“I still don’t get it,” said Ageha.
Kaika twirled around to face him, the creased skirt of her white sundress following a beat late. “I had high expectations because everyone says to see this when visiting Minneapolis. It’s certainly striking, but I’m not a fan either.”
“The sculpture’s scale is impressive at least,” said Saya. “It looks over fifty feet long.”
Ageha shrugged. “No matter how big it is, a spoon with a red cherry balanced on top still makes no sense to me.”
“I read somewhere that its charm is that it changes appearance with the seasons.”
“I was here in winter a few years ago. It looked a little different with snow everywhere, but I don’t really know much about art.”
“Ways of appreciating art varies from person to person. You don’t need to be an expert. What matters is that you enjoy it.” Kaika pointed at something with her eyes. “Take that for example.”
Arashi was chasing ducks around the pond beneath the massive sculpture. She looked like she was having a blast.
“I think I’d rather stay blind to art than be like that,” said Ageha.
Kaika circled the gigantic sculpture, looking at it from various angles. “While I don’t mind modern art, I prefer more intricate pieces. The stone sculptures and stained glass in the cathedral we visited this morning were more interesting.”
“I was a bit worried you’d start burning after going inside though.”
Saya examined the tour guide pamphlet she had picked up earlier. “That is the end of the sculpture garden. I do not think we missed anything. Should we go back to the car?”
Kaika checked her terminal. “It’s only ten. The person we’re meeting won’t be ready until later this afternoon. We have a lot of time to spare.”
“Then let’s walk to the brunch place I was telling you about.” Ageha pointed at a metal skybridge traversing the wide highway. “We can cross over there, go through Loring park, and head straight to Hells Kitchen. I’d like to point out that there’s no apostrophe before the S.”
“Interesting name for a restaurant. Did you pick it because of that?”
“No, the lemon ricotta pancakes are amazing.”
Kaika raised an eyebrow. “Better than yours?”
“I’d say they’re about the same.”
Because I copied their recipe.
“So even you steal recipes.”
“Every chef does it. And stop reading people’s minds.”
“Saya, grab Arashi. Let’s get going.” Kaika looked at Ageha with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “We’re counting on you to guide us, former Minnesotan.”
“Don’t call me that. I only stayed here for a little over a year, and most of that time I spent in Le Cordon Bleu.”
“You holed up in culinary school? How boring. Don’t you have any exciting stories about your life here?”
“Nothing that would interest you.”
Kaika cast him a doubtful gaze. “…Is that so?”
He ignored her and headed for the bridge. Arashi was a little dissatisfied at first when Saya stopped her from terrorizing the local wildlife, but her eyes quickly brightened at the mention of food. They left the lush greenery of the touristy sculpture garden, crossed the highway, and entered Loring park. There was still quite a ways to go, but Kaika, the only one with human legs, did not seem to mind. She busied herself observing the people and objects around her.
Kai doesn’t act like it most of the time, but she really is a sheltered princess, huh?
Only in her case, life in the shelter had been much more arduous than facing the dangers outside.
A loud wolf-whistle grabbed their attention. The catcall came from a tall white guy holding a basketball. He and his two black friends, all over six feet in height, observed Ageha’s group from an outdoor basketball court.
“Where you girls goin’?” asked the more muscular of the two African-Americans. His sweaty bald head glinted under the sun.
“Wanna play a game with us?” The other black man, sporting a headband that pressed down his curly hair, pointed his thumb at the basketball hoop behind him. “We’re short on people. With you girls, we can play three-on-three. That guy with you can watch from the bench.”
The three ballers snickered like hyenas. Ageha could understand them somewhat. The females with him were all beauties, not to mention they were wearing revealing summer outfits. While a bit annoying, this was just harmless teasing. Ageha decided to ignore them and continued on his way. The ladies followed his example.
The only white guy among the ballers jogged to Ageha’s group. His oversized numbered jersey made him look less imposing than the others.
“Hey, it’s not nice to ignore people when they’re talking to you.” Jersey reached out for the person at the rear of the pack, Saya.
Ageha swiftly stepped between them and lightly parried his hand. “Sorry, but we’re in a hurry. Can you please leave us alone?”
Jersey twisted his face into a sneer. “What’s with that accent? I couldn’t understand a thing you said.”
Having lived in the United States for a time, Ageha could speak English fluently, but his Japanese accent was a little thick compared to Kaika or Saya.
Saya glared at Jersey, who towered over her by a full foot. “What did you say?”
Now she’s pissed.
Saya always overreacted when those close to her were insulted. Ageha remembered Saya punching the lights out of a guy who called Arashi autistic.
