“It’s gotten colder,” said Saya with a shiver.
Her beige wool sweater kept her upper body reasonably warm, but the thin thigh-highs beneath her grey skirt barely insulated her alloy legs. The autumn air was not too cold for most people, but being half metal, she did not belong to that category.
The outfit looked a little too girlish for her age and serious demeanor. Despite that, she had chosen it for her date because her boyfriend was probably a closet lolicon, though he adamantly denied it. Standing on the precipice of the so-called Christmas cake age, she could not deny a bit of anxiety had wormed its way inside her heart. The fact that Ageha was always surrounded by cute young girls worsened her worries.
Saya breathed warm air onto her hands as she walked down the sidewalk alone.
Everything was going so well, too.
A few hours earlier, Ageha had picked her up from the NGC HQ. Their first stop was shopping for Arashi’s birthday presents. Ageha bought the first item he took an interest in, but Saya could not decide what to get and decided to put it off for later.
After shopping, they had dinner at a sushi restaurant before taking the train to the mansion. Parking in the city was a pain, so they often used public transportation for dates. On the way back, Saya received a call about an urgent matter requiring her presence at the NGC HQ.
I hate time differences.
There was a problem with an American contact, who called her office first thing in their morning, which was around 10 pm Tokyo time. Because of that, she had to say goodbye to Ageha at Shinjuku station and go back to the office.
Walking up the stone stairs at the HQ entrance, she noticed two figures waiting for her.
“What are you two doing here?” asked Saya.
“Waiting for you,” said Mitsuki with a smirk.
Arashi nodded in confirmation beside the micro-nadeshiko, whose glossy black hair was bound in a high ponytail. Both of them wore T-shirts and shorts, rather sporty outfits considering the weather. Saya felt cold just looking at them.
“…Don’t tell me that call was your doing?”
Arashi puffed out her chest and whipped out a finger at Saya. “Exactly!” Her pose unmistakably emulated their mistress, but her face was as blank and sleepy as ever.
Saya pinched her temples with her left hand while shaking her head side to side. “You get influenced too easily.”
Ignoring her exasperation, Arashi placed her arms akimbo and continued, “I overheard you talking with Kai… about an American client. I messaged one of the maids… to call your office.”
“When did you get so close with the maids?”
“We’re mail buddies.”
Saya grimaced and made a mental note to discipline the housemaids.
“Are you angry we interrupted your date?” asked Mitsuki.
“…How did you know about that?”
With a cocky grin, Arashi stretched out her right hand, displaying her mobile’s screen. “I messaged Ageha!”
Maybe I should confiscate her phone.
“This is an unexpectedly elaborate plan.” Saya glanced at Mitsuki. “Was this your doing?”
“Nope. It was her idea. I just helped her with the details.”
Their relationship is turning out to be a bigger liability than expected.
However, Saya could not stop Arashi. Kaika wanted the teen to enjoy some semblance of friendship, no matter how fragile it was.
You spoil her too much, Ojousama.
“So, what’s this all about?”
“We’re here to challenge you,” said Arashi.
“Us two against you,” said Mitsuki. “Winner gets to give one order to the loser. No weapons. ARMS are allowed. Whoever scores a clean hit wins.”
Saya closed her eyes and sighed. “I have no time for these games.” She turned around and walked back down the stairs.
“Afraid of losing to your former student?”
Saya paused without looking back. “Arashi is still my student.”
“Not anymore. I gave her some lessons. If we team up, we’ll give you a run for your money.”
“I have no reason to go along with this.” She continued on her way.
“I told you she wouldn’t bite, Arashi. Poor Ageha. He deserves a better partner. Y’know, someone who’d never run away from a challenge, like you or me.”
Saya twitched but forced herself to continue walking.
“Look at her go!” Mitsuki made a loud snort. “She doesn’t have the courage to fight us. If she had that much heart, she wouldn’t be so flat.”
“…I didn’t quite hear that.”
“I said you’re more streamlined than a stealth bomber.”
“…What did you say?”
“Salt flats look like Mount Everest compared to you.”
Something snapped within the stoic butler.
Saya turned to face her challengers. “Whoever scores a clean hit wins?”
