This is so nerve-wracking!
Saya, hands on her knees, sat with perfect posture in the Nikaido mansion’s drawing room. Seated in front of her was Sousuke Shikimi, Ageha’s father.
Her meetings had ended earlier than expected. Hoping to catch up with Kaika and the others, she had rushed back to the mansion to change into her kimono. That plan crumbled when she saw a middle-aged man arguing with the security guard at the front gate. Normally, Saya would have left something like that to the guards, but she had vaguely recognized the man’s face. Sousuke’s picture had been in Ageha’s background report, which she had prepared herself at Kaika’s command many months ago.
Sousuke did not touch his tea. Despite the eye-catching furnishing of the manor, he did not look around. A stern expression remained on his face ever since Saya led him to the room.
What should I do!?
When they first met, she had introduced herself as Kaika’s aide out of habit.
Should I have introduced myself as Ageha’s lover?
Does he already know about us?
What if he doesn’t approve?
She barely managed to prevent her panic from showing on her face.
She received a message on her terminal. Kaika and the others were already at the gate. Arashi had apparently experienced a wardrobe incident, forcing them to return earlier than expected. Naturally, Saya had already informed her mistress about their unexpected visitor.
“Shikimi-sama, Ojousama will arrive momentarily,” said Saya.
Sousuke nodded in reply. Though rigid in demeanor, he was quite handsome and carried himself in a confident and composed manner.
I have to make a good impression.
But she did not know how. As Saya worried endlessly over how to interact with Sousuke, Kaika and Ageha entered the drawing room. Arashi had probably returned to her quarters.
Sousuke stood up and greeted them with a bow. “Good evening. I am Sousuke Shikimi, Ageha’s father.”
Kaika, in a kimono, elegantly lowered her head. “Good evening. I am Kaika Nikaido, Ageha’s current employer.”
A grimace flitted across Sousuke’s face.
The mistress of the manor motioned for them to take a seat. “Please.”
Saya and Sousuke sat back down. Ageha and Kaika occupied a long sofa diagonal to them.
“What are you doing here?” asked Ageha.
“I heard from Kirishima-san that you quit your job,” said Sousuke.
“So that’s how you found this place. Yes, I resigned a few days ago.”
“Is that all you have to say? I think you owe me an explanation.”
“It’s no big deal. I just got a new job here as a personal chef.”
“It pays better.”
Saya was surprised at Sousuke’s scathing remark. Ageha rarely spoke about his past and family, so she barely knew anything about his father.
Sousuke closed his eyes and shook his head. “I came here to see if it was all a misunderstanding, but this is what I get. A personal chef is no different from a lowly servant. Culinary skill and fame grow from the recognition of many. Keeping a single person happily fed can be done by a bum off the street. You’ll only rot here.”
Saya’s temper rose sharply from Sousuke’s comments, but she decided not to jump the gun and waited for Ageha’s rebuttal.
Ageha’s agreement caused her eyes to widen.
“If you think so, go back to Sapore. If you don’t want that, I’ll get you another job at a different restaurant. With your skills, a little push from me should be enough.”
“No. I’ve found a different path now.”
“Is this about your girlfriend’s suicide attempt? I hear she’s still in a coma.”
“We broke up before that.”
A pained expression surfaced on Ageha’s face. He did not reply.
Sousuke sighed deeply. “I’m disappointed in you. I thought you’d become stronger after that accident in middle school. Looks like I was wrong. Letting a fling affect your judgment… Don’t you have any pride as a chef!?”
“I… may have lost it,” said Ageha with a bitter smile.
Sousuke’s gaze grew cold and distant. “Pathetic. You’re a disgrace.” He stood up and glanced at the two ladies. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Ageha’s head drooped. His father’s words had clearly cut into him, slicing up his already wounded confidence. Saya felt the urge to object, to tell Sousuke how wrong he was. But he was Ageha’s father. The idea of irreparably destroying her relationship with her lover’s only parent caused her to hesitate. In that short pause, Kaika rose from her seat.