Jersey snorted. “I said that guy behind you needs to learn some better English.”
“Apologize to him,” said Saya.
“Just statin’ the facts.” He laughed. “How ‘bout this. I’ll think about it if you hang out with us for a bit.”
“Saya, this isn’t Manila or Guanxi. Don’t go overboard,” said Kaika in Japanese.
“But these gnats need to be taught a lesson,” said Saya.
“Just do it peacefully.”
Saya nodded at her and then glared at the man. “Okay. We will play a three-on-three game with you. If we win, you will apologize to him.”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about. What’ll we get if we win?”
Saya pulled out a stack of twenty dollar bills from her purse and tossed it to him. “Here is a thousand dollars. Just return it after we wipe the court with you.”
The guy’s arrogant attitude vanished. “Hey lady, whoa, we just kiddin’ around. We can’t take this.” He tried to return it.
“No. You will hold onto it. We will play. And you fleas will lose.”
He took a step back in the face of Saya’s intimidation. “Geez, relax. Gimme a minute.” Jersey ran back to his friends and showed them the cash. After about a minute of discussion, he returned with a cocky grin on his face. “Alright, deal. But don’t come complaining when we win.”
Kaika went to Ageha’s side and whispered, “Keep it human, okay? Tell the other two to do the same. Saya is really miffed, and Arashi is Arashi. We don’t want people reporting us for illegal cybernetic enhancements.”
Ageha nodded and explained the situation to his team.
Everyone relocated to the basketball court. Kaika took a seat on a bench as Saya did some basic stretches for her human parts. Ageha checked his clothes for anything that might fall out during play.
Luckily, he and his party were dressed in light attire because of the summer heat. He was wearing a plain t-shirt and shorts, while Saya was dressed in a flaxen wide-necked blouse and grey half-pants.
Arashi, lightly dressed in a long, light blue tank top that completely hid her denim short shorts, sat down beside her mistress.
“Why are you sitting down?” asked Kaika. “You’re playing too.”
Kaika pushed the languid girl onto the court from behind.
“Are you gonna be the coach, Kai?” asked Ageha.
“No. I know the rules, but I’m not familiar enough with actual play to contribute anything. Just follow Saya’s instructions. She used to play basketball before I picked her up. I’ll cheer for you from the sidelines.” Kaika returned to the bench.
After all the players had assembled on the court, the guy with the headband explained the match rules. The game was a race to twenty-one. Inside shots counted for one point, outside shots for two. Shooting fouls resulted in free throws.
“Simple enough,” said Ageha.
Saya’s team won the first possession via coin toss. She took the ball out of bounds and passed it to Ageha. Ageha caught it and dashed towards the ring at an absurd speed.
While holding the ball in his hand.
“Traveling!” shouted one of their opponents.
Noticing everyone’s gaze, Ageha stopped running.
Saya approached him. “…Have you ever played, no, have you even seen a game of basketball?”
Ball possession went to the enemy team.
“Okay, just keep them from shooting,” said Saya.
Headband took a shot from beyond the arc, but Ageha whacked the ball away, along with the shooter’s forearm.
While Headband took two free throws, Saya explained to Ageha that basketball was not a full-contact sport.
Score: 0 – 2.
Saya inbounded the ball by passing it to Arashi. With a smirk, Arashi nimbly dodged the ball, leading to an easy lay up for the opposing team.
Saya grabbed the teen by her cheeks. “This isn’t dodgeball!”
Score: 0 – 3.
“I’ll take care of the offense myself.” Saya made Ageha inbound the ball. After catching his pass, she slipped through the defense and sank a fadeaway jump shot against Headband.
“You got skills!” Grinning ear to ear, Headband pointed at her while nodding his head.
The match continued with Saya completely shouldering her team’s offense. She made jumpers and layups but missed a few shots. On the other hand, the opponents scored every possession because Arashi could not be bothered to even raise her arms in defense.
Score: 5 – 9.
The opposing team decided to leave the lazy Arashi alone and double teamed Saya. Even with her unmatched speed, she could not get through two opponents. Towering over her by more than a foot, the men blocked off any chance at a clear shot.
She drove inside and faked a jumper. Her opponents fell for it and left the ground. Squeezing in between them, she banked the ball off the glass and into the hoop.
Having contributed next to nothing, Ageha decided to focus on defense. An idea popped into his head.
I’ll stop them for sure this time.
He waited until the enemy took a shot and then swatted the ball from the air in front of the basket.
Score: 5 – 10.
Saya scolded him for camping underneath the basket and explained the concept of goaltending.
