“Happy Birthday, Kureha-Ojousama,” said Saya.
She knelt down and put a bouquet of flowers inside a metal vase. After placing incense in a holder, the butler closed her eyes, put her hands together, and offered a short prayer for her mistress’s sister.
A light breeze caressed the freshly blooming cherry blossoms around her and ruffled her long bangs. She gracefully fixed her hair as she stood up.
“Looks like you kept your hairstyle.”
She froze upon hearing the nostalgic voice. A sweet pain gripped her heart. Saya was shocked by the unexpected encounter but managed to compose herself after taking a deep breath.
“A certain someone told me to,” she said. “We have not seen each other in a while, so I was afraid he would not recognize me if I changed it.” She turned around and saw the face she dreaded yet sorely missed.
Ageha stood several paces from her. “It’s been a while, Saya.” The long sleeves of his grey dress shirt were folded up to his elbows. Black slacks and polished leather shoes completed his unusual semi-formal look.
“It really has.” Her glossy lips formed an effortless smile. “You look quite dressed up.”
“So do you.” He looked at her from head to toe. “Looks great, but aren’t you cold in that?”
A small black and white one-piece dress hugged her feminine figure. The frock’s short skirt displayed the silky skin of her bare legs. Her feet rested on black high heel sandals.
I’m not wearing this because I want to!
Saya looked down and shyly pinched the hem of her skirt. “This is for a business meeting later. Besides, spring came quite early this year. The sakura are already blooming.” She glanced at the closest cherry tree.
An awkward atmosphere enveloped them. Saya tried her best to come up with the words to dispel it.
“So how are things? Is everything going well with your current commitment?”
Why did I suddenly drop a bomb like that!?
The topic she was most curious about, his relationship with Rin, unconsciously spilled out.
“You knew about that, huh? Did Kai tell you to keep tabs on me?”
“No, I… I want to know. It is not entirely unrelated to me.”
She had confessed to him, after all. It was only natural for her to be curious about his relationship.
“Looking at it from your perspective, I can understand that,” he said with a shrug.
Why are you so calm?
Saya felt insignificant. Did she really mean so little to Ageha that he could talk about her affection for him so casually? Humiliation and self-pity polluted her heart, but she managed to keep them from showing on her face. She pushed down her rampaging emotions and resisted the urge to escape.
Ageha crossed his arms and spent a few seconds thinking. “I guess it’s going fine. I’m losing sleep though. She keeps me awake almost every night.”
They do it every night!?
The sudden revelation clashed with Saya’s image of Rin. She had not expected the bubbly cameriera to have such an insatiable sexual appetite.
“Usually drags on for hours. I actually don’t like moving around that much. I’m getting worn out.”
And so intensely!?
Saya tried her best not to flip out, but her face still turned as red as a ripe tomato. “R-R-Really. That sounds quite… hard?” Her sentence ended in an unnaturally high pitch.
Ageha frowned. “Yeah, really. She doesn’t even care if I get injured. That woman loves seeing blood.”
They even do that kind of play!?
“And honestly, her constant lollipop sucking can get unnerving. She does it everywhere. Maybe I’m asking for too much, but I sometimes wish she’d give it a rest.”
Saya had never done fellatio before but just imagining how exhausting that was on the jaw caused hers to drop.
She does it everywhere!!??
Saya had previously suspected that Ageha was a masochist, but he was apparently an exhibitionist as well. Ageha’s unbelievably raunchy nightlife rattled Saya so much she had no leeway to feel hurt or sad. The relatively innocent young woman overloaded from imagining the explicit details of his story.
Ageha shrugged. “Well, she pays me good money, so I can’t turn her down.”
Natsume-san pays him!?
Isn’t that prostitution!?
“Speaking of positives, there’s also that one time she stroked my head. It was a bit embarrassing with other people there, but it wasn’t bad at all.”
A handjob in public!?
He continued, “It reminded me of Kureha. She also enjoyed that.”
Ageha-sama and Kureha-Ojousama had that kind of relationship!?
Saya knew Kureha was special to Ageha but had not known why until now. Saya’s image of Ageha had changed from a possibly masochistic but cool and reliable superman to a definitely masochistic exhibitionist gigolo with lolicon tendencies.
