Ageha was heading to Valeriya’s study when Mitsuki blocked his way.
“Teach me how to make pancakes.”
“Teach me how to make pancakes,” she said with a deeper blush.
Ageha stared at her in amazement. “No, I heard you the first time.”
“That doesn’t make sense. You asked ‘what.’”
“I did, but that was due to shock. Didn’t you notice the period instead of a question mark at the end?”
“How misleading. Anyway, will you or won’t you?”
Ageha adjusted the backpack slung over his shoulder. “First, tell me why you want to make pancakes. You have chefs who’ll do that for you.”
“Today is March 14.”
“White Day, huh.”
“You know about it?”
“Yeah, I gave my girlfriend a present before coming here.”
“What!?” Shock distorted Mitsuki’s lovely features.
That doesn’t make sense.
He and Ria never said anything about a girlfriend before.
He must be lying to look cool.
“You’re obviously thinking something rude, but I won’t ask for the sake of my mental health. Back to what you were saying. What about White Day?”
“…Ria gave me handmade chocolates on Valentine’s Day. I want to return the favor. She loves pancakes.”
“You do know it’s weird for a mother to give her daughter chocolates on Valentine’s day, right? You shouldn’t reinforce her weird habits.”
“It’s fine. I want to.”
“Okay, but why ask me?”
“You’re a chef, duh.” The point of her frown was as sharp as ever.
“I’m amazed you can ask for a favor with that attitude.”
“…Sorry, force of habit.”
It was Ageha’s turn to look flabbergasted.
“What’s with that face? I’m apologizing here,” she said.
“Your sudden meekness is strange.” His brows furrowed in worry. “Are you okay? Is this an aftereffect of that night at the pool?”
Technically it was, but not in the way he implied.
“No, I’m fine.”
“You’re not planning something again, are you? Like a rematch.”
She shook her head. “That was my complete defeat. Besides, I need to prepare before challenging you again.”
“So you haven’t given up.”
“Of course not.” Determination blazed within her eyes.
“Now that’s more like you, Sensei.”
Her cheeks flushed. “A-Anyway, please teach me how to make pancakes. I teach you martial arts all the time. Think of it as returning a favor.”
“You don’t have to look so surprised. Do I look that stingy?”
“I didn’t think you’d agree so easily. I was, um, kinda mean to you.”
“Kinda is a bit of an understatement.”
Guilt squeezed her chest. She bit her bottom lip and lowered her head.
Ageha turned around and walked away from her.
“W-where are you going?” she asked.
“The kitchen is this way, right? White Day is gonna end if you don’t get a move on.”
Mitsuki’s face brightened. “Yes!” She passed him and led the way to their destination.
Upon arriving at the kitchen, Mitsuki took out two aprons from a drawer and tossed one to Ageha. She wore the other over her white tank top and blue knee-length pants. She liked that color combination because it resembled the palette of her kendo uniform. She had chosen her swimsuit for the same reason.
Ageha noticed the large image on his apron after putting it on. “What is this thing?”
“That’s Ria’s.” Mitsuki pointed at the print on the front. “That round yellow rodent with red cheeks is one of the main characters in an anime she loves.”
“Her addiction to cuteness never ceases to amaze me. Wait, this implies Valeriya-sama-”
“No need for that. Ria is fine. She said it’s okay too.”
Ageha raised an eyebrow, as if wary of a trap. “…Ria can actually cook?”
“She, uh, tried.”
“Okay, you don’t need to explain. I’m guessing the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Mitsuki blushed furiously and nodded. To hide her embarrassment, she hurriedly tied her oversized apron and patted down the creases. Ageha froze for a few seconds, his eyes on Mitsuki, or rather, her new outfit.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing. I just remembered my little sister.”
He looked a little sad, so Mitsuki decided not to probe.
“So, what should I do?”
“First, we need to make the batter.”
Ageha enumerated the tools and ingredients they would need. Mitsuki gathered all the items and placed them on the countertop while Ageha checked the fridge for other ingredients they could use.
“Let’s make lemon ricotta pancakes.” He placed a lemon and a tub of cheese beside the mixing bowl.
“Is that good?”
“Heavenly. I stole the recipe from a restaurant I visited in the States.”
“As long as Ria likes it.”
“She’ll love it, don’t worry. You might be unmatched in the dojo, but the kitchen is my territory.” He grinned as if he ruled the world.
Mitsuki felt her pulse speed up. She had a soft spot for warranted self-confidence. Valeriya had wormed herself into Mitsuki’s heart the same way.