The opponents realized that the only offensive threat was Saya and focused all their attention on her. She missed two shots in a row, while the opponents sank one of two.
Score: 5 – 11.
Saya made a T sign with her hands. “Time out!” She grabbed her teammates and dragged them to the bench. “I can’t score with three giants hovering over me. One of you has to step up.”
Both Arashi and Saya looked at Ageha.
“Okay, leave it to me,” he said with a confident grin.
Kaika looked doubtful. “How can you say that after being completely useless so far? Even I might’ve done better than you.”
“Do not worry, Ojousama. We are still in the game.” Saya turned to Ageha. “Can you dunk?”
“Of course I can. I can’t dribble though.”
Saya sighed. “I know. For now, just get below the basket on offense. I’ll get you the ball. Just dunk it from there.”
“I was too distracted earlier by Ageha and Arashi’s comedy skit,” said Kaika, “but leave the cheering to me.”
Everyone nodded except Arashi, who was asleep on the bench.
“Stop sleeping and get over here!” shouted Saya as she dragged her lifeless teammate onto the court.
Ageha inbounded the ball to Saya and ran directly underneath the ring. Saya dribbled past her defender and sped up for a lay up. The two other defenders surrounded her, but she skillfully passed the ball behind her back. Ageha caught it and scored with a two-handed dunk.
The lovers gave each other an exuberant high five for their first successful team play.
Ageha got the hang of defense and stole the ball in the next possession. He passed it to Saya, who sank a two-pointer.
Score: 8 – 11.
With the addition of Ageha’s dunks to their arsenal, their team managed to score in succession. As their offense picked up, the opponents got a bit more serious. Although they were making points, the gaping hole in their defense named Arashi gave up just as many. Jersey missed a jumper by a fluke.
Score: 13 – 16.
The opponents began hacking Ageha’s dunk attempts, forcing him to the free throw line. Naturally, he missed every single one.
Saya squeezed her temples. “I forgot about your hand-eye coordination issues.”
“I’m confident I’ll miss all my free throws in this match.” He grinned proudly.
“That isn’t something to boast about…”
With two people pinning Saya down and one guy prepared to foul Ageha, their team’s offense was completely shut down. Ageha could plow through his opponent’s hacking and dunk the ball anyway, but that would instantly reveal his cybernetic enhancements.
A cute, bubbly voice came from courtside.
“Do your best, Big Bro, Big Sis!” Kaika raised her arms high and waved at them. “You can do it!” She hopped around and made V signs with her hands, her sundress billowing with every step.
Instead of getting motivated, Ageha felt himself gag.
“Doesn’t she understand just how demoralizing that is to people who know her true colors?” he asked.
“But it seems to be working on the opponents! As expected of Ojousama, a disgusting, I mean, brilliant tactic! Give me the ball, hurry!”
While Kaika’s adorable cheering distracted the opposing team, Saya drilled another two-pointer, making it a one-point game. They celebrated the comeback with another high five, but their morale quickly crumbled after Headband countered with a two-pointer of his own over the apathetic Arashi.
Score: 15 – 18.
This time, it was Ageha who called for time.
“This is bad,” said Saya. “We can’t score and we can’t stop them.”
“I have an idea,” he said.
“Let’s hear it.”
“Do you trust me?”
Saya quickly hid the doubtful expression on her face. “…Of course.”
I know it’s limited to this stupid game, but that still kinda hurts.
“Then close your eyes and cover your ears for a minute.”
Saya’s eyes narrowed for a moment, but she nodded and followed his instructions.
Ageha pulled Arashi away and spoke to her in a soft voice. “If we win this match, I’ll give you a reward.”
“It can be anything. I can take you to another aquarium if you want.”
I think the one in Georgia is the largest in the world.
She’ll definitely love it.
Here I go again.
But there’s no way I’m losing to these clowns.
He inwardly apologized to Rin for reverting just after she praised him for adding conditions. “Yeah.”
“What… should I do?”
“I need you to shoot this ball through that hoop.”
Ageha tapped Saya on the shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Her eyes snapped open, and she unplugged her ears. “Huh? What about your idea?”
“The preparations are done. Nothing left to do but hope god’s judgment is right.”
Saya tilted her head, unsure of what he was talking about.
Ageha took the ball out of bounds. Saya, with two defenders between her and the goal, waited to receive the inbound pass. Arashi stood about ten feet outside the arc, staring at him with half-closed eyes.
Here goes nothing.
He passed the ball to Arashi.
“What are you doing!?” shouted Saya.