“Are you finished?” she asked.
Sousuke’s eyes went to Kaika. “Yes, I have nothing more to say to this worthless-”
“Then shut up.”
Sousuke’s brow rose as far as it would go. Saya looked at Kaika. Her mistress was angry. Seriously angry.
Kaika brandished a malevolent grin. “Tell me, do you think people are born equal?”
Clearly confused by the sudden inquiry, Sousuke examined Kaika’s face. “No. Talent and dedication are different for every person. Some people are simply better and more valuable than others. That is precisely why I am opposed to Ageha-”
“Good. It seems you aren’t beyond saving.” Kaika approached Sousuke and stopped a few steps away from him. Due to their height difference, she raised her head to meet his eyes. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes, you’re the CEO of the Nikaido Group of Companies.”
“You’ve heard about me, but no, you don’t know me. Otherwise, you would be kneeling right now to prevent me from craning my neck like this.”
Saya felt the atmosphere in the room grow heavier tenfold.
“Silence.” Kaika shot Ageha a fierce look before returning her gaze to Sousuke. “One day.”
“What?” asked Sousuke.
“That’s how long it would take me to buy or destroy your five restaurants.”
NGC’s money troubles were a thing of the past. After acquiring KyberCorp, Kaika had gained a practical monopoly in the cybernetics market. Not only that, recent dealings with the Japanese government and military had given her incredible influence within Japan. Maybe she would only need one phone call.
A drop of sweat rolled down Sousuke’s brow. “Who’d believe such a childish bluff?”
“Tax evasion,” said Kaika. “And I have proof.”
This time, Sousuke’s face went completely pale.
“You mentioned earlier that keeping a single person happily fed can be done by a bum off the street. I’m not a chef, so I don’t have the right to refute that statement in general. But you overlooked one thing when you said that to Ageha.” Kaika’s glare turned colder than an Antarctic plateau. “That single person is me.”
Sousuke, who was slightly taller than Ageha, was dwarfed by the intimidating aura Kaika unleashed. “I-I understand. I apologize for my rude remarks.” He bowed to the little girl before him.
“You’re apologizing to the wrong person.” Kaika motioned to Ageha with her thumb. It was a rather masculine gesture for the fae-like lass, but it perfectly fit her current attitude.
Sousuke turned to his son. “Sorry, I said too much.”
He did not bow, but Kaika did not seem dissatisfied.
“With that off my chest, I have something else to say.” Kaika took several steps backward, creating space between her and Sousuke.
Saya could easily read the thoughts “what now” from the father’s face. Truthfully, even she did not know what Kaika planned to do next.
Kaika gracefully lowered her knees to the ground and, while bending forward, placed both her hands on the floor. Her shiny black locks sprawling around her, she touched her forehead to the carpet. Her white kimono added an extra level of formality to the act.
Saya and Ageha both stood up after seeing Kaika prostrate herself in front of Sousuke, but before they could approach her to pull her up, her dignified voice froze them in place.
“Please give me your son!”
““What,”” said father and son simultaneously.
So that’s where Ageha got that weird expression.
That isn’t what I should be thinking right now!!!
“I didn’t say all that earlier to coerce you into letting Ageha do as he pleases,” said Kaika. “It was rather forceful, but I wanted to show you that what he is doing right now and who he is doing it for are truly worthwhile. I apologize for my rudeness, but please understand that I did all that because I need Ageha. He is irreplaceable to me.”
“Er, o-okay…” said Sousuke.
“Scaring you away was an option, but I believe that Ageha, despite how cold he normally acts, truly cares about you. I would like to continue our relationship with your approval. Without it, he’ll feel a certain degree of sadness and regret about choosing me over his father’s wishes.”
“Don’t go off deciding how people feel,” said Ageha.
“But Ojousama is telling the truth, right?,” asked Saya.
Ageha frowned in silence.
“Son,” said Sousuke. “I didn’t expect you to go after someone so young.”
““That’s a misunderstanding!”” said the actual pair of lovers.