“Please stop that. It’s distracting,” she said.
“Call it bragging after you’ve tried the final product.”
Ageha gave her clear and concise instructions. After all the necessary ingredients were in the mixing bowl, he handed her a whisk.
Mitsuki dunked the tool in the bowl and began briskly beating the batter.
Ageha grabbed her hand. “Stop, you’re doing it too roughly. Over-mixing will make the pancake tough. You need to mix it just enough to incorporate the ingredients. It’s fine even if some clumps are left.”
“But on the internet-”
“Are you really going to believe some random idiot over a chef?”
“You’re right.” She relaxed her hand and allowed Ageha to control it.
After several gentle strokes, he said, “I’m envious of your hands.”
“Don’t make fun of me. I know they’re rough from training.”
Ageha laughed. “That’s a good thing. It’s proof of your hard work. I also train hard but have nothing to show for it.”
The fingers wrapping her right hand was indeed unbelievably smooth, almost inhuman. No, they were not human.
He looked at her wrists and forearms, which were decorated with scars. “You should be proud of these.”
Mitsuki wanted to smash her head into his chin and knock him out for saying something so embarrassing but restrained herself. “Thank you,” she whispered in a voice only she could hear.
It was common for prodigies like her to be lauded for talent but not for effort. Mitsuki’s sweat and tears had been recognized by someone as strong as Ageha. She felt truly rewarded.
He released her hand and allowed her to continue mixing. Mitsuki followed his earlier example and gently blended the ingredients in the bowl.
“The batter looks ready.” He took out a skillet from the bottom cabinet.
“Don’t we need to use a griddle? Ria bought one especially for pancakes.”
“That’s easier, but I thought you might wanna try flipping using a pan. On second thought, you don’t really need to learn that. Seems I got carried away because you absorb things so quickly. It’s fun having a talented student.” Ageha reopened the cabinet to put the pan away.
Mitsuki quickly grabbed the pan with both hands and took it from him. “The skillet is fine.” She lowered her head a little. “And it’s the same for me. It’s been fun teaching you.”
Ageha drew back. “Seriously, what’s with you today? Don’t you hate me?”
“…That’s a misunderstanding.” She placed the skillet on the gas burner but did not touch the heat dial.
“You scowled at me all the time. You didn’t even want to be in the same room as me. How can that be a misunderstanding? Do you just hate men in general?”
“I don’t hate you, or men. I’m just… afraid.”
“I think you could beat most men in combat if you had a sword.”
“That’s not what I mean.” She looked away from him. “I’m afraid of growing close to people.” Her fingers played with the hem of her apron. “I don’t want to feel that way again… Like when I lost Dad. And my bodyguards Hyoudou, Kirigaya, and Kamijou…” A blend of embarrassment and pain appeared on her face. “I ended up pushing people away. Except Ria, everyone around me is a guy, so people started misunderstanding…”
“Does that mean you stopped being hostile to me because you don’t care about me at all?”
How dense can you be!?
“No!” Her cheeks burned but she pressed on. “You won’t die so easily, right? So I thought it’s okay to… care a little.”
“You actually said it! How embarrassing! Even I’m blushing now.” Ageha grabbed his stomach while laughing without restraint.
You tricked me!!!
Mitsuki wanted to smash the skillet on Ageha’s face, but she knew he would easily parry it. “Moving on.” She turned on the burner with a sigh. “What do I do next?”
“Now I kind of understand how Ria feels when I ignore her teasing,” said Ageha with a dissatisfied look. He then taught Mitsuki how to properly grease the pan with butter and how to ladle the batter on the skillet. “You do it like this.” He skillfully flipped the pancake by jerking the fry pan. “Don’t push it upward. Push forward then pull with the right timing.”
It was Mitsuki’s turn to flip the next pancake. She recalled Ageha’s form and sculpted a crystal clear recreation of it in her head.
Push then pull!
The pancake flipped in the air and gently landed on the pan, keeping its perfectly round shape.
“You’re abnormal,” said Ageha.
“I don’t want to hear that from you.”
“No, really. That ability of yours isn’t limited to martial arts. You’re using it on all movements. I didn’t think I’d meet another true prodigy in this lifetime.”
“Another? You mean Ria?”
“No. I know you won’t believe me, but Ria only beat me that one time because of the stupid one point match rule I agreed to. It won’t happen again.”