“Now we’re talking. Just to be clear, that means one clean hit on each of us.”
“And what are the limits of the ‘order’ you mentioned?”
“Nothing. But only Arashi is penalized if we lose. I’m just an extra.”
“Follow me. I know a good place.”
It was a bad habit of Saya’s to lose her temper when her buttons were pushed. She knew she was playing into the enemy’s plot, but it was too late to stop herself. Even Ageha had yet to find her reset switch.
The teens followed Saya to a children’s playground in the nearby city park. It was spacious and deserted at night, the perfect venue for their match.
What order do they plan to give if they win?
A few things came to mind.
Or worse, they’ll ask me to break up with him.
I absolutely can’t lose.
Not that she would follow such an order anyway.
They reached the dimly lit playground and took distance from each other. The teens stood side by side about twenty feet from Saya.
Saya did some quick stretches. “Care to tell me why you’re doing this?”
“Secret,” said Arashi.
“As for me, I just want to kill time,” said Mitsuki. “And Mitsuki has been wanting to challenge you for a while now.”
“Referring to yourself in third person? How childish.”
Mitsuki’s cheeks revealed a shade of pink. “That’s not it! Grr, it’s a pain to explain. Whatever.”
Saya analyzed the situation while taunting the enemy. She was at a terrible disadvantage. The match was two versus one, and she could not go all out against the flesh and blood Mitsuki. The only consolation was the weapon ban. Arashi’s throwing arm would have made it impossible to win without that rule.
Despite the odds, Saya was slightly looking forward to the match. It was a rare chance to see Ageha’s teacher in action.
“I’m done with my prep,” said Saya. “You girls ready?”
“All done here too,” said Mitsuki.
“And here I thought you two were gonna fuse like when you challenged Ageha.”
Mitsuki became cherry red up to her ears. “That wasn’t me! I’d never do something so stupid!”
Saya could not blame Mitsuki for denying her drunken antics. Remembering the time she confessed to Ageha while drugged, she felt a little sorry for taunting the girl using that embarrassing episode. But she had to win.
Arashi turned to Mitsuki. “Wanna fuse?”
Saya kicked off the dirt ground and dashed towards her unwary enemies. She targeted the much weaker Mitsuki to reduce their numbers.
Arashi stepped in between them and parried Saya’s left straight with her alloy forearm. Saya hopped backward and flexed her left hand. It felt numb from the impact.
She doesn’t know how to hold back, as usual.
Arashi rushed at Saya with Mitsuki close behind her. The leader launched a spinning kick at Saya’s upper body. She narrowly ducked it and prepared to counter, only to see Mitsuki’s knifehand zooming at her eyes. She parried the strike with her right wrist, taking care not to injure Mitsuki.
This is a lot more troublesome than I thought.
The match continued in the same manner. Arashi showered her with fast and powerful attacks while Mitsuki covered Arashi’s recovery. Not only that, Mitsuki only aimed at vital spots despite the one-hit rule. Saya felt real danger.
She sidestepped Arashi’s uppercut and blocked Mitsuki’s turning kick. Without retaliating, Saya ran to the seesaw, the teens hot on her heels. She stepped on the seesaw seat and then flipped forward, landing on the other end of the lever. Her weight caused the opposite end to shoot up and hit Arashi. Arashi flew through the air and crashed to the ground back first.
“One point?” asked Saya.
Arashi sat up and shook her head, her arms crossed across her chest. “I blocked it.”
“That’s cheating! No weapons!” said Mitsuki.
“This isn’t a weapon.” Saya stepped off the seesaw seat. “It’s part of the arena, just like the dirt ground and the cold air.”
“Hmph, that so? Two can play at that game.” Mitsuki whispered something to Arashi, who dusted herself off.
Saya took advantage of their discussion and closed distance.
“Jump, Arashi!” said Mitsuki.
Arashi leapt over Saya’s sliding kick. Not minding the miss, Saya tried to sweep Mitsuki’s legs. Mitsuki jumped over the attack by hopping onto the seat of a nearby swing.
Arashi launched a front kick at Saya’s back. Saya twisted her torso and leaned back to dodge it. Arashi’s foot grazed her front collar and hit the swing’s metal seat. The seat, with Mitsuki on it, swung backward and did a full loop. Mitsuki extended her foot at the end of the rotation, hitting Saya’s left arm.