“That is indeed a misunderstanding,” said Kaika as she rose from her kowtow. “I’m just his employer, and I value him purely as an employee. Ageha’s lover is Saya.” Kaika pointed at her butler.
“Eh!? You’re revealing that now!?” shouted Saya.
“But Ojousama is telling the truth, right?,” asked Kaika.
“You cannot confirm your own statement! It does not work that way! Even if it is true!”
“You complain and then confirm it yourself. You’re so interesting.”
The sound of laughter interrupted their comedy skit. It came from the older Shikimi.
“I understand,” said Sousuke. “Ageha, I still believe that your skill should be displayed to a wider audience and not to one person only. However, I now understand that your current employer is an exception, in many ways. Working for a person shouldering the fates of many is fulfilling in its own right. The executive chef at the White House seems to think so. Putting aside the value of the work itself, I can’t blame you for choosing such an interesting workplace.” Sousuke turned to Kaika and bowed deeply. “I will leave my son in your care. Please use him wisely.”
“Of course,” said Kaika.
Sousuke faced Saya, who flinched from the sudden attention. “Sorry for meeting you under such unpleasant circumstances. I hope we can meet again for a proper introduction at a later date.”
“Y-Yes, Father!” said Saya.
Kaika hopped to Ageha’s side and jabbed him with her elbow. “Father, she said.”
“Well, it’s only a matter of time,” whispered Ageha.
After hearing his comment, Saya blushed furiously.
The father and son exchanged a few more words in private. Sousuke then left the drawing room escorted by a maid. Ageha sank into the sofa as if completely drained of energy.
“I told him I’ll be out of the country with you for a while,” said Ageha.
“I assume he’s fine with it,” said Kaika, who sat beside him.
“Even if he wasn’t, he can’t complain after your stunt. I honestly didn’t think you’d win him over.”
“It definitely took more effort than a simple threat. I’ve never prostrated myself in front of anyone before, even as an act.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I can understand your situation. Have I ever told you how I learned to detect lies?”
“No, I thought you were born with that talent.”
“Talent matters, yes, but extensive experience, or in my case, grueling training was necessary too. My father locked me in a torture room-”
Ageha’s expression tightened.
“Relax,” said Kaika. “I wasn’t the one in the chair. When under torture, people lie through their teeth, going so far as fooling themselves, just to end the pain. My father had me watch them and try to pick out the lies from the truth. I wasn’t punished if I failed, but I wasn’t allowed to leave the room until I got a near-perfect score. I could’ve probably thrown a tantrum and forced my father to let me out, but quitting isn’t in my vocabulary. It wasn’t pleasant. I vomited my guts out the first few times.”
“That’s surprising. I thought you wouldn’t bat an eyelash to torture.”
“Hey, even I was a child at one point.”
“I sort of imagined you spouting wisecracks while your mother was in labor.”
“You little…” Kaika sighed. “Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, even after my father died, I remember him each time I use the skills he taught me. Regardless of what I think about him or his cruel education methods, I can’t forget. In your case, it’s cooking. Severing the bonds with the one who raised you is difficult, even if you hate them. I wouldn’t force you to do that needlessly.”
Ageha smiled gently and roughly rubbed her head. “Thanks, Kai.”
“Y-You’re ruining my hair.”
He tapped his index finger on top of her head, producing a knock. “Sorry bout that.”
“Be careful with that! It’s a world treasure!”
“At least limit it to national.”
Seeing the two most important people in her life get along, Saya felt a certain emotion.
Instead of the warm, fuzzy feeling she expected, a dull grating noise echoed in her chest.
Why wasn’t I the one who defended him first?
Why wasn’t I the one who understood him?
Why am I not the one by his side right now?
What is this feeling?
Saya shook her head vigorously to erase those thoughts. However, no matter how much she cleared her head, the seed of jealousy had already been planted in her heart.
“Are you okay, Saya?” asked Ageha.
“Ah, it’s nothing. I’ll go check on Arashi. I hope the kimono isn’t beyond repair.” Saya stood up and left the room as if fleeing.