probably heard the…” Saya fidgeted in hesitation but continued, “…sounds from outside my boyfriend’s room when she came to visit. She then broke the door down with her cybernetic arm.”
“Okay, that escalated quickly.”
“My boyfriend panicked and ran away. I could not blame him. The girl’s glare as she stomped towards me froze me in place. Jealousy is terrifying…”
Ageha nodded deeply. Saya was aware of his past and knew that he completely understood what she had meant.
Saya unconsciously touched the skin below her eye. “She gouged out my right eye with her fingers. I was lucky my boyfriend called for help after he escaped. The guards somehow made it in time.”
“You wouldn’t have been injured if he didn’t run away in the first place.”
“True enough. We broke up right after that.” She made a bitter smile.
“Wait, you said that girl took out your right eye, but earlier you mentioned that Kanou-sensei offered to upgrade the left one.”
“My right optic nerve was too badly damaged and could no longer be connected to a bionic eye. It was only after Kai-Ojousama picked me up that I had my left eye replaced. Shooting and fighting effectively are incredibly difficult with only one eye, so she had my remaining eye swapped with a bionic one to compensate.” Saya pointed at her left eye. “This can automatically measure distance and zoom. The more recent models are capable of much more. They are ridiculously expensive though, much more than other cybernetic parts.”
“I’ve always wondered how you could shoot so accurately despite having one eye covered all the time.”
“I styled my hair like this to cover my hollow eye socket when I was still in the facility.” Brushing her hair to the side, she uncovered her right eye. “I bought a glass prosthesis after I came to the mansion, so I do not really need to keep it this way anymore, though.”
“Keep it. I like it.”
Saya chuckled softly and said, “You never change.”
“Of course.” He made his habitual poised smile.
“Sorry to interrupt your chat, but the patient needs her medicine,” said Gen as he entered the room.
Saya’s door was generally left open to avoid waking her whenever Gen had to check on her condition or administer medication.
“You actually came with perfect timing. Too perfect. Don’t tell me you added eavesdropping to your long list of misconducts?” asked Ageha.
“Please. I have no time to waste listening to lovers flirting.”
“Kanou-sensei, we are not like that!” said Saya in a fluster.
“Whatever.” The doctor looked genuinely uninterested. “I had wondered what made Ageha turn out like this, but I never expected the answer to be so boring.” Gen walked to Saya’s bedside and injected transparent liquid into her IV drip. “This should help with the pain. How are you feeling?”
“My wounds still hurt if I move too much, but other than that, I feel fine.”
“Good. I’ll be going out for a house call. Please don’t engage in strenuous physical activity just because you have the house to yourselves. It would be bad if your wounds reopen.” He wore a bored expression.
“O-Of course not!” she shouted.
Ignoring her protests, the doctor quickly left.
“Has he always been like that?” asked Saya.
“How should I say this… Cold? Dry, maybe?”
“Yeah, as far as I’ve known him. Why?”
“I was just wondering if he disliked me in particular because he is always so curt.”
“It’s the opposite. He’s probably taken an interest in you. That last jab is proof of that. He wouldn’t tease someone he’s indifferent to.” Ageha looked at the door Gen had just used. “That guy doesn’t really like or hate things. He’s either interested or disinterested, that’s it.”
“Why would he be interested in someone like me?”
“Who knows? It’s not a bad thing, probably. I survived it, so you should be fine.”
“Survived? What exactly did he do to you?”
“Pain threshold and tolerance experiments, mostly.”
“Wait, he tortured you!?” Saya made a shocked face mirroring her true feelings.
“No, it was with my consent.”
Saya’s cheeks went red.
He’s an M!?
Shocked by the sudden revelation, Saya could not reply. The conversation trailed off and a long silence filled the room. Unable to bear it, she decided to speak up.
“I am sorry for taking up so much of your time. You are probably very busy.”
Wait, what am I saying? This sounds like I want him to leave!
Saya felt slightly dizzy.
“Actually, I have tons of free time recently. Kai ordered me to keep my head down until you’ve fully recovered.”
“I see. That is fortunate. I did not want to be more of a burden than I already am right now.”
“Injured people shouldn’t worry about things like that. Just relax and be pampered.”
“…I am not really used to something like that.”
“I’d be surprised if you were. You’re always busy spoiling that brat. I bet you don’t even take time off.”