Saya retreated to a safe distance while nursing her battered bicep. Mitsuki hopped off the swing with a sadistic smile on her face.
Mitsuki’s combat sense and tactics were top notch. Saya could finally accept Ageha calling the girl his teacher. The girl’s wild but efficient movements reminded her of someone, but she could not place it.
Mitsuki clicked her tongue. “Just a few more inches to the right.”
“You have really good teamwork.” Saya took a taekwondo stance.
“You’re not so bad yourself. Only someone as flat as you could’ve dodged Arashi’s front kick from that position.”
“You’re really asking for it.” Saya cracked her knuckles by clenching her fists.
“Whatever, Ms. Airfield!” Mitsuki glanced at her partner and cocked her head towards Saya.
The teens resumed their coordinated attacks. Saya concentrated on defense while looking for an opportunity. Arashi’s powerful kicks continued to force her backward.
Noticing the monkey bars behind her, Saya jumped up, grabbed onto a bar, and pulled herself on top. Balancing on the horizontal ladder, she looked down at her challengers with a mocking grin.
Mitsuki jumped up and tried to grab her ankle, but Saya moved her feet to avoid being caught. Using that chance, Arashi climbed on top of the monkey bars and engaged her. Avoiding each other’s blows, they danced on the metal bars in a display of inhuman acrobatic prowess. Mitsuki continued to bother Saya by aiming for her feet, but she could barely interfere because the other two moved too fast.
Arashi slipped past a straight and threw a hook. Saya stepped backward, intentionally falling between the bars to avoid the punch. Surprised by her sudden drop, Mitsuki jumped to the side fearing an attack. Before Saya’s feet touched the ground, she grabbed the bar she had been standing on and pulled her legs up. Like a striking snake, her feet slipped between the bars below Arashi and kicked her in the butt. The blow threw Arashi off the monkey bars, but she managed to land on her feet.
Saya pulled herself back up and stood on top of the bars. “Does that count as a clean hit?”
“Arashi’s ass isn’t clean,” said Mitsuki.
Saya failed to stifle a laugh. Mitsuki took advantage of this and yanked her ankle from below. Saya lost her balance and fell to the ground.
“That’s dirty! Making me laugh to lower my guard!”
“You just have a terrible sense of humor!” Mitsuki tried to kick her head.
Saya blocked the kick and rolled to the side to avoid Arashi’s stomp. She used the momentum to rise to her feet, but Arashi had predicted that. A spinning side kick flew at her chest.
Saya received the blow with her alloy arm. The impact sent her flying about a dozen feet. Sand invaded her nose and mouth as she tumbled. She pushed her body off the ground while coughing.
Looks like nothing’s broken.
She had landed in the children’s sandbox. The sand had cushioned the impact, minimizing injuries.
Saya looked up. Her two opponents were almost on her. Clenching her fist, she felt sand slip between her alloy fingers.
This is my last chance.
With both hands, she dug out an armful of sand and threw it at Arashi. Arashi protected her face with her arms without stopping. Saya stepped back and ducked Arashi’s spinning roundhouse. Normally, Mitsuki would attack at this point to cover for Arashi’s miss, but that did not happen.
Mitsuki’s foot got stuck in the shallow ditch Saya dug out of the sand, delaying her for one second. That second was enough.
Saya tapped her alloy palm into Arashi’s wide open solar plexus. The teen crumpled in pain.
“One down!” Saya quickly focused on her remaining enemy.
“No, it’s over,” said Mitsuki, both hands raised in surrender. “I have no chance of winning alone.” She removed her left shoe and shook out the sand.
That was kinda anticlimactic.
Saya’s desperate gamble had worked. Arashi had not tripped on the hole because she had night vision. Mitsuki did not.
Saya made sure Arashi was okay and then checked on her own wounds. Her left arm felt like it had been run over by a tractor, but she had no serious injuries.
She pointed at Arashi. “Now kneel on the ground.”
Arashi obediently followed, her head drooping. Saya gave her a short lecture as Mitsuki watched from the sideline.
