“Can you get the door?” asked Saya as she marked off an item on the checklist in her hand.
“Me?” Ageha widened his eyes slightly. “I just finished preparing the food.”
“Sorry, but the maids have their hands full.”
He looked around the Nikaido mansion dining room. More than a dozen maids scurried about hanging artificial cobwebs from the ceiling, decorating the walls, and placing jack-o’lanterns on the floor, shelves, and cabinets.
“What if it’s Arashi?”
“I asked her to buy dolphin coo-”
“Ahem!” Kaika, who was supposed to be busy directing the dining table decorations, interrupted her with a cute cough.
Saya smiled faintly. “I asked her to buy some particular snacks. The specific brand isn’t available nearby, so she shouldn’t be back anytime soon. I also asked the gate guards to give me a call when she returns. She wouldn’t ring the doorbell either. It’s probably one of the guests.” She poked her chin with her pen. “But this is Arashi we’re talking about… What if she got lazy and jumped the wall as a shortcut..?”
Isn’t that more troublesome than just walking through the gate?
Reading his expression, she continued, “You should know best how unpredictable Arashi can be. If it is her, do your best to drive her off. Make sure she doesn’t get wind of the party. It’ll ruin the surprise.”
“Easy for you to say.” He got up from the dining chair and headed for the front door.
The hallways and lobby, having already been decorated, were deserted. Most of the house help were busy in the dining room. Ageha twisted the front door’s ornate bronze handle and pulled it open.
A bear loomed over him in the doorway.
Ageha closed the door.
I think I need a vacation.
The doorbell rang again, twice this time.
After taking a few deep breaths to clear his mind, he opened the door again.
Yep, it’s a bear.
To be precise, it was someone in a brown bear costume with plain black dots for eyes and a gaping toothless mouth.
Ageha closed the door again, or at least he tried to.
The bear jammed its foot in the doorway. “It’s me!”
“I don’t know any crazy people. Wait, I actually know a lot of them, but not this nuts.” He kicked the bear’s foot out of the way and shut the door.
He walked away from the entrance as the doorbell continued to ring with increased ferocity.
Saya appeared from the corridor. “What’s with the ruckus?”
“You might wanna see for yourself.”
Saya marched to the entrance with Ageha behind her. After giving him a curious glance, she opened the door.
This time, the ominous bear had its left arm wrapped around a little girl wearing a primary school backpack.
Saya pulled out her mobile. “Ageha, please save the child. I’m calling the police.”
“Wait!” The bear turned to the little girl. “C’mon darling, tell them why you’re here.”
With a cute scowl, the little girl looked up at Ageha’s face, red-cheeked. “I was baited with food.”
“Hello, is this the police? I need to report a kidnapping.”
Ageha reached out to grab the bear’s collar, but the bear stepped back to avoid him.
“She means she’s looking forward to your cooking! Is this how you treat your guests!?”
“I don’t remember inviting a sex offender,” said Kaika as she walked towards them.
Giving the captive girl a closer look, Ageha recognized her. She was wearing a black bob cut wig, which initially misled him. A small red top hat rested on her head, and eyeshadow darkened the skin beneath her eyes. The tip of the crimson umbrella in her hand traced patterns on the ground as she fidgeted in the bear’s grasp. Its thick arm crumpled her white-collared, ebony dress.
“Mitsuki?” asked Ageha.
“T-Trick or treat!” Her blush traveled down her white neck.
“SO CUTE!!!” The bear, Valeriya Varrenikov, hugged her tighter. “My daughter is perfect, as always!”
Ageha stared at her. “What the hell are you wearing?”
“Kai told me it was a costume party with a halloween theme.” Valeriya proudly pushed her daughter forward. “Look! She’s an adorable little zombie girl! Get this, she’s over two hundred years old! A legal loli!!!”
“Calm down. You’ll soak your costume in drool.”
Arashi’s birthday was on the 31st of October, so Kaika had suggested they all throw a surprise Halloween costume party for her. Saya and Ageha had promptly agreed, thinking it would be the perfect thing for the childlike Arashi. All of the guests had been informed of the theme. Kaika’s group planned to change into their costumes after the party preparations were complete.
“But Varrenikov-sama,” said Saya, “I do not think your costume is in theme.”
“Really? I thought it’d be a hit with the kids.”
