“How did it go?” asked Kazuki as he rested his chin on his clasped fingers.
“I managed to squeeze your sister’s contact information out of her,” said Jin, his voice coming from a speaker.
“Is it authentic?”
“I haven’t tried calling yet, but I’m certain.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“The method of interrogation.”
“…Excellent work. I’m glad you didn’t rest on your laurels after your previous accomplishment.”
“Instead of praising me, I’d like you to keep your end of the bargain.”
“Of course. Shikimi is all yours. Do you have something in mind?”
“I’m planning to lure him out using the woman as bait.”
“Will he fall for a trap that obvious?”
“Definitely. He’s always had a heroic streak ever since we we’re kids. He won’t abandon her.”
“You seem to trust Shikimi a lot.”
“Trust? No way. It’s just fact. The guy simply doesn’t change.”
“That’s convincing, coming from you. What do you need?”
“If he’s as dangerous as you said, a large team of mercs.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our information on his battle prowess shows how dangerous he can be when fighting a mob. He uses human bodies as weapons and shields. More people also means increased risk of friendly fire.”
The strike team’s failure is proof of that.
Kazuki had received that report just hours ago. He did not divulge this information to Jin because that attack had violated their agreement. Jin was supposed to head the assault on Ageha, but Kazuki cared little about that promise. All he wanted was to remove another obstacle as quickly as possible.
“I assume you have a better idea,” said Jin.
“I’ll lend you Kusarigama.”
“A pair of mercenaries. One of them specializes in close combat, while the other in marksmanship and explosives. The former dispatched Saionji.”
“That’s to be expected, considering their price. They’ll handle the military preparations. I’ll leave everything else to you. Get rid of Shikimi as soon as possible.”
Kazuki did not underestimate Ageha. Kusarigama was one of the best in their trade. They also had a hostage, detailed information on Ageha’s abilities, and control of the battleground.
Time to meet your Waterloo, boy.
Ageha scrubbed the blood off his artificial skin as warm water washed away the dirt on his body. After drying himself off, he left the shower room and began rifling through their rucksack for his clothes.
“You could’ve gotten dressed inside the shower, you know. I get the feeling you don’t even see me as female,” said Kaika.
She was sitting cross-legged on top of a tacky heart-shaped bed. Her eyes were glued to Ageha, who was completely naked, as he pulled a shirt and jeans from the bag.
“At least I don’t walk down corridors in the nude. Besides, the shower cubicle is transparent. You could’ve gotten your fill if you wanted to.”
“Who says I haven’t?”
“Who says I care?”
“That’s exactly what I meant when I said you don’t see me as female.” She sighed and pressed a button on the side of the mattress. The bed started rotating slowly, removing Ageha from Kaika’s view.
Ageha finished getting dressed just after the bed had made one full rotation. Kaika pressed the button again to stop the rotating bed. She raised a hand to get Ageha’s attention and patted the spot beside her. She then opened the medical kit that she had brought out while Ageha was in the shower.
“It’s fine. The bleeding has stopped,” he said.
“No, it’s not fine. We have to disinfect your ear. It’s one of your few organic parts, so take better care of it.”
“You’re actually worried about me?”
“Of course. When have I not worried about you?”
“When you made me cook days after I was shot.”
“You were fine by then. Worrying is something done in appropriate situations. Anything more is merely an act of self-gratification, or worse, an exhibition of sympathy.”
Ageha could not help but chuckle at her reply. Such a cynical opinion was expected of Kaika, and he shared it.
He scrolled through their interactions. What Kaika had said was true. She might have been domineering and whimsical, but she had never been apathetic towards him. Even their quarrel after Akihabara had been partly due to her concern about keeping his identity a secret. He could even recall multiple occasions in which she had expressed worry for him.
He obediently sat down beside her and shot her a doubtful glance. “Can you even do this?”
“Not as well as Saya, but I’ve been trained in basic first aid. It’d be useful if I ever got injured, according to my father.”
“You do live in a dangerous world. Have you ever wished for a different life?”
“Of course not. I chose this path… and lost many things because of it. I can’t stop now.” Kaika soaked a cotton ball with disinfectant and kneeled on the bed in order to reach Ageha’s ear. “This might sting.”
Ageha turned his head and made a face showing pure disbelief.
“I’m kidding,” she said with an angelic smile and dabbed the medicated ball onto his open wound. “Looks like a pretty large chunk was taken off. You might need some cosmetic surgery for this.”
“I don’t mind having uneven ears.”
“I do.” She bandaged his wound.
“What, you’re the type that dresses up your pets?”
“I guess I am, but putting that aside, strange scars are bad for your cover. They make you more identifiable and could also rouse suspicion in your day job.”
“…It’s good to know that you’re looking forward again.”