But she loved him nonetheless.
“Sorry about the rant.” Ageha scratched his head. “So, how’s it going on your end?”
Saya’s eyes darted around in panic. While frantically gesticulating with her hands, she wordlessly opened and closed her mouth several times before she could speak. “M-M-Me? I-I have been, uh, very busy, so I do not have the time for s-such, such vulgar acts!!!”
She failed to control herself.
“Huh? Vulgar?” asked Ageha.
“Animalistic sex, fellatio and handjobs in public, selling your body, and you even laid your hands on Kureha-Ojousama!!!”
“What the hell are you talking about!?”
“It is not too late, Ageha-sama! Rehabilitation! That is it! I will not tell you to forsake your fetishes, but at least keep away from children! That is a crime! Ah, so is indecent exposure… b-but if you are careful…”
It was a ridiculous reprimand to give to a mass murderer, but she was too flustered to notice.
“I was talking about work and my new boss! Where did all this sex talk come from!?”
Saya felt the earth’s rotation grind to a halt. Her crimson face turned deathly pale and then sizzling red again in a matter of seconds. “Were you not talking about your sexual relationship with Natsume-san?”
“No! I haven’t even slept with Rin yet!”
What did he just say?
Her extreme embarrassment was extinguished by unexpected good news.
“I see.” Saya buried a grin that almost surfaced and bowed her head. “I apologize for making hasty assumptions and accusing you of indecent acts.”
Ageha massaged his temples and sighed. “As long as the misunderstanding is cleared up.”
“I am really sorry. I… I have not been myself lately. There is just so much going on.”
Saya was distracted and overworked. She had to juggle Kaika’s orders, her responsibilities, and her mission. Her plate was well beyond full.
“You, too, huh?”
Another awkward silence arose. Saya felt sad about their current distance. Just a few months ago, they were like best friends and comrades. Now, she was too scared to start a conversation with him. As if reading her mind, Ageha broke the ice first.
“I brought Kureha’s favorite dessert.” He showed her a small wicker basket and removed the checkered cloth covering its contents. Inside were two round mini pies with crumb topping.
“Apple pie?” asked Saya.
“I knew you’d figure it out instantly. The smell of cinnamon is a dead giveaway.”
“I did not know Kureha-Ojousama liked apple pies.”
“Not just any apple pie. My recipe uses a streusel topping,” said Ageha as he took out a small plastic container from the basket, “and crème fraîche.”
“That’s why she kept it a secret from you and her sister. She was worried Kai would dislike her for it.”
“Dislike her? Why would she think that?”
Ageha grinned. “You don’t get it? Kai goes through incredible lengths to keep her favorite snack a secret, right?”
Saya remembered the dolphin cookies and giggled. “Kureha-Ojousama was half right. Kai-Ojousama would not dislike her for it, but she would definitely feel embarrassed if her younger sister had a more mature palate than she did.”
“Wanna try it?” Ageha offered a pie to Saya.
“I could not possibly-”
“It’s fine. Kureha-chan can have my share. I say that, but I’ll eat it later at home. I can’t leave it here anyway because the birds will make a mess.” Ageha placed a small pie on Saya’s palm and handed her a plastic fork. He then topped the pie with a dollop of soured cream. Ageha did the same to the other pie and placed it in front of Kureha’s tombstone. “Happy birthday, Kureha-chan. Dig in.” He glanced at Saya and nodded.
She could barely contain her excitement as she cut into the pie. The crumble topping had a light texture and easily gave way to her fork. Ensuring she got a little bit of the soured cream on her forkful, she carried the fragrant concoction past her lips. A burst of richness oozing from the crumble flooded her tongue. The sublime balance of sweet and tart in the filling prevented the butter in the crust from clouding her palate. The crème fraîche topping held together the contrasting flavors. The first bite completely seduced her taste buds, and she had already taken another without realizing.
A new surprise awaited her. The apple slices in the caramel-colored filling were not uniformly cooked on purpose. The melt-in-your mouth tender morsels and slices with a hint of crispness alternately teased her taste buds. It was a clever trick that ensured the diner was never bored.
Her eyes closed involuntarily, her lips pursing with the fork still in her mouth. A sensual moan emanated from her throat.
“Uh, I’m glad you like it,” said Ageha with a troubled smile.
With blushing cheeks, she meekly said, “It has been a while, so I was caught off-guard.”
“No, I’m the one caught off-guard just now,” he mumbled and looked away from her face.
“Nevermind. It’s nothing.”
She took a few more bites. “Ojousama would throw a tantrum if she finds out about this pie.”
“…How is she?”
“She misses your cooking. She lost some weight a while ago, but I force-fed her to keep her healthy.” Saya showed a tender expression. “Ojousama wanted to come today, but she got tied up with more pressing matters and asked me to come in her stead.”
“No one would blame her. It’s unusual to visit graves on birthdays anyway.”
“She said it was the least she could do in return for the surprise party Kureha-Ojousama arranged before. It is unfortunate she could not be here.”
“How about you? Didn’t you say you were swamped? Do you really have time for grave visits?”
“I just dropped by on my way to another appointment. I cannot very well ignore Ojousama’s orders.”
“Me too, actually. I still have a few hours before my errand, but I’ll get in trouble with the boss if I’m late.”
“She sounds similar to Ojousama.”
“In some ways, yeah. They both love cute things, for one. But Valeriya is more upfront about it compared to that kid. And their figures are worlds apart.”
“I will keep your comments a secret from Ojousama.”
“Didn’t Kai like her own figure? She said it was useful.”
“She does, but she will not like you calling her a dishonest brat.”
“That’s not what I said-”
“And no female likes being compared to another.”
“Only if they lose,” he mumbled and shrugged slightly. “It’s fair judgment so I don’t mind if you tattle.”
“You misunderstand. I am keeping it a secret for my own sake. I do not want to be dragged into her inevitable rampage.”
They laughed with restraint due to the venue.
With a hint of nostalgia, Ageha said, “I guess we both serve troublesome people.”
Saya was tempted to ask if Ageha had already forgiven her mistress but decided to let sleeping dogs lie. “I will not deny that, but I would not have her any other way.”
“Some things never change.”
She gazed at his face, still untamed yet endearing, and felt her heart throb.
I agree completely.
After eating most of the pie, a thought occurred to Saya. “Eating in a cemetery feels a little sacrilegious.”
“We’re the only ones here, and I’m pretty sure the dead don’t care.”
“If you really think that, why did you come all the way here, even bringing an offering?”
He furrowed his eyebrows for a short while. “You got me there. I guess I was bored. I remembered Kureha’s birthday and found myself on a train.”
People call that being lonely, Ageha-sama.
“Did something happen?”
He quickly hid a grimace. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Ageha showed a bitter smile but did not reply.
Saya gave him a dissatisfied look. “You are always like that. You also closed up when Kureha-Ojousama passed away.”
“Look who’s talking. You look like you’re shouldering the weight of the world right now.”
Saya reflexively closed her lips. Had she been openly showing her vulnerability? That was unacceptable. She had a lot more to accomplish, and weakness was a hindrance.
Ageha smiled at her. “Don’t worry. You’re as hard to read as always. But I can tell.”
“Your guess is terrifyingly accurate.” She gripped her right arm with her left hand. “But Ojousama bears an even heavier load. And I… my mistake weighed her down even more.”
“That’s rare. A mistake isn’t like you.”
Whose fault do you think that is?
Saya immediately retracted her mental statement. It was not Ageha but her own immaturity that caused her current disarray.
“I do not even know what is ‘like me’ anymore. I am giving it my all, but things just do not seem to work out. Maybe I am not cut out for this.”
Several seconds of silence passed. If not for the falling cherry blossoms, time would have seemed frozen. A soft breeze whispered in their ears as it cradled the pink petals to and fro.
“I met this girl who loves to work hard, just like you,” said Ageha.
“Eh?” The announcement blew away her melancholy.
“She’s my employer’s daughter. Stubborn to a fault. I thought she was a pain at first, but after being around her for a while, I learned a couple of things.”
Hasn’t your harem grown enough!?
Saya heard about the Russian mob boss Valeriya from Kaika a while ago, but her mistress never mentioned a daughter.
“Out of curiosity, how old is this daughter?” she asked with a cold gaze.
“I think she’s thirteen.”
“Are you a lolicon?”
“But there is Kureha-Ojousama and Kai-Ojousama.”
And Arashi counts, right!?
She managed to not spill the fact that an avenger hunting Ageha was living with them right now.
“And now this new girl.” Saya’s lower lip jutted out in annoyance.
“You’re pouting.” He chuckled.
“What is so funny?” She narrowed her eyes and turned her face to the side.
“I’ll take this chance and declare that I’m not attracted to kids. I have nothing against those that are, but there won’t be any jailbait twist happening in the foreseeable future.”
You say that, but I bet you know more underaged females than legal ones.
Ageha ignored her indignant sulking. “Back to what I was saying. Mitsu-, this girl was forced to face her trauma recently. It was a problem she carried for years, but when push came to shove, she beat it. It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win.”
“That is impressive, but I do not see-”
“The thing is, she didn’t do anything new. Some people resolve their problems by getting help or through an epiphany, but she just stubbornly struggled like always.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“That’s what she is and who you are. You seem perfect, graceful, strong, but in reality, you’re faint-hearted, awkwardly stiff, and adorably frail. It’s your dedication that makes that beautiful lie possible. To your duty, to Kai, or whatever it is.”
Saya felt the hair on her neck and arm stand on end.
Despite the embarrassing lines he was spouting, Ageha remained as cool as a cucumber. “Don’t try to juggle too much. You don’t need a new trick. Just keep your eyes on what you want and do your thing.” His gaze conveyed his unwavering trust in her. “You’ll be fine.”
And she did as advised. The pink foliage and dreary gravestones surrounding them faded into nothingness. He was all she could see.
“This is unfair,” she said.
“I feel saved.”
He seemed puzzled. “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“I have not done anything for you.”
He shook his head. “You’re wrong. Seeing you eat the pie I made was more than enough. You reminded me that I’m more than just,” he looked at his palm, “this.”
His hand was trembling.
He coiled his fingers into a fist, but the faint shaking did not stop.
Saya glimpsed the shadow currently looming over Ageha and felt the urge to hold him. She was undeniably attracted to his strength. But even more than that, Saya adored his unseen vulnerability, his surprising clumsiness, his stubbornness, and a vast number of other quirks. Ageha was much more than what he thought of himself, and she wanted to tell him that, if only to ease his loneliness for a moment.
But she could not. If she started speaking, she might tell him things he should not know.
She stepped forward and gently wrapped her hands around his cold fist, like a hen warming a precious egg. He looked surprised but did not escape her grasp.
After about half a minute, Ageha’s clenched fist finally relaxed. “Thanks, Saya.”
“Glad to be of service.” She forced herself to release him and checked her terminal.
It’s almost time.
Her meeting with Excell’s Masato Kuribayashi was in about one hour. She wanted to stay with Ageha for a while longer, but duty called.
“I have to go,” she said. “Thank you for the pie, and for the advice.”
Traces of disappointment showed on his face. “It wasn’t much.”
Don’t make this harder than it already is..!
“Please visit more often. I am sure Kureha-Ojousama is happy to see you.” Saya turned around and whispered, “I feel the same.”
He did not reply.
Without looking back, she walked away and focused on her coming appointment. An irrevocable decision still had to be made before that meeting, but the weight of the consequences continued to make her dither.
When she was almost out of earshot, she heard Ageha’s voice.
All her hesitations crumbled to dust.
A boy dripping in blood casually walked into the arena’s preparation room. Two crescent blades were sheathed on his back.
Ageha stood in his way and said, “What’s the point of doing that?”
Crescent, who did not even reach Ageha’s chest in height, tilted his neck. A mask hid his expression. “That?” His voice contained static. He appeared to be using a voice changer of some sort.
“Dragging out your kills. I’ve seen you do that to your opponents. That’s part of the risk of entering the arena, so I normally wouldn’t say anything. But the two you just killed were forced into this. You didn’t have to make them suffer.”
A few minutes ago, Ageha watched that night’s tournament ice breaker from the prep room monitors. A couple who opposed a syndicate was thrown into the pit with Crescent. The boy gleefully flayed the woman’s face after severing the nerves in the man’s limbs. He continued the torture until the pair ceased twitching.
Ageha wondered how someone so young was capable of such things before remembering he had done something similar to his schoolmates as a kid. ARMS made the issue of age pointless.
“Would you believe me if I told you it was for the crowd?” asked Crescent.
Crescent snickered. “Thought so!”
“Answer the question.”
“Because I hate them, that’s why.”
“You didn’t even know those two. The same goes for the fighters you tortured.”
“Because I hate humans equally. No, no, no, that’s not right. I simply hate equally, not just humans. Waaaiiit. Equal isn’t right either. There are exceptions, I think. For example, I don’t hate you as much.”
“I’m honored, but I don’t remember meeting you before. Why the special treatment?”
“You’re right. This is the first time we’ve met in person. But I can tell. You’re like me.”
“I actually really only hate just one person. I looove hating this person. I want to see this person suffer, wail in agony, go insane with terror! But I can’t… I can’t reach my one and only anymore. Everything became meaningless…”
“The only meaningless thing here is your rambling.”
Unfazed by Ageha’s reply, Crescent continued, “So I didn’t know what to do with this hatred. It feels like countless maggots are eating me from right here.” He clawed at his chest. “They’re eating me and I can’t do anything about it!”
Ageha recognized that feeling.
“So I tried cutting myself. But that didn’t help. That’s when I got the idea of cutting others. Can you believe it worked!? The buzzing. The gnawing at my chest. It stopped!” With both hands on his chest, the boy hopped in ecstasy.
However, his shoulders slumped weakly the next moment. “But then it came back… So I tried it again, and it worked again! That’s when I realized the trick. I just have to keep going, you see. Keep cutting, and cutting, and cutting.” Crescent scratched his head, rubbing blood all over his short black hair. “I know it doesn’t make sense. I know these people don’t deserve it. But what can I do?”
“And so are you.” Crescent skipped close to him and whispered, “I’ve seen you. Aren’t you just killing substitutes? I can tell. Your one and only isn’t here either. Could be gone for all I know. But you’re just like me. That much I’m sure.”
Doubt muted his denial.
Did this boy know about Jin? No, Crescent’s words had pierced something much deeper within Ageha’s core. Substitutes. Was that really it? Ageha believed he was killing for fairness. He knew his actions were neither just nor noble, but he thought it had at least some sort of meaning beyond his personal fancy. Was that an illusion? Was he just lashing out because of old festering wounds? Was he merely seeking comfort by building a throne of corpses for himself?
Crescent touched Ageha’s collarbone and slid his finger downward, stopping over his heart. “That’s why you found me annoying, right?” He tapped his finger twice. “It takes one to know one.”
Ageha closed his eyes. “Maybe.”
He was not the type to deny distasteful truths. He might have avoided facing some things unconsciously, but his ego was not inflated enough to pop after learning a pathetic facet of himself. Ageha did not see himself as a respectable human being from the very start.
The young man opened his eyes and stared at the boy’s plain mask. “Even so, there’s a world of difference between a gastronome and a glutton.”
“I’m a selective eater. You’re just a pig.”
Crescent removed his finger from Ageha’s chest, leaving a line of smudged blood on his black form-fitting suit. The boy then took two steps back. “Is that right?” In the blink of an eye, he drew his crescent blades and spun around.
Ageha blocked the spinning strikes with both forearms. Sparks flew as the blades made contact. A shrill screech grated on his ears.
“You’re tough,” said the boy. “Whatever. We’ll meet in the arena anyway. You’ll see who’s the pig when I butcher you up.” He snickered and sheathed his weapons.
Crescent turned away from Ageha and headed to the exit. Ageha considered attacking. From the corner of his vision, he saw the giant called 0.5 stand up. He heightened his alertness and placed a hand on his sheathed knives. Ageha’s eyes tracked the lumbering beast as he followed Crescent out of the room.
Those two know each other?
Ageha checked on his arms. He had blocked three strikes, but only a single deep gash marred each of his alloy forearms. The screeching sound earlier suggested that the blades were minutely serrated, like a metal-cutting saw. That, along with the overlapping slashes, had caused considerable damage in an instant. Ageha had believed he was safe against the boy’s blades because his body was mostly alloy, but Crescent’s display of skill forced him to reconsider.
“Why are things never easy?” he mumbled to himself as he mentally prepared for his own match.