Ageha crossed his arms. “Well, it’s terrifying in a way.”
Kaika nodded. “Especially with a girl in her arm.”
“See, Saionji-san? This is the perfect costume.”
“…I do not think they meant that as a compliment.”
They all moved to the dining room after the odd exchange of greetings. Preparations were proceeding quickly, as expected of the Nikaido elite maid squad. Eerie red lighting was installed on the ceiling, the usual wooden chairs had been swapped with bone armchairs, and the cold appetizers were already laid out on the table.
Valeriya observed the bustle and then leaned over to Ageha. “You didn’t forget about our deal, did you?”
“Mei Xing is on his way. You got here earlier than expected.”
“Good.” She waddled over to Kaika. “Long time no see, Kai. Did you grow a little?”
Kaika tilted her neck. “Did I?”
“Excellent observation, Varrenikov-sama. Ojousama has grown about an inch since the last time you two met.”
“Height and bust! She has been eating and sleeping better, so her growth spurt has finally come!”
A doting mother and sister.
These two might get along better than I thought.
“Not that I mind in this case,” said Kaika, “but I’m worried about my aide readily divulging personal information to the enemy.”
The bear dropped to her knees while cradling her giant head. “What’s this complicated feeling!? I’m so sad at the loss of a loli, but middle school girls are great too! So this is how Humbert felt!”
The doorbell interrupted their conversation. This time, one of the maids answered the door. A few moments later, Mei Xing and his group entered the dining room.
“Welcome.” Kaika spread out her arms. “I’m glad to see you all look well.”
“Thank you for having us,” said Mei Xing.
Setsu with Li Xue in tow, Mao, and a teenage girl followed behind him. Having left their coats with the maids, they walked over in their costumes and bowed politely to the hostess.
Ageha bumped fists with Mei Xing. “Thanks for coming.”
“No, thanks for inviting us. Arashi helped save me and my family. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Mao carefully scanned the surroundings, checking for danger.
Mei Xing put a hand on her shoulder. “No need to be so tense. We’re among friends.”
“There’s no such thing as a friend for a dragon head,” whispered Mao. “Your father’s words.” She then brushed off his hand and turned away in a huff.
“Let me guess,” said Ageha. “You put the moves on and she turned you down.”
“Not at all. We just had a minor disagreement at work.”
Apparently done despairing on the carpet, the bear came forward, attracting everyone’s attention. “It’s been awhile, Zhang Mei Xing.”
Mei Xing froze, understandably. He slowly opened his mouth, but no words came out.
Kaika closed her eyes with an exasperated sigh. “I’m not sure if you remember, but she was with us when we stayed at your inn. This is Valeriya Varrenikov, a pervert.”
“Hey!” The bear stomped towards Kaika, causing her to jump back in fright. “Don’t say things that’ll hurt my reputation.”
“You did a good job of that yourself the moment you wore that costume,” said Ageha.
“Varrenikov-sama, it-” An elbow jab from Mao interrupted Mei Xing. “I mean, Varrenikov-san. Good to see you.”
“You’ve certainly gone up the ladder since we last met.”
Mei Xing laughed weakly. “Things happened.”
“More importantly, I’ve got something to say to you.” The bear approached him while radiating a menacing aura.
Ageha and Mao tensed up.
Mei Xing did not yield one step. “What would that be?”
With her fingerless paw, the bear excitedly slapped his shoulder a few times. “Your costumes are amazing!!!”
“…Thank you. I had them made at a specialty shop back home.”
“Not just the quality! Even the character choices are perfect! If I had to nitpick, you could use a bit more muscle, but your height matches your character perfectly!”
Despite not sharing Valeriya’s enthusiasm, Ageha agreed with her.
With his short hair waxed upwards to a point, Mei Xing perfectly fit into his caped blue and red vampire outfit. Setsu sported a provocative purple costume that bared her shoulders and cleavage. Long teal hair covered her ears and nape, and bat wings sprouted from her head and lower back. Li Xue hid herself behind her mother while shyly gripping the white apron on her pink dress. In her other hand hung a picnic basket covered with a piece of cloth. She kept her head low in an attempt to hide her face within her vibrant red hood.