Saya flinched because he had hit the bullseye.
Ageha suddenly raised an index finger with a proud look on his face. “I have an idea. Just for tonight, I’ll listen to whatever you say.”
“Huh? Why all of a sudden?”
The idea completely dumbfounded her. Saya could not deduce his motives because she was having a hard time thinking clearly. She was not sleepy, but she somehow felt more relaxed than usual.
“To get you used to ordering people around. You somehow suck at it despite having Kai, the ultimate role model, by your side all the time. Learn to depend on people, at least when you’re injured.”
Look who’s talking…
Saya recalled the time Ageha had been shot. She found his advice ironic but did not blame him for it. Being a bundle of contradictions herself, she deeply understood the gulf between knowing and doing the right thing.
“You will do whatever I say? Is that a promise?”
What was that just now!?
Saya could not believe what she just said. Normally, Saya would never accede to such a proposal. Her position as Kaika’s aide made it impossible to do so.
Ageha looked equally surprised at her response. However, he quickly recovered his composure and said, “Yes, it’s a promise.”
Saya was confused at the sudden turn of events. She now held authority over the person she loved. A chain reaction of possibilities exploded in her head, but she could not possibly bring herself to abuse his sincere offer. She decided to request something quite normal.
“Can you make me something to eat?” she asked.
“That’s it? You’re too reserved. I know my cooking is delicious, but I do that for you all the time.”
“No, you do that for us. This time, I want you to cook for me.”
Her own bold statement made her feel embarrassed.
“…Got it. I can’t promise my usual level of quality. I doubt Kanou-sensei has much in his pantry.”
“So the quality of your cooking is due to the ingredients?” asked Saya with a challenging smile.
Ageha stood up and rotated his shoulder as if warming up for a pitch. “You just had to say it. Prepare to have your mind blown.” He left the room right after his declaration.
Left alone, Saya performed a self-diagnosis.
What’s wrong with me?
She had become more honest after accepting her romantic feelings for Ageha. However, the last few minutes had been abnormal. Her rationality and restraint were ebbing away and her true self was being exposed more and more. She tried to squeeze her addled brain for the cause. Gen’s visit came to mind.
Gen would not hurt his patients. Despite being amoral, Gen had pride as a doctor. That meant the painkiller he had injected had a side effect and had dampened Saya’s restrictions.
This realization would have normally caused Saya to ask Ageha to leave in order to avoid further embarrassment, but in her current state she decided to simply go with the flow.
After about half an hour, Ageha returned to the room with a tray carrying a covered bowl and a soup spoon. Saya, now high after the medicine had circulated in her system, cheerfully smiled at him.
“I didn’t think you’d be this happy. You haven’t even tasted it yet,” said Ageha as he placed the tray on a bed table. He then rolled the table in front of Saya and removed the bowl’s lid.
“I made some okayu. It’s kind of basic because the ingredients in the kitchen were pretty sparse, but I’m confident in the taste.”
Saya looked down and surveyed the thick golden liquid.
“Wow, it looks great. It smells good too.”
“Here you go.” Ageha handed her the spoon.
Saya did not move to receive it. Instead, she looked at him and said, “Feed me.”
“Use that spoon to feed me.” Saya made a pleading face.
Ageha looked as if he had seen a miracle. “C’mon, you’re not a kid. You can eat by yourself.”
“But you promised.”
“Ahh…” Saya tilted her head upward and seductively parted her lips.
Ageha slumped his shoulders in resignation and hesitantly scooped up some of the congee. He carefully carried it towards Saya’s mouth.
“Ouch!” Saya jerked her head away from the spoon.
“Sorry! My tongue’s used to boiling-hot food so I thought it was already cool enough.” Guilt soiled his features.
“Blow on it.”
“Blow on it to cool it down.”
“We can just wait for it to cool down by itself, you know?”
“But I want to eat now.”
A complicated expression crossed Ageha’s face after witnessing Saya act like a spoiled child. He was probably wondering what caused Saya’s change in personality, but he still obediently blew on the congee.
“…Are you blushing?” asked Saya as she looked at his face.
Ageha did not reply and merely focused on cooling down her food.
After verifying her observation by taking a closer look, she said, “I cannot believe you are actually blushing. I think this is the first time I have ever scored a point from you.”
“So your hair pulling didn’t count as a win?” Ageha made a rare pout.