“Now for my order…” An idea popped into Saya’s head. “You must not challenge Ageha anymore.”
Arashi’s “challenges” were practically deathmatches and should be avoided if possible. Not hearing an answer, Saya stooped down and peeked at Arashi’s face.
Arashi’s lips were pressed into a tight, trembling line. Tears bubbled at the edges of her quivering eyes.
“Okay, okay! I’ll think of something else!” Saya realized she had no right to blame her mistress for spoiling Arashi.
Arashi looked up at her and blinked several times, clearing her eyes of tears. Then she smiled. “Thanks. Sorry.”
Saya dusted off Arashi’s hair and clothes. “Tell me why you challenged me. That’s my order.”
“…I wanted you… to make up with Kai.”
And she did all this out of concern for us.
“I like you both. I don’t want… to see you fighting. Please don’t hate Kai.” Arashi clenched her fists on her folded knees. “I don’t know what happened… with Ku-”
Mitsuki put a hand over Arashi’s mouth and whispered something to her. Arashi nodded a few times before her partner released her.
Saya wondered what that was about but did not bother asking. “You’re misunderstanding something, Arashi. I don’t hate Ojousama. I can never hate her. And we’re not fighting. It’s all just… a misunderstanding.”
That was the truth.
Saya had indeed threatened Kaika to keep quiet about her involvement with Zhang Wei Long’s death in exchange for hiding the truth behind Kureha’s murder. Her jealousy had come forth when she confronted Kaika that day. Saya felt terribly insecure whenever she saw Ageha and Kaika together, far more than when he was with other girls. However, that was not the main reason for her “rebellion.”
That jealous outburst was a test, or rather, a choice Saya forced on Kaika.
Kaika was at a crossroads. Her goals would likely be impossible if she did not throw away all uncertainty and compassion, but recently, those two emotions were infecting her more and more.
Despite her genius, Kaika was immature in certain aspects. As a child, she never knew warmth or trust. Her time with Ageha, Rin, and Arashi had given her new experiences, new perspectives, and new chains.
The jet-black demon had been stained by swirls of white.
Kaika had grown weak because of those impurities. She had become more emotional, less perceptive, and less pragmatic. Taking a gunshot wound for Rin, failing against Zhang, and her careless posturing in front of Mashiro were proof of that. To top it all off, she had failed to see through Saya’s fake outburst.
Kaika was at her strongest when she let Kureha die. She was ruthless, methodical, impenetrable. That girl was slowly disappearing.
And that was okay.
Saya would support Kaika, love her, no matter what path she took. However, Saya wanted her to make a conscious choice, not get swept away by fleeting emotions. Simply explaining this to her mistress, who in all likelihood already knew about the problem, was meaningless. Kaika had to experience it and choose for herself.
That was why Saya had used herself as hostage: Pick her and become human, or pluck her and return to being the devil.
Unexpectedly, Kaika had chosen both. Her engagement with Max addressed both Kaika’s own goals as well as Saya’s jealousy over Ageha. That was the worst answer. Kaika’s small hands could only hold so much.
Even so, Saya believed her mistress would definitely pull through in the end, and it was her job to patiently wait for that.
That’s what I really think…
That was what she wanted to believe, what she needed to believe. She tried her best to deny the possibility that her jealousy could turn her against her mistress, whether there was truth to it or not.
Saya showed Arashi a gentle smile and offered her a hand. “Don’t worry. Ojousama and I will sort this out.”
Arashi took her hand and stood up.
Saya tried to fix Arashi’s scruffy hair by patting it down. “You’re a mess.”
“You too.” Arashi’s sight focused on Saya’s disheveled head and clothes. Her miniskirt in particular had been twisted around during the fight.
“How stupid.” Mitsuki glanced at Saya’s back and made a teasing smirk. “It’s no big deal, but don’t you think you’re a bit too old for bear panties?”
Saya’s face grew deep red as she pushed down her skirt. “L-L-Leave me alone!!!”
This is all Ageha’s fault!!!
After all, he was the one who requested she wear that for tonight’s date, which they both expected to continue until the morning. Gap moe, he said. Where he got that from was a mystery.