Even their bodyguards had not skimped in the costume department. Mao’s long hair was unraveled and dyed blue. White cat ears, paws, and a tail added a touch of cuteness to her risque costume, which exposed a scandalous amount of skin. In contrast, the other girl wore a more reserved purple and pink Chinese zombie outfit, complete with a rimmed mandarin hat. A characteristic jiangshi paper charm dangled from her headwear, hiding her face from view.
“You recognize them?” asked Mei Xing.
“I played the game ages ago. I also watched the anime.”
“What a coincidence! You see, I played fighting games a lot when I was a kid, and this was my favorite one. When I got the call from Ageha inviting us to a Halloween party, the idea popped into my head. I’m glad you like them.”
“You like fighting games?” asked Kaika.
“I love them.”
Kaika grinned while cracking her knuckles. “May I request a match? I have this game on an emulator. We can play in the drawing room.”
“Ojousama, you need to get into costume.”
“Hmm… Okay. Mei Xing, I’ll be right back. Ageha, please guide them to the drawing room and entertain them for a bit. Oh, and prep the system for our match.”
Saya followed Kaika upstairs.
Mei Xing scratched his forehead. “Uh, I don’t remember agreeing to a match.”
Ageha placed a hand on Mei Xing’s shoulder. “Give up. It’ll be quicker to just go through with it.”
Ageha led the guests to the drawing room. Mitsuki kept sneaking glances at him the whole way, but he decided to just let her be.
The drawing room was well lit, with plenty of posh couches and chairs.
“Make yourselves at home.” Ageha turned on the projector and terminal per Kaika’s request.
Valeriya took advantage of the free time by dragging Mei Xing to a corner of the room for a chat. The Chinese zombie girl stood at attention near the door like a guard. The other ladies sat down on the sofas but appeared to be a little on edge around each other. Li Xue, in particular, looked very nervous.
Come to think of it, I’ve never had a chance to chat with her.
Ageha figured he should do his job and entertain the guests as part of the hostess’s staff.
He glanced at Setsu and then at Li Xue. “May I?”
Setsu chuckled. “You don’t need to ask permission, you know. Go ahead, she can understand simple Japanese.”
He squatted down in front of the girl. “Nervous?”
Li Xue nodded while hugging her basket. Her loose red hood drooped down, covering half her face.
Ageha gently pulled up her hood and met her eyes. “No need to be. Everyone here just looks scary. Well, they’re scary inside too, but they won’t bite. Except for the bear. Don’t go near the bear.”
Li Xue began shaking like a leaf.
Setsu made a crooked smile. “Shikimi-san, I think you’re scaring her more.”
“Sorry, the truth kinda slipped out.” He placed a hand on Li Xue’s head and gave it a gentle pat. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from the bear, okay?”
Li Xue blushed a little and nodded again. “Papa said you’re very strong.”
“That I am.”
“Stronger than the bear?”
“Stronger than anyone here.”
“Hey, it’s my job to protect her,” said Mao. “And stop bragging like that when you haven’t even fought me.”
“Now Mao-” said Setsu before Ageha cut her off.
“Then let’s guard her together, Mao. You’d like that better, right, Li Xue?”
The girl nodded again. “Thank you! I’ll do my best to protect myself too.” Flipping up the cover of her picnic basket, she produced a submachine gun.
I hope that’s fake…
Under the dissatisfied gazes of Mao and Mitsuki, Ageha took a seat beside Li Xue and chatted with her about her family, a topic she seemed to enjoy a lot. Mao awkwardly looked away when Li Xue described how silky her hair was. Ageha himself hardly spoke, mostly nodding along with the girl’s stories.
Mei Xing’s face popped out from behind the sofa, his thin eyes wide open. “Hands off my daughter.”
“…She’s four, Mei Xing.”
“That’s the problem!”
“You mean it’s okay if she’s older?”
“Of course not!”
“Weren’t you discussing something with Ria?”
Valeriya showed up beside Mei Xing. “We were, until I saw you putting the moves on that little girl. I can’t let you sink your fangs into that hapless lass like you did to my daughter.”
“No one sank their fangs into me!” shouted Mitsuki.
Ignoring her daughter’s protest, Valeriya thrust a finger at Ageha’s face. “You’re a danger to society, you cradle robber!”
“Say that again after you get out of that bear suit.”