Arashi caught the pass. Closing her left eye, she dribbled the ball thrice and then nodded to herself. With her right hand, she pitched the ball towards the backboard. It sharply bounced off the fiberglass and went through the hoop.
Everyone stared at the ball bouncing on the cement and then at the girl who shot it.
Score: 17 – 18.
Ageha and Saya focused on defending outside shots, but their other teammate just stood around as usual.
Jersey dribbled past Arashi and made a lay up. “James, cover that girl! I’m sure her last shot was a fluke, but don’t take any chances.”
James, the bald guy, approached Arashi. She stood in the exact same spot where she drained the near halfcourt shot earlier. Saya, who had only one defender marking her, waved her hand for the ball. Ageha looked at his two teammates in turn and decided to pass the ball to the wild card.
Arashi caught it, but her view of the basket was completely obstructed by James. Without hesitation, she tossed the ball upwards. James could do nothing but watch the ball trace an extremely high arc in the cerulean sky.
Nothing but net.
Score: 19 – 19.
“Don’t panic!” shouted Jersey. “If we get this point, we win!”
“Defense! Defense!” shouted Kaika, her hands cupped around her mouth.
“Don’t get distracted by the little girl! She’s a trap!”
“I’m one hundred percent female, you imbecile!”
Despite their bewildered state, the opposing team still scored a point from the teen who simply did not give a damn about defense.
Score: 19 – 20.
Jersey pointed at Arashi. “You two, guard that airhead! I’ll make sure the other girl doesn’t score a two. It doesn’t matter if they get one point. We’ll finish it in our next possession!”
Arashi stood in the exact same spot as before, this time with two men guarding her. The rules did not allow them to intercept the inbound pass, so they focused on preventing her from getting a shot off. Saya stood on the other side of the court, but she did not ask for the ball. She just smiled at Ageha and nodded.
Glad we agree.
Ageha passed the ball to Arashi. Arms raised, the two defenders closed in on her, completely ignoring the possibility of her driving past them. It was impossible for her to shoot the ball with a net of hands looming on top of her.
Arashi changed her grip on the ball and threw it on the ground with incredible force, bouncing it between James’s legs. The powerful spin on the ball changed its angle, causing it to fly towards the backboard. Everyone, including the helpless defenders, watched it hit the glass and kiss the metal ring. The orange ball danced on top of the rim until it lost momentum and finally swished through the net.
Final score: 21 – 20.
The rude ballers obediently apologized to Ageha. Kaika told them to keep the money in exchange for keeping quiet about their encounter with a potential NBA superstar, but that did not stop them from asking Arashi for her autograph. Arashi wrote the kanji for her name on their shirts. Not minding the incredibly bad penmanship, or more likely not understanding a word of Japanese, the three men looked satisfied as they left the court. Ageha’s team gathered by the bench where Kaika sat.
“They seemed happier with the autographs than the thousand dollars. They even forgot their ball,” said Saya as she picked up the basketball from the ground. “Brilliant idea to rely on Arashi. How did you motivate her?”
Someone tapped Ageha on the shoulder.
He turned to see Arashi. “Great job.”
“Don’t worry, I didn’t forget. Any ideas on what you wa-”
Arashi stepped forward, tiptoed while pulling his neck down, and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“…Not enough.” She closed her eyes and kissed him on the lips.
It was an innocent kiss, their lips touching for a mere moment. Arashi released him and backed away. Her fingers lightly traced her bottom lip. She then turned bright red and ran off.
A loud pop came from behind him.
Despite his instincts telling him to run away, Ageha forced himself to turn around.
Saya was gripping the deflated basketball. With her human hand.
“That was clearly not my fault,” he said.
“Couldn’t you have avoided the second one?”
“What are you talking about? If I wanted to, I could’ve avoided both.”
“Is that so? And how was it, Ageha-sama?”
“Tasted like the apple juice she was drinking earlier.”
“You enjoyed it that much, huh?” Face drained of emotion, she slowly approached him.
Did I overdo it?
Spurred on by her adorable jealousy, he had continued his teasing and accidentally stepped on a landmine.
“Wait, I was kidding. Calm dow-”
Imitating Arashi’s maneuver, Saya pulled Ageha’s face downward and shoved her lips onto his. Unlike the teen’s light peck, she forcefully stabbed her tongue into his mouth. As if thirsting for his essence, she sucked in his saliva and replenished the drought with hers. Her fingernails dug into his scalp and nape as she tightly embraced his head. Their tongues danced, wrestled, and melded with each other. Ageha, who was about to lose his sanity to lust, forced himself to pull away.