A tall grey-haired man with a matching beard appeared from the shadow of the nearby trees. Saya put up her guard but quickly realized he meant no harm. Arashi seemed to know him.
The man grabbed the top of Mitsuki’s head like a basketball and forced her to bow with him. “Sorry for the trouble.” He had a distinct Russian accent.
“Hey! Let go of me!” Mitsuki flailed her arms about.
“Shut up and apologize.”
“I can’t apologize if I shut up, can I?”
“Then just shut up.”
“I’m telling Ria on you!”
“Go ahead.” He turned to Saya. “I’m Viktor, Mitsuki’s bodyguard. I’ve come to take her home. I’m really sorry about this, Saionji-san.”
“You better be. You could have stopped them earlier instead of watching from afar.”
“I didn’t think you noticed me. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen such a good fight, so I couldn’t stop watching.”
Saya was bluffing. Even real ninjas could not sense properly hidden people.
“Hello, scary old man,” said Arashi.
“I told you to stop calling me that!”
“Okay, scary man.”
“You took out the wrong word!”
“Okay, Old Scary.”
“What am I, some kind of fairytale villain!?”
“You are quite imposing,” said Saya.
Mitsuki escaped from his grasp. “You’re huge, you got scars all over your face, and you always look pissed. You’re scary as hell.”
I remember this girl being a lot more reserved when we first met.
Viktor made a sad face. “Maybe I should grow my hair out…”
“Great idea!” Mitsuki gave a thumbs up. “Then you’d look like a yeti!”
Arashi nodded in agreement, her eyes sparkling.
“Absolutely terrifying,” said Saya as subtle revenge for just watching.
“…Girls these days are horrible.”
Mashiro took a sip from her cup and gently placed it back on the saucer.
“This coffee is terrible,” said Max, “but I guess you get what you pay for.”
“Really? Tastes okay to me. What’s with that grin? Are you making fun of me?”
“I’m just glad you’re still the same senpai I know.”
Unlike Mashiro who avoided luxury, Max had been raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. Their opinions often disagreed regarding food, clothes, and cars.
“I, on the other hand, am not glad you still call me that. You caused a lot of misunderstandings at Uni. Even Professor Wellington thought we were a couple and kept teasing me about it.”
“He was just jealous. That lech always had his eyes on your body. I bet that’s why he made you his assistant.”
“D-Don’t get me wrong!” Max frantically waved his hands in front of him. “I’m sure he had his eyes on your abilities too.”
“…He did get a little too close sometimes, but it was nothing worth making a fuss about.”
“So what’s up? I’m sure you didn’t call me here to reminisce.”
“Was it that obvious?”
“When your guard detail is double mine, yeah.” Max looked around.
Most of the seats in the cafe were occupied by men in black, shades and everything.
“Things happened.” Mashiro told him about her kidnapping incident, including Makoto’s condition.
“That’s… I had no idea.”
“We’ve been trying to keep it under wraps. Thank goodness Makoto was wearing a bullet resistant jacket. One shot still went through though.”
“So that’s why you look so tired. I know you’re worried about him, but he’s tough. He’ll be back before you know it.”
“Actually, that’s not the only reason. The kidnapping part is just the intro.”
“I’m all ears.”
Taking care not to agitate Max, Mashiro explained her investigation about Ageha Shikimi and Kaika Nikaido in detail. Max kept quiet the entire time.
“…Shiro-senpai, I hate to say this, but that’s a little hard to believe.”
“I know it’s mostly circumstantial-”
“Completely circumstantial. The entire thing is just your speculation.”
“But I confronted Kaika about it. She’s definitely capable of something like this!”
“I know she is. My fiance is amazing. That doesn’t mean she’s involved.”
Mashiro held her tongue. Referring to Kaika as his fiance made it clear whose side Max took.
He stared into her eyes. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m worried about you. It’d be great if my suspicions turn out wrong-”
“Would it?” Max furrowed his brows. “Aren’t you looking for a bad guy so you can swing your justice hammer?”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “Sorry, that was out of line. I get that you’re worried about me, but trust me, Kaika isn’t like that. Even if she is…”
“You like her that much?”
Mashiro had not expected him to be so enamored by Kaika. It was a mistake to speak to him without gathering enough evidence. Perhaps it would be better to give up on persuading Max and focus on catching Kaika’s tail.