“What about you?” she asked, her expression dyed with concern.
So this is an “appropriate situation” for worry, huh?
You’re right, as usual.
Ageha had no vision of the future. He only wished to protect Kaika as Saya had commanded. His condition was indeed grave, and Kaika had probably sensed that.
Before he could answer, Kaika’s terminal started ringing. She pulled it out of her pocket and checked the display. Her expression immediately darkened.
Noticing her change, Ageha asked, “What’s up?”
“It’s an unknown number.”
Ageha instantly understood what she meant. Her untraceable mobile number was known to only a select few, and all of them were in her contact list. Barring the off chance of a wrong number call, it was communication from the enemy.
Kaika accepted the call and put it on speaker. “Who are you?”
“Not even a greeting? That’s unexpected from a well-bred young lady like yourself.”
“I have no greetings to spare for strangers.”
“You’re perfectly right! We are strangers. To be honest, I don’t give a shit about you.”
“Is that so? Then I’m hanging up.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Then get to the point.”
“Now, now. Don’t get your panties in a bunch-”
Kaika hung up. Ageha shot her a reproachful look, but she simply raised her hand, signaling him to wait. After a few seconds, her terminal rang again, and she tapped the speaker button.
“What an impatient girl! Your chef must have his hands full dealing with you. He’s there, isn’t he?”
Kaika visibly stiffened. “What are you talking about?”
Ageha was just as confused as Kaika appeared to be. Why would the enemy want to speak with him?
“Feigning ignorance this late in the game? Seems your brother overestimated you.” He released a small sigh. “Hand him the phone if you don’t want Rin Natsume to suffer anymore than she already has.”
“…What did you do to Rin?” she asked in a bone-chilling tone, her eyes sharpening.
Ageha suppressed the urge to speak up. Losing his calm here could worsen the situation.
“A lot, but don’t blame me. It was her fault for refusing to reveal her secret. You better hurry up and get Ageha. She still has toenails, you know?”
Ageha could not remain silent after that implication. “Who are you?”
Kaika shot him a scolding look but then sighed and shrugged her shoulders.
“Finally! The man of the hour! Since you’re both so curious, I’ll give you a clue.” The man on the line coughed twice. “Good evening, chef,” he respectfully said in a completely different voice.
Ageha recognized it.
“Right and wrong!” His voice returned to its original timbre.
“What do you want from me?” asked Ageha.
“A couple of things, but for now, come to the courtyard of your middle school. It closed two years ago, but I’m sure you remember where it is. Come alone, and hurry.”
Everything clicked into place inside Ageha after hearing the meeting location. The man’s voice, though deeper than the one in his memory, was familiar. Yuuji’s attachment to that courtyard confirmed Ageha’s suspicion.
Yuuji had already ended the call before Ageha had said the name.
“It’s a trap,” declared Kaika.
“Of course it is.” Ageha started undressing.
“Even though it’s pleasant to watch, what are you doing?”
“Are you daft? This is a trap. You said so yourself.”
“I won’t do anything rash.”
“Going itself is already stupidly rash.”
“I’ll see if I can save Rin. If it’s impossible, then so be it.” He slipped on his black combat suit. It was still speckled with dry blood.
Kaika stopped her attempts to dissuade him and fell silent with a troubled expression. She closed her eyes and appeared to be in deep thought. In the meantime, Ageha donned his alloy armor. After securing a small bag on his waist, he stepped towards the door. Kaika grabbed his hand and stopped him.
“I’ve changed my mind. Go save Rin,” she said.
“I can’t abandon Rin. It’s my fault she’s- Wait, what?” He turned to her.
“If she’s still alive, do everything you can to save her.”
“…I didn’t expect that. It seems you’ve taken a liking to her.”
“I have. I also owe her for everything she’s done for me. However,” she said while squeezing his hard alloy hand in hers, “promise me something.”
“What is it?”
Her brows furrowed, and she bit her lower lip. “You have to come back no matter what,” she pleaded, her usual commanding aura nowhere to be found.
Ageha was flabbergasted by both her anxious expression and her show of vulnerability. He was unable to reply immediately. Excluding any obligation to Saya, he genuinely thought the girl in front of him was precious.
Maybe there’s still hope for me.
“Not to brag, but I’m confident I’ll shrivel up and die from hunger if you don’t.” She smiled wryly, but her eyes were still on the verge of tears.
“That’s not something to boast about.” He smiled back.
“Starving to death in a love hotel isn’t how I imagined my last.”
“At least go out and eat something if you’re hungry!” He could not help but play the straight man even in this dire situation.
She squeezed his hand tighter.
“…I’m worried, Ageha.”
He firmly grasped her hand in return and put on his mask.
“I promise, Kai.”