“What are you do-”
She resumed her oral assault. There was nothing gentle about their contact. She repainted his insides with her scent and flavor, not giving him the leeway to breathe. Saya had never been this aggressive before, taking him completely off guard and putting him totally under her spell.
She continued to ravage him from within. His tongue felt like it was dissolving from the scorching heat of her slick caress. The erratic beat of her breathing set his loins aflame, erasing all sense of decorum. His hands moved on their own, slithering around her shivering body and pulling her into his chest. They perpetually tightened their embrace, as if trying to become one vessel for their conjoined souls.
Ageha heard a cough from below.
This time, Saya cooperated in unlatching themselves from each other. They turned to the side and saw a red-faced Kaika.
“I don’t want to ruin your fun, but if you don’t stop soon, I’ll need a change of underwear…” Kaika fell silent and rubbed her thighs together. “Scratch that. Too late.”
She completely forgot about Kai.
Saya fainted from shock and embarrassment.
“The Shui Jing Group has taken over the Soaring Serpent Society’s position,” said Valeriya. “They didn’t even put up a fight.”
“So everything is going as planned?” asked Kaika, her mobile pressed to her ear.
“Unfortunately, no. Shui Jing wasn’t very powerful until recently. I expected one of the groups I have ties with to take the seat, but even their long-standing reputation could not trump the group’s rapidly expanding manpower and influence.”
“That isn’t what we agreed on.”
“Take it easy. Give me a bit more time. I’ll handle Shui Jing. They can’t be more unreasonable than Zhang.”
“Okay. My people are already working on a plan to build small-scale power plants in the locations you specified.”
“So fast! I haven’t even fulfilled my end of the deal yet.”
“It’s an example of good service. I hope you’ll learn from it.”
“I’ll put in ten times the effort if you say, ‘Please do it faster, faster, Oneesama~’”
Kaika hung up.
This is odd.
Kaika noticed that there was something off about how everything was proceeding. Random bits of information made little sense by themselves, but when viewed as a whole, they could be assembled into a larger schema.
Several odd points stuck out regarding Zhang’s assassination:
- Zhang tried to escape almost instantly when Ageha and Arashi began the attack on the drug facility.
- According to Saya’s report, Mao continued attacking even after Zhang’s death.
- Zhi Zhu had a taser-type weapon designed to paralyze ARMS.
- The Soaring Serpent Society did little to oppose Shui Jing’s ascension to power.
Is that Russian pervert trying to trick me?
Kaika found it difficult to discern which of the pieces of information she could trust, if any. What boggled her the most was how late she had noticed all these suspicious events.
Why didn’t I see this before?
The most significant change in Kaika’s recent lifestyle was Rin regaining consciousness. Since then, she had regularly contacted the cameriera to check on her condition, ask about her life in the safehouse, or just chat about nothing in particular. Strange enough, on the nights she spoke with Rin, she slept slightly better and longer than usual. Her overall condition had improved, and the fog clouding her mind had dispersed.
“Ojousama,” said Saya. “We have arrived.”
Kaika looked out the car window and saw a large house with a long driveway. In the countryside, the large trees blocked any view of nearby houses. With the distance between plots, there was enough space to hold a college party without alerting the neighbors.
After parking, Kaika, Saya, and Ageha got out of the vehicle. Arashi had stayed behind at the hotel, still too embarrassed to be around Ageha.
I didn’t expect Arashi to go that far.
During the summer festival, Mitsuki had mentioned the word love to Arashi, setting her curiosity ablaze. The ignorant teen had approached Kaika for advice. Seeing the perfect chance for a prank, Kaika had suggested that she give Ageha a kiss on the cheek and see how it felt to ascertain her emotions.
The wildly entertaining show resulting from her whim had forced them to take a detour to a lingerie shop, but it was worth it.
Kaika wanted to laugh at herself for trying to blind Arashi once. She had been too distracted by Arashi’s brutal side that she had underestimated the girl’s kindness. All she had needed to do was teach Arashi how to care about others.
Returning from her reverie, Kaika walked up the steps to the front door. Despite the rather suburban design of the residence, the electronic lock was very advanced. It had fingerprint and eye sensors, as well as a keypad.
Ageha knocked on the door. “This is metal. I’m guessing the hinges and door post are too.” His expression tightened. “I have a very bad feeling about this.”
“What a spoilsport,” said Kaika. “You realized too soon.”
“I knew it.” He sighed. “I suspected it when you said we’re going to get upgrades. I was hoping I was wrong because of the different address, but this ridiculous lock confirms it.”
What’s with that exaggerated reaction?
There’s something else going on here.