“Everyone having a good time?” asked Kaika as she entered the drawing room.
Ageha almost did not recognize her because of her new look. Ginger hair fell down her shoulders and back, some locks mingling into her black fur collar. A silky black cape extended from her shoulders down to her ankles. Replacing her usual twintails, sable horns curved upwards from the sides of her head. Despite the low neckline of her blood red gown, a design for bustier bodies, she still carried the dress with irreproachable elegance. In fact, the outfit confirmed that her breasts had grown slightly, as Valeriya surmised earlier.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.” Kaika pompously thrust her hand forward. “Now, let the games begin!”
“Kai, the birthday girl isn’t here yet,” said Ageha.
“A minor setback.”
Isn’t that pretty major?
“We still have time for a few games before Arashi returns.”
Ageha turned to the familiar voice and was entranced by the sight of his lover.
Her face faintly shaded by a black witch’s hat, Saya waltzed into the room with a wooden broom in her gloved hands. Exquisite floral embroidery stood out against deep violet, decorating her backless, collar-strap dress. The thin fabric snugly embraced her mesmerizing curves down to her calves, where it gently flared outward to the floor.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Beautiful,” he murmured.
Saya’s skin lit red starting from her shocked face. Ageha had always been honest with his opinions, but being praised with such sincerity in front of everyone took Saya by surprise.
“Looks like Li Xue is safe for the time being,” said Mei Xing with a relieved smile.
“Why only Saya?” asked Kaika. “Objectively speaking, every female here is attractive.”
“I absolutely agree,” said the bear.
“I know that much. That’s why I wanted to avoid the whole complimenting schtick.” Ageha shrugged. “But the word just came out.”
“Y-You better get dressed, Ageha,” said Saya.
“Okay, I’ll leave them to you.”
Ageha went to their room and put on his Frankenstein costume. When he returned, he found Kaika scowling at the projector screen, engrossed in her match against Mei Xing.
“One more! I’ll get you next time!” Kaika mashed on the start button of her controller even though the screen showed a loading icon.
“I’ll be your opponent until you’re satisfied, Nikaido-san.”
“…Kaika’s losing?” asked Ageha.
Saya came to his side. “She hasn’t even won a single round, actually. Seeing her lose one-sidedly like this is a first even for me.”
“Dammit, stop turtling and fight!” Kaika’s butt floated from her seat in the heat of combat.
“Sorry, but this is a defensive character.”
The words “You Win” appeared on screen as Kaika’s succubus, which looked much like Setsu in costume, fell to the ground.
Kaika squeezed her control pad until her fingers glowed red, as if trying to crush it. “I even used the character your wife is cosplaying as to gain a psychological advantage..!”
“That’s, uh, creative of you, but I don’t think it’ll help.” Mei Xing scratched his sideburn, careful not to mess up his hairstyle. “She’s pretty low on the tier list.”
“One more! I’ve finally shaken off the rust. Unlike you, I haven’t played this game for a long time.”
“I haven’t played this for more than fifteen years though.”
“…Aren’t you sixteen?”
Saya’s mobile rang. She spoke with the person on the line for a moment and then walked in front of the projected image.
“You’re in the way, Saya.” Kaika’s glare emitted a malevolence befitting her demon lord outfit.
“Time’s up. Arashi’s coming. She’s been asked to head to the dining room.”
“No choice then.” Kaika left her seat and placed the controller on the table. “I graciously accept defeat.”
“Doesn’t sound convincing when you’re shaking like that,” said Ageha.
Saya clapped her hands twice. “Everyone, please head to the dining room and get into position.”
They did as instructed. The maids disappeared from the dining room like smoke, leaving only the guests lined up near the entrance. Saya turned off the lights. Time moved like tar as they waited for the guest of honor.
With a click, the door opened, revealing Arashi with a large paper bag in her hands. She looked inside the dark room, barely illuminated by the intentionally dimmed hallway lights. Everyone waited with bated breath for her to flip the light switch, the signal for the surprise greeting.
“What’s everyone doing?” asked Arashi.
Oh right, she has night vision too.
“She can see us!” said Ageha. “Just go for it!”
“““Surprise!””” “““Happy Birthday!””” “Surprise Birthday!”
Everyone’s greetings were all over the place.
Who the hell said “Surprise Birthday?”