“What hair pulling?” Saya was genuinely puzzled.
“To think you really do that unconsciously…” he mumbled.
Saya opened her mouth again. This time, Ageha successfully fed her the aromatic porridge.
Her eyes widened in awe. “My mind is officially blown.”
Ageha smirked proudly. Little did he know that Saya’s statement was also accurate in a different sense due to her medication.
“How can this be so good?” Saya checked the contents of the bowl again. She saw sliced green onions, an umeboshi, and yellow rice soup colored by eggs. It was a standard okayu.
“What a foolish question,” said Ageha as he used the empty spoon to point at himself.
“I make okayu with the same ingredients. Why does this taste so much better?”
“I made a few changes to the standard recipe. First, I used more water, making the consistency a little closer to Cantonese congee. It’s easier to eat and digest, so you probably find it delicious partly because your body instinctively knows what it needs.”
Saya found the idea interesting. She learned that cooking was not merely about a set recipe, but also about adaptability and customization.
“Second, I used only egg yolks to make it creamier and more flavorful to compensate for the increased liquid content. Lastly, I seasoned it to perfectly match your preferences. The order was to cook for you, after all.”
Saya did not feel embarrassed, nor did she blush. Instead, she was overcome by a strong longing for Ageha. She wanted to embrace and squeeze him tightly. Not wanting to waste the delectable dish presented to her, she endured.
Ageha spoon-fed Saya until the bowl was empty. The next order came immediately after Ageha had cleaned up and had moved the table.
“Lend me your arm.”
“…What exactly do you mean by that?”
Instead of answering, Saya scooted over to create enough space on the bed for Ageha to lie down next to her.
“I was afraid that’s what you were thinking. I’d understand if it’s the other way around, but my arm is harder than rock, you know?”
“I do not mind.”
“I know I said I’d listen to you, but this is a little-”
Ageha fell silent. Scrunching his eyebrows together, he closed his eyes and appeared to be deep in thought. He then sighed deeply and said, “Okay. A promise is a promise.”
This is so convenient!
Saya knew full well that Ageha would never break a promise he had made in earnest. He had probably given his word thinking that Saya would not abuse it, but the current Saya was not the one he knew. All the emotions she normally kept buried were now gushing out. The emotionless mask that she had painstakingly woven onto her face was coming undone.
Ageha lay down on the bed and stretched his cybernetic arm across the mattress in place of a pillow. Saya rested her head on his arm without hesitation. After a few seconds like that, she turned and nuzzled up to him.
Ageha jerked in reaction. “Hey! What’s wrong with you? You’ve been acting strange since earlier.”
“Do not worry about it. I am just a little high from the painkillers.”
I didn’t intend to tell him that, but whatever.
Saya was now inebriated enough to not care about anything she said.
Ageha breathed out a sigh of relief. “I knew it was something like that. Well, all that’s left is to enjoy it, I guess.” His body relaxed as his lips curled into a resigned smile.
The awkwardness dissipated enough that they looked like a normal couple snuggling in bed. Their proximity brought a new kind of happiness to Saya. She felt excited yet content at the same time. Those feelings further lowered her guard, causing her to give a forbidden command.
Ageha suddenly stiffened. Her lips were just a few inches from his ear. He had definitely heard her words. Realizing the finality of her confession, she quickly returned to lucidity. She instantly sat up, her face filled with a combination of shock and terror.
“I take that back! Forget what I said! I am not thinking straight!” Her eyes darted around as her fingers clawed into her hair.
Her thoughts were in disarray, but her partner, who also sat up, was the picture of calm.
“Is that an order?” he asked as he gazed at her.
This forced Saya to regain her calm. She stared at him and pondered deeply for a while.
“…No, please do not forget it…” She backed away from him a little, her shapely buttocks reaching the edge of the bed.
Ageha waited silently for her to continue.
“I know my feelings for you have been an open secret for a while now. I also understand that we do not have the leeway for something like a romantic relationship with everything going on. But I guess… I could not resist.”
Tucking her arms close to her chest, she looked away from him. The two of them stayed like that for a few moments.
She faced him and said, “Do not follow that order unless it matches your own will.” Her eyes were filled with determination.
Ageha, interrupted by Saya’s sudden command, did not say anything more.
“Whether you decide to follow it or not, all I want is a clear answer. I just… want to know how you feel.” Her tender expression clearly conveyed her yearning for the young man. “You do not have to answer right now. Actually, please give it some thought before replying.”