“Are we meeting someone you know?” asked Saya.
“You can say that. Didn’t Kai tell you anything?”
“No, she handled this matter by herself.”
Kaika reached up and pressed the intercom button on the digital panel. “Good afternoon. It’s me, Kaika Nikaido.”
There was no answer.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
A beep came from the panel.
Looks like she’s home.
Kaika breathed a sigh of relief. The person they were meeting was known for her eccentricity. They would have wasted their day if she had gone out.
She was more eccentric than Kaika expected.
“Wait! We had an agreement!”
“I don’t remember.”
“I’ll pay you extra!”
“I don’t need it.”
The professor was a recluse who did not put much value on money. Though not nearly as affluent as Kaika, she was quite well off. However, Kaika knew something that all scientists had in common.
“As promised, I brought you a rare specimen!”
“Let us in first. Then we’ll talk.”
With another beep, the door unlocked.
“What specimen?” asked Ageha.
Kaika stared at him with a raised eyebrow. “Do you really have to ask?”
“Can I go home now?”
“Stop whining, loser.”
Ageha frowned but reached for the doorknob. Kaika knew his loss against Zhi Zhu was still bothering him. It was the perfect ammo to maneuver him.
He opened the door and entered the house with wary steps, looking around as he ventured further inside. The rest of the group followed behind him. The air inside was dry and absurdly cold, completely cut off from the summer heat outside. Kaika shivered as they went further in.
They came upon a spacious living room with minimal furniture. There were sofa chairs but no table or monitor. The lack of decor made the entire space seem cold and eerie.
“Nikaido, bring the specimen to the lab,” said a voice that echoed throughout the house. “Follow the corridor to your right. No one else is allowed to come. The security system will activate if you leave that room.”
Saya glanced at her mistress. Kaika reassured her with a nod. She followed the directions and headed for the lab with Ageha in tow. The lab entrance seemed even more reinforced than the front door, but it automatically opened the moment they stood before it.
A mess of machines and monitors greeted them inside. Beyond the heaps of electronics, a small girl with glasses sat staring at a screen. Her scruffy silver hair, which would likely reach her buttocks when let down, was gathered into a ponytail behind her head. An oversized white lab coat draped over her blue pajamas. She looked like a grade schooler playing doctor.
I read her file, but she’s smaller than I thought.
She and Kaika were supposed to be about the same height, but the professor’s hunched posture made her look even smaller. Her peculiar hair color stood out, giving her an unnatural, almost inhuman, aura.
“Tsubasa Shizan, I presume?” asked Kaika.
“Don’t ask stupid questions.” Tsubasa did not even look at her and continued typing on her customized keyboard.
Kaika took a deep breath to calm down.
“I’m Kaika Nikaido, and this is Ageha Shikimi. I believe you know each other.”
Tsubasa was the oldest daughter of Shizan-sensei, Ageha’s blacksmith. Kaika knew Ageha had a good relationship with the old artisan. It would not be strange for him to be acquainted with his family, and Ageha had confirmed that they knew each other earlier.
“Who?” asked Tsubasa.
“No need to force yourself to remember,” said Ageha.
Tsubasa rotated her office chair to face him. “…Oh it’s you. I remember sleeping with you a couple of times.”
“What,” said Kaika.
“That’s my line,” said Ageha. “Please don’t randomly blurt out sensitive information, Tsuba(Saliva)-san.”
Tsubasa glared daggers at him. “I also remember telling you not to call me that.”
“It’s been a while, Tsubasa-san. Your name is as hard to say as always. And you have drool on your chin as usual.” Ageha approached her and buffed away the dried saliva with his thumb. “If you don’t want to be called Tsuba-san, stop sleeping on the keyboard and go to bed properly.”
“Wait, hold on.” Kaika held out her hand. “Don’t just gloss over important details! You two were lovers?”
“But Tsubasa said you slept together.”
“I stayed at her place on Shizan-sensei’s recommendation while I was studying at Le Cordon Bleu. After a few months of living together, she found out about my enhancements, so I told her about my abnormal pain tolerance.”
“I wanted to study his body, so I asked him to let me examine it,” said Tsubasa.
“One thing led to another, and-”
“Stop, I get it. Thank goodness Saya didn’t get to hear this.”
“I got very good data on his tactile response while in bed. He was hesitant at first because he had no experience in sexual intercourse-”
“She said stop, Tsuba-san.”
“No, please continue,” said Kaika.
She looked the professor over from top to bottom. Despite her drab attire, Tsubasa was undeniably pretty. Her large round eyes and youthful face matched her petite physique.
Is this why he’s so nice to young girls?
“…Ageha is right. This is pointless.” Tsubasa looked at him with a bored expression. “So you’re the rare specimen? Your specific constitution is very uncommon, but I already completed my research on your body years ago. Go home.”
“You’ll understand if you examine him. What do you have to lose?” asked Kaika.
“Time. Humans are given a limited amount of it. I have none to spare on redundancy.”
“Looks like that’s it, Kai,” said Ageha. “Despite her looks, she’s pushing thirty. Let’s not waste any more of her precious time left on Earth.”
“I’ll dissect you.” Tsubasa looked completely serious.
“How much of Ageha was cybernetic when you slept, I mean, met him?” asked Kaika.
“Both his arms and shoulders.”
“Then you’re in for a surprise. Are you sure you don’t want to check it out?”
Tsubasa observed Kaika’s face, as if trying to see through her intentions. She waved Ageha closer. “Come here.”
“Not this again…” Ageha sighed while doing as ordered.
Tsubasa began feeling up his entire body with a serious face. Her eyes widened when she touched certain spots, such as his abdomen and lower back.
Then she grabbed his crotch. “Looks like this is still human.”
Ageha rolled his eyes. “Why would anyone want to make that cybernetic?”
“You’d be surprised at some of the clients I get.”
Questions continued to pop up in Kaika’s head as she watched the pat down.
Did he become shameless about his body because of Tsubasa?
Or did he manage to live with her because he cared little about his body from the start?
Kaika realized that she cared about Ageha’s past more than she thought.
“This is fascinating,” said Tsubasa. “What do you want from me? I want to confirm if this body’s data is worth it.”
She took the bait.
Kaika narrated Ageha’s defeat against Zhi Zhu and explained that she wanted him to get an upgrade.
“There are other people who can do that.” Tsubasa sat back on her chair. “Aren’t you the CEO of NGC?”
Time to reel her in.
“But few are better than you. Gen, oh that’s my previous researcher, got headhunted by a rival company.”
“Did you say Gen? Gen Kanou?”
“Yeah. He was also the one who implemented the most recent upgrades to Ageha’s body.”
Tsubasa closed her eyes and spun her chair around. After a few rotations, she stopped herself by grabbing onto the table. “We have a deal.”
Pride really is my favorite sin.
In terms of medical skill, Gen was vastly superior to Tsubasa, but her expertise in cybernetics and bionics rivaled his. Having seen Gen’s work on Ageha firsthand, it was inevitable that her competitive spirit would be set aflame.
The professor led Ageha into the examination room deep within the lab, leaving Kaika alone in the main area with a, “Touch anything and I’ll dissect you too.”
Good luck, Ageha!
The examination ended surprisingly quickly. Ageha returned alone to the main lab looking utterly exhausted.
“Welcome back. What-”
Out of pity rather than respect for his privacy, Kaika decided not to question him about the exam any further.
“Where’s the professor?”
“She’s busy doing a preliminary analysis on the data. She’s also checking what kind of work she can do on me.”
“Should we come back later?”
“She said she’ll be out in a few minutes. Tsubasa-san’s really weird, but her skills are real.”
“You know a lot about her.”
“We lived together for more than a year.”
“Can you tell me more about her?”
Information was Kaika’s greatest sustenance and deadliest weapon. To her, there was no such thing as too much information.
“What’s there to tell?”
“Hmm… How about why she became a cybernetics researcher? That’s worlds away from her family’s smithing business.”
“Not as unrelated as you’d think, at least according to Shizan-sensei. Her family’s trade is actually making weapons. A hundred years ago, that meant swords and spears. Now, it means ARMS.”
“Why not guns then?”
“Guns are designed for mass production. Shizan-sensei takes pride in being an artisan. Even when people stopped wanting swords, he continued forging blades, such as kitchen knives and my ‘recreational blades.’ Tsubasa-san simply finds guns too simple and boring. Personally, I’m glad I’m not the only one who dislikes those things.”
“They abandoned guns by choice. You just suck at using them.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re a jerk?”
“And she called you a cowardly philanderer.”
“I’m kidding, she didn’t say that. Stop making that face. You’re making me want to hug you. …On second thought, you really are a philanderer.”
Tsubasa reentered the main lab area. “You’ve changed, Ageha.”
“Gen said the same thing a while back.”
“You haven’t changed at all, Ageha.”
What a cute sense of rivalry.
She might be easier to use than I thought.
“So, how did it go?” asked Kaika.
Tsubasa sat down on her chair. “I’ve gotten most of the data I need. I can begin the operation as soon as he is ready.”
“That escalated quickly,” said Ageha.
“Do you have anywhere to be in the next few days?”
“No, he doesn’t,” said Kaika.
“Don’t answer for me.”
“Well do you?”
Ageha fell silent.
Kaika grinned. “There you have it. Go ahead and borrow him for a bit. Just return him when you’re done.”
“I feel objectified,” he said.
“”What’s new?”” The two baby-faced girls responded in unison.
“Glad to see you’ve become good friends.”
“Tsubasa, would you consider moving to Tokyo and officially working for me? I can promise you better pay and facilities.”
“Not even a pause. Help me out here, Ageha.”
“It’s no use,” he said. “There’s no way you can drag her out to a city like Tokyo. She hates being around people. That’s why she lives so far away.”
“That’s not true,” said Tsubasa. “I have other reasons for staying here, like the winters, snowboarding, and the snow.”
“Aren’t those all pretty much the same thing?” asked Kaika. “And I thought everyone hated winters in Minnesota.”
“There’s also Allan.”
“Who’s that? A pet dog or something?”
“You have a fiance!?”
“I had the same reaction when she told me that years ago.”
“You knew!? And you slept with her!?”
“I plead innocent. She only told me after I finished my culinary studies here. I moved out of her place the next day. I never met him.”
“Where’s Allan now?”
“Who knows?” said Tsubasa.
““You should!!!”” said the visitors.
“He’s a free spirit, like me.”
“Even freedom has limits,” said Kaika. “And how is holing up in a lab doing research all day being a free spirit?”
Tsubasa simply shrugged her shoulders. “Anyway, the answer is no.”
“Give it up, Kai. In the first place, she only works for herself. In fact, everything she does is for herself.”
As if proving his words, Tsubasa completely ignored Kaika’s existence and started typing on her desk terminal.
Used to being in the spotlight on every occasion, Kaika felt a little miffed by the lack of attention. She decided to tease Tsubasa a little, thinking it would also be a good chance to learn more about her.
“What’s up with her hair?”
Ageha glanced at Tsubasa’s silver mane. “Dunno, it’s been like that since we met. I never asked about it. Probably withered to gray because she never washes it.”
“I’ll remember those words when I put you under,” said Tsubasa, her eyes still glued to the display.
“I’m really sorry. I was just joking.”
Tsubasa sighed, her shoulders slumping even further. “If you must know, I bleach my hair to remind myself I’m engaged.”
“Sorry, you lost me,” said Kaika.
“In my college days, I fainted from lack of sleep during an experiment. Some chemicals got on my hair and bleached most of it. I bleached the rest to make it uniform.”
“Still not following.”
Tsubasa clicked her tongue. “Allan attended the same university. He apparently liked my hair and approached me. That’s how we got to know each other.”
“I get it now. So you’re keeping that color because your fiance likes it?”
“Are you deaf? I said I do it to remind myself I’m engaged. I forget sometimes.”
“Don’t forget something like that!”
“That reminds me,” said Ageha. “I’ve never seen you with an engagement ring on”
“It’s a pain to put on. I can’t wear it during experiments and operations anyway.”
Kaika raised an eyebrow. “Seems easier than bleaching your hair regularly.”
“I do it when I take a bath. A two-week ritual is less troublesome than keeping track of a trinket.”
“Wait, you take a bath only twice a month!?”
“Bathing is a waste of time. I hardly sweat in here.”
The abnormally powerful air-conditioning within the house finally made sense.
“But you go as far as bleaching your eyebrows. Taking a shower a few days a week can’t be harder than that.”
Tsubasa scrunched her eyebrows. “This? It happens by accident when the bleach drips down my forehead.”
“Wear a cap or something! Do you wanna go blind!?”
“I use my own formula. It’s extremely safe and effective.”
“Are you satisfied now? Please stop wasting my time with your prodding. My answer won’t change.”
She isn’t as easy to handle as I thought.
Kaika sighed mentally. Even her time with Arashi was not enough to prepare her for the professor’s eccentricity. Her string of retorts had sapped her of energy.
Guess I’ll have to settle with a one-time deal for now.
That’ll change once Ria and Gen start moving in earnest.
“Alright. I won’t pester you anymore. I’ll take my leave.” Kaika walked to the lab exit, causing the door to open. She turned around and looked at Ageha. “I’ll tell the others you’re staying here for a few days. Don’t worry, I’ll keep your relationship with Tsubasa a secret…”
“…for now.” She stepped into the hallway.
“Wait! Don’t tell Sa-” The shutting door cut off Ageha’s words.