Mashiro made an apologetic smile. “Sorry, please forget what I said. I was being paranoid.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He forced out a grin. “But you pick up the tab.”
She pursed her lips and scrunched her eyebrows. “Scrooge.”
“Look who’s talking.”
The conversation dwindled into an awkward silence. Mashiro asked for the check and paid with her card while Max continued to stare at what remained of his coffee. Still feeling sorry for offending her friend, Mashiro picked up her bag and prepared to leave.
“About Kaika,” he said quietly, “I guess… I could look into it a little.”
“…Thanks Max. That’s more than enough.”
“What’s left for tonight?” Mei Xing casually waved a hand at the servants.
Two girls in qipaos quickly devoted themselves to cleaning up the coffee table.
“You still have dinner with the leader of the Rusted Coin gang,” said Mao as if spitting out the words.
“In half an hour. I already told you about it this morning. Did your ears close up like your eyes?”
“I was just asking a question.”
“I’m a bodyguard, not a secretary.”
“You’re coming with me, so I figured you’d know.”
“As should you. Do your job properly, Dragon Head.”
Mei Xing scratched his head. “…Kay.”
The servant girls whispered to each other as they left the room with the empty teapot and used cups.
“Anything else?” Mao stared at him as if eyeing a worm. “If not, I’ll be waiting in the lobby. I’m sick of your perverted glances.”
“No, go on ahead.” He made an apologetic smile, his tone dejected. “I’ll be right down.”
Mao turned around in a huff and left the room.
She was still angry about his decision to spare the traitors, and she wanted him to know it. There were surely more civil ways of showing her discontent, but Braids was very bad at expressing herself, and Mao was only good at spewing scathing remarks. She had no choice but to go with the latter.
Setsu and Li Xue were waiting in the lobby to bid Mei Xing farewell because they could not have dinner together.
“Good work today,” said Setsu. “Sorry my husband keeps dragging you around to meetings.”
“Just doing my job.”
“Where’s Mei Xing?”
“He’ll be right down.”
Li Xue trotted to Mao and gave her skirt a tug. “Hello.”
Mao knelt down and gently pinched the girl’s cheek with a smile. “Hello yourself, little lady.”
In the past few months, the four-year-old in pigtails had taken a liking to her. When Mei Xing and Setsu were busy discussing finances, Mao would play with their daughter to keep her from disturbing them. Li Xue made unfurling and redoing Mao’s absurdly long braid her hobby.
“Are you okay?” asked Li Xue with a worried expression.
“But you look hurt. Do you have a tummyache?”
Mao unconsciously touched her cheek.
Did I let it show?
Hurting Mei Xing was not something she liked doing, but she believed it was necessary to teach him a lesson. It did not matter if doing so hurt her in return. She scolded herself for worrying the child.
“Nope. I just burned my tongue a little while drinking tea. No biggie.”
“You should be careful with hot drinks. That’s what Mama always says.”
Mao nodded. “Thank you for the advice.”
Li Xue’s eyes darted to the side. “Papa!” She ran over to her father and jumped into his arms.
The two spoke for a while before Setsu joined them. Mao was too far away to hear their words. After exchanging farewells, Setsu and Li Xue returned upstairs. Mei Xing walked over to Mao with a smile, but she turned her head away and walked ahead of him. A whole squad of triad members lined up behind them as escorts.
“Can’t you be at least half as nice to me as you are to Li Xue?” he asked.
“I just did what I thought was right.”
“And that was wrong.”
“How about toning it down a little?”
“I can’t say anything when Elder Chen’s around, so I’m cramming as many insults as I can when he isn’t.”
“…You don’t have to be so dedicated.”
Mao glanced at the escorts. “Where’s Ying?”
“She said she had something to take care of. Didn’t that order come from you?”
Mao shook her head.
“Maybe she took a day off.” Mei Xing passed by her side and headed for the door.
That was odd. Ying directly reported to Mao but had not told her anything about her errand.
Did Chen give her some work?
Recently, Mao had noticed Ying going out regularly, something unusual for the indoor girl. The sudden change was suspicious.
Better check it out.