Ageha peeked at the welcoming party and saw the Chinese zombie swiftly look away from him.
While lamenting their failed greeting, Ageha checked Arashi’s reaction. She did not look surprised at all. In fact, she wore the same bored, sleepy face as usual.
“Did we screw up?” whispered the bear.
“Looks like it,” said Mei Xing.
“This is my fault,” said Kaika. “I forgot all about her eye… because of that broken fighting game.”
Move on will you.
“No, Ojousama. It is my fault for not noticing.”
“Relax people. It was super effective,” said Mitsuki as she walked over to Arashi.
Rivers of tears began gushing from Arashi’s eyes. Her grip on the paper bag tightened, producing a faint crunching sound. Kaika grimaced for some reason.
Mitsuki gently embraced Arashi, who began bawling in earnest. “Happy Birthday, Arashi.”
“…T-T-Thank you… Everyone…” Her sobs filled the large Nikaido dining room.
Saya flipped the light switch, illuminating the room in a spooky red light. Mitsuki led Arashi to the table as everyone else found their seats. Before sitting down, Kaika coughed to gain their attention.
“We’ve gathered here today-”
“Save it and let’s eat,” said the bear.
“Be more respectful to the hostess!”
“But the guest of honor is already chowing down.”
Arashi was in the middle of stuffing herself with small orange balls.
“What happened to that touching scene just now!?”
Except for the disgruntled Kaika, everyone else began digging in.
Saya’s eyes sparkled as she picked up the bright orange appetizer the size of a table tennis ball. “Is this the kwek-kwek Ojousama told me about?”
Ageha, seated beside her, answered. “Yup. Arashi likes it, so I tried making some. I tried sticking on some black olive slices to make it look like a mini jack-o’-lantern. The olive’s distinct salty flavor also gives it a bit of complexity.” He slid over a small bowl. “Here’s the vinegar dip.”
After popping a piece in her mouth, Saya shut her eyes tightly with a gleeful expression. “Delicious! As expected of a dish with such an awesome name.”
“At least give credit to the chef, not the name.”
“Mitsuki, I can’t eat like this.” The bear waved around her round paw with no fingers. “Can you feed me?”
Mitsuki pensively looked around at the other guests but eventually gave in. “Can’t be helped.” She reached out to the bear’s toothless mouth and zipped it open.
The unzipped flap dangled from the bear’s bottom lip, making it look like its tongue was stuck out. While waiting for Mitsuki to feed her, the bear happily swayed her head side to side, making her tongue wag lasciviously.
Li Xue shivered at the sight and shakily drew her submachine gun. Setsu had to calm her down by sticking closer to her.
Mitsuki proceeded to feed her mother while saying “Ahhh…” with each bite.
Dinner progressed boisterously, with Ageha receiving unanimous praise for his cooking. He had mostly prepared Arashi’s favorites, but it seemed that everyone else also enjoyed the food.
“Now for the cake!” said Kaika. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing what Ageha made.”
A maid pushing a cart appeared from the entrance. On the cart was a large cake sculpture with seventeen lit candles lined up on top. She brought the cart all the way to Arashi’s seat before vanishing.
Kaika raised an eyebrow. “Uh, what is that?”
Mei Xing placed a hand on his chin. “Hmm… It’s shaped like a fireball.”
“But it’s all white,” said the bear.
“A shooting star?” said Saya. “But it curves at the middle…”
Ageha stood up from his chair. “What the hell guys! It’s totally obvious!”
Mao shot him a glare. “To you maybe. You made it.”
“Can you give us a clue?” asked Mitsuki.
“I know… what it is.”
I knew you’d get it, Arashi!
Ageha did a mental fist pump as everyone focused on the birthday girl.
She made a smug smile and said, “That’s what you call… a sperm.”
“I said a sper-”
Mitsuki slapped her hand on Arashi’s lips to stop her from repeating the word. “Sperm whale! It’s a sperm whale, right Ageha!?”
“You’re all blind. It’s obviously a fish.”
Everyone in the room tilted their head in unison, disbelief written all over their faces.
The bear pointed at the cake. “Okay, let’s assume that is what you say it is. Why a fish of all things?”
“Arashi likes fish, so I made a fish cake.”
“Fish cake..? That doesn’t make sense.” Mitsuki shook her head. “Are you trying to be funny or something?”
“I’m not Saya!”
Speaking of whom, his girlfriend was desperately stifling laughter while tipping her witch hat down to hide her face.
“I don’t get it,” said Kaika. “Your usual dishes always look so fancy and artistic, but like Arashi said, this is nothing but a giant sperm.”
“Stop saying that!” said Mao. “We have children here!”
“No worries,” said Setsu. “Li Xue knows all about that kind of thing.”
Li Xue proudly nodded in confirmation.
“”Why!?”” said Mao and Ageha at the same time.
Saya, having finally recovered, spoke up for him. “Please do not judge Ageha too harshly. He does not have much pastry experience but still took on the challenge for Arashi’s sake.”
Arashi blushed faintly. “Thanks… Ageha.”
“Don’t worry about it. Now hurry up and blow out the candles. The wax is dripping on the icing.”
“Don’t forget to make a wish,” said Mitsuki.
Arashi stood up and closed her eyes for a moment. “I wish things could go on like this forever.” Then she blew out a bunch of candles on top of the cake. It took her three breaths to take out all of them.
“Jeez, you’re not supposed to say it out loud.” Mitsuki pinched Arashi’s cheek. “Your wish won’t come true that way.”
A maid appeared from nowhere and proceeded to neatly slice and serve the cake.
“This is sublime,” said Setsu.
“Indeed.” Mei Xing nodded. “The slight lemony tartness and lightness of the crumb makes it the perfect dessert after a rich meal.”
Kaika munched on her slice with a happy face. “It definitely doesn’t taste like sperm.”
Ageha looked as if he swallowed a bug. “…Don’t tell me you-”
“Based on what I read. Max hasn’t laid a finger on me. Did you get jealous?”
“Ageha…” rumbled Saya.
“C’mon, you’re more worried about her than I am.”
Mitsuki raised her hand empathically. “I don’t know how sperm tastes either!” Then her face burst into flames.
Ageha shook his head. “What the hell are you saying?”
Saya narrowed her eyes at Mitsuki. “Haven’t you learned your lesson from the other night?”
Mitsuki quizzically tilted her head in response.
Ageha’s ears caught the conversation at the other end of the table.
“You were right, Ria,” said Mei Xing. “Ageha didn’t pay much attention to Li Xue back home so I let my guard down. I better keep her away from him from now on.”
“You better. Don’t repeat my mistake, Mei.” The bear sobbed.
Since when were they on a nickname basis?
The doting parents had bonded over their hatred for Ageha.
After finishing dessert, Kaika clapped her hands and made an announcement. “We will now proceed with the gift giving. I don’t have mine with me right now, so I’ll go last.”
“Apologies, but I could not prepare a gift in time,” said Saya with a dejected tone. “I will have to pass for now.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Ageha. “You were busy preparing for the party. You can just give it to Arashi later.”
Kaika nodded in understanding. “Then let’s begin with the guests.”
The bear jumped up with her paw in the air. “We’ll go first!”
Mitsuki stood up and dragged Arashi to her feet. “We’ll be borrowing her for a bit.”
The three of them asked a maid for directions and left the room. The other guests readied their gifts and chatted amongst themselves in the meantime. The trio returned fifteen minutes later, but this time, they were all in costume.
A light brown one piece dress bared Arashi’s shoulders and most of her thighs. A small red cloth pouch was strung around her neck, and a furry brown tail with a white tip poked out behind her. But what caught Ageha’s attention most of all was her flowing brown hair, topped with perky wolf ears.
This was the first time he had seen her with long hair, which gave her an air of maturity. He had always found Arashi cute, but this time she looked slightly different.
She was beautiful.
Saya pinched his ear. Luckily, he was on her left side.
“I can’t even give the birthday girl a compliment?”
“…Force of habit.” She released his earlobe and looked away to hide her pout.
Because of his abnormal pain tolerance, he could barely feel any discomfort. In fact, he found Saya very cute whenever she acted jealous.
The bear pushed the blushing Arashi to the front, showcasing her to everyone. “We figured she wouldn’t have a costume because it was a surprise party, so we prepared one!”
“Good job.” Kaika gave her a thumbs up.
Next came the Zhang family’s gift.
Setsu brought out a large bag filled with small packages. “Ageha told us