Mitsuki nodded inwardly. Sports rules did not make sense in illegal duels, where death was only a step away. She thought the one who agreed to that stupid rule was also quite stupid, though she kept that to herself. Being overly defensive of Valeriya would ruin this chance to reconcile.
“I believe you. After seeing you fight, I can tell you’re not lying. So who is it then?”
Ageha looked surprised by her answer, but his expression quickly changed to one steeped in nostalgia. “My former employer. She’s just a bit older than you. She’s abnormal up here though.” He tapped his temple with his index finger.
“You mean she’s nuts?”
He laughed. “Yeah, that too, but I meant her intelligence. I wouldn’t be surprised if she said she could mind-read.”
Mitsuki felt an odd sensation in her chest. Her scowl returned. “…Do you want to go back?”
“To be honest, I get that feeling from time to time. But there are circumstances making that impossible.”
Mitsuki sighed in relief. She did not want to lose one of the two people in her life she could trust.
After they finished cooking the rest of the pancakes, Ageha put a peeler in Mitsuki’s hands. “Now shave some white chocolate on top. The dish doesn’t really need it, but it is White Day and all.”
“Shouldn’t we put butter and syrup on the pancakes?”
“Unnecessary, trust me. Here, put some on for color.” Ageha pushed a box of blueberries towards her.
“Wouldn’t strawberries look better with white chocolate? There should be some in the fridge.”
“Not really. That’s more traditional, but white and blue works just as well.”
“…This might be my imagination, but are you trying to be nice by not putting in anything red? I’m fine with the color as long as it’s not blood, you know.”
And he had chosen her favorite color combination too.
“It’s your imagination. I just thought blueberries looked better.”
She could not tell if he was lying but decided to believe he was anyway.
“There’s no way I’m getting killed for you.”
Ever since Ageha said those words to her, she decided to trust him. He would not die for her. She would never have to see him disappear.
“Thanks anyway,” she said.
“…Don’t worry about it.”
“Thish ish sho good!” said Valeriya, pancake crumbs flying from her mouth.
Mitsuki was sitting on her lap and feeding her with a fork. “I’m glad you like it!”
“This is better than what our chef makes! Maybe I should fire that guy?”
A clattering sound came from beyond the study room’s door.
“Don’t say things like that. Mitsuki can just teach him the recipe,” said Ageha.
“Are you looking out for a fellow chef? Well, I was just kidding anyway.”
A sigh of relief, followed by fading footfalls, could be heard from the hallway.
“He’s finally gone,” said Valeriya. “What a rude guy, listening in on his employer.”
“I don’t blame him. Mitsuki and I sort of took over his kitchen without warning. He’s probably just worried.”
“I’ll give our chef the recipe Ageha taught me earlier,” said Mitsuki as she sliced through the stack of pancakes with a fork. The fluffy discs offered almost no resistance.
Valeriya took another bite. “Mmm. So soft! People say ‘melts in your mouth’ all the time but this seriously does that. This taste transcends technique. The flavor must come from all the love you put into this dish!”
“Yeah, but I couldn’t have done it without Ageha’s help.”
“I didn’t teach you for Ria’s sake,” said Ageha. “She owes me nothing. Don’t go passing your debt to others.”
“That wasn’t what I was doing!”
Valeriya glanced at Ageha and then Mitsuki.
I may have miscalculated.
She had sent Ageha to guard her at the pool to improve their relationship. However, her plan seemed to have worked too well because of the unexpected yakuza attack.
I didn’t expect him to get this close to her.
Mitsuki raised the fork. “Here’s the last bite.”
“Ahhhh.” Valeriya chomped down. “Delicious! Thanks, Mitsuki. You’ve returned my Valentine’s gift threefold, no, a hundredfold.”
“Geez, you’re exaggerating.” Mitsuki got off her lap. “I’ll take this to the kitchen. I’ll tell the chef about the recipe while I’m at it.”
Mitsuki, empty plate in hand, trotted out of the room.
Valeriya dashed towards Ageha and tried to grab his collar, but he gracefully defended against it using a wing chun parry.
“Stop showing off!!!” she shouted.
“What the hell are you talking about!?”
“First she cooked me a dish she learned from you, then you parried me using a move she taught you… Do you want me kill you!? I controlled myself earlier because I didn’t want to ruin Mitsuki’s gift, but no more!” Valeriya lowered her stance and launched herself towards him.
She was not serious about hurting him. Though she was ticked off enough to whack him around a little.