His mouth slightly agape, he silently soaked in her words.
“I have another order while I am at it.” She turned away from him again. Her ears were blood red. “Please leave me alone for today. Any more and I will die from shame.”
Ageha looked at her cute, maidenly figure and took a deep breath. “Okay.” He slowly got off the bed and walked towards the door.
Ageha turned to her. “What is it?”
“I have an order that is unrelated to our relationship. Since your promise is only effective for tonight, this will be my last command.”
He stiffened up due to the gravitas in her voice.
She locked eyes with him. Her face had regained its usual dignity. “Please take care of Kai-Ojousama for me.”
“Leave it to me.”
Kaika and Rin were playing a popular fighting game when Ageha dropped by. Now he, or rather his character, was being pummeled to death by the two girls in turns.
“So weak!” said Kaika.
“Whoohoo! I won again!” Rin pumped her fist as her character made a victory pose on the screen.
“Can we please stop now?” asked Ageha dejectedly.
“No way! Kai has been beating the hell out of me since earlier. Thank god you decided to visit.”
“I just came here to check up on you guys. I’m not a substitute punching bag.”
“How come you’re so bad at this despite being such a talented fighter?” asked Kaika.
“I’m just distracted.” He was not lying. He had just received Saya’s order, her heartfelt confession, a few hours ago. However, he knew that even with his full attention on the game, the result would not have changed.
“That is pretty strange. Having seen you cook countless times, I was convinced you had amazing coordination,” said Rin.
This scene reminded Ageha of one from his childhood.
He recalled his friends saying similar things to him when they had first played at the arcade. It had been such a painful memory for him, but now he could look back without fear. The things he had gained since then allowed him to do so.
A new fear sprouted in his heart. He was afraid of losing what he had obtained, just like how he had lost his first love, his best friend, and Kureha.
“I’ll give you a handicap, Ageha. I’ll play with only my left hand!” said Kaika.
“Whatever. Let’s just get this over with.”
It was against Ageha’s principles to not give his best in competition. However, the difference in his and Kaika’s real life combat ability appeared to be reversed in the virtual world.
““Flawless Victory,”” said Kaika and the virtual referee simultaneously. She arrogantly shoved a V sign in front of Ageha’s face using the hand she had not used during the fight.
“I give up.” He handed the controller over to Rin.
“Wait! You were supposed to be my stand-in!” said Rin with a pleading face.
It looks like she was beaten even worse than I was before I got here.
“Oh? Here comes a new challenger!” Kaika looked very excited. It seemed as if she would never tire of bullying those weaker than her.
Ageha fondly looked at them. The desire to protect his current life welled up. He recalled how his first friendships had been destroyed. Raking up his regrets, he analyzed where he had fallen short.
If I had just been honest about my feelings towards Airi…
He had known about Jin’s attraction to the same girl, so he had purposefully kept silent about his own feelings. That had led to the horrible conclusion that gave birth to his broken self. If only he had been more courageous back then, things might have gone differently. Saya’s brave confession came to mind.
How should I answer her?
“Why are you so good at this!? Didn’t you say you haven’t played this before?” asked Rin.
“That’s because I’m a genius. This is my first time playing any fighting game, actually.” Kaika thumped her washboard chest.
“Darn, I can’t even get you to half HP. If only I could invite Yuuji over. From what I hear in the sala, he would’ve given you a hard time.”
“That’s too bad. I like beating down the hardworking types,” said Kaika with a confident smirk.
“It’s your turn on the stake.” Rin tossed the controller to Ageha.
He reluctantly caught it. The monitor displayed the character selection screen. He mindlessly scrolled through the large cast of fighters, but his mind was nowhere near the game.
How did he feel towards Saya? He had avoided that question for the longest time. He and Saya had been making the same excuses over and over. Both of them had been fumbling around trying to keep a certain distance from each other.
Once he seriously tried to answer that question, his mind was flooded with images of Saya: Her blind loyalty to Kaika’s cuteness, her strange hair pulling habit, her bad puns, her dignified smile, her adorable fits of embarrassment, her command.
He recalled the dread he had felt when he discovered Saya covered in blood.
“Hurry and make up your mind,” said Kaika.
“Sorry for the wait.”
His onscreen cursor finally settled on a player character. He pressed the confirm button.