Ageha hastily opened his backpack and threw something at her. She prepared to whack away the white projectile but stopped after seeing what it was. Instead of deflecting it, she hugged it and rolled on the ground to kill her momentum.
“IT’S SO CUTE!!!” screamed Valeriya with hearts in her eyes.
In her hand was a small polar bear. She sat on the floor and ogled the adorable plushie. It was posed like a sitting baby, complete with a guileless expression.
“What’s with this thing!? It’s ridiculously cute! Is my nose bleeding?” She rubbed her nose on her shoulder.
“If it were, you’d have just ruined a priceless kimono,” he said with a wry smile. “That’s my gift for White Day. You gave me chocolates last month. It’s only fair.”
“Those horrible chocolates? I made a lot before I produced something edible for Mitsuki, but that batch was the only one the birds in the yard didn’t eat. I only gave it to you as a prank. Are you sure you want to give this to me for something like that?” She tucked the polar bear in between her opulent breasts and glared at Ageha. “I’m not returning it even if you ask though.”
“No wonder those chocolates tasted like dirt. And stop saying things that make me regret giving you that.”
“Thank you, Ageha!” She stood up and hugged him, pressing her spongy bust against him. “But why a polar bear?”
“I saw it when I was out shopping with Rin. It’s white, perfect for White Day.” He turned his head to the side and mumbled, “And it’s the strongest land predator on earth.”
“Because this is so cute, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“Let’s get down to business. Mitsuki might return any moment now.”
She released her embrace. “No, she won’t. She left to give us time to talk privately. How do you like that!? You think you know her, but you’re still no match for me.”
“I don’t think anyone can match a mother when it comes to that, especially a doting parent like you.”
“At least you’re a good sport.”
“I wasn’t competing in the first place.”
“About the semi-finals tomorrow night.”
“So you’re just gonna move on like that.”
“You’re opponent has been decided. It’s Gazelle.”
“Any new information on her?” asked Ageha.
“She’s gotten even stronger. In her last match, she killed her opponent in seconds.”
“That’s nothing special. I could’ve done that in every match if it weren’t for your extra objectives.”
“You can focus on winning in the coming matches. No more side jobs. Just be careful against Gazelle.”
“What weapon did she use in that fight?”
“Throwing knives. One right through the eye. Even you’ll die from that.”
“I might know her.”
“Are you serious?”
“There’s this girl I fought before. She pitched grenades with insane accuracy. But as far as I know, she only had one cybernetic leg.”
“So she either got an upgrade or it’s someone else.”
“Probably the former. It’d be terrifying if girls that deadly are just running around everywhere. Gazelle’s rapid improvement also makes sense if it was her. She is young with plenty to learn.”
“How are your chances?”
“What chances? It’s a sure win. I already beat her twice.”
“But she’s still alive. That’s not like you.”
“She got away the first time thanks to her backup. The second time was a little more complicated.”
Ageha was more talkative than usual. Valeriya decided to take advantage of that and check on his condition.
“I didn’t want to pry so I never asked, but how are you?”
“Same as always.”
“Darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re distracted. Do you realize that?”
Ageha furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. “I can’t deny that, but don’t worry. I’ll do my job.”
“Can’t you do something about that? It’s not just Gazelle. Crescent and 0.5 are in the other bracket. If you don’t concentrate-”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Explain it then.”
Ageha closed his lips tightly and thought for a while. Looking downcast, he said, “I’m not sure who I am anymore.”
Valeriya stifled a laugh. “A quarter-life crisis?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “This is why I didn’t wanna talk about it.”
Valeriya felt bad for belittling Ageha’s problem, but his response had been so unexpected that she reacted without thinking.
“Sorry, sorry. Is this about Jin?”
“No. Speaking of him, have you verified the info I gave you?”
I screwed up.
Her insensitivity caused him to close up.
“Your source was right,” she said. “A VIP sent Jin to the arena’s kennel a few days ago. I couldn’t get the VIP’s name.”
Eyes narrowed, Ageha stared at the floor for a while.
Valeriya waved the bear in front of his face to get his attention. “What’s the problem? This is good news. He’s gonna die soon enough even if you don’t do anything.”
“That’s the problem. I promised to take care of him myself. Can he be extracted?”
“It involves another guest. Even I don’t have that much influence.” Valeriya peered into his eyes. “Don’t even think about it. It’s too risky. For now, just win your fights. Let me handle Jin.”
“…Can I trust you?”
Valeriya thumped her chest, causing her ample bosom to undulate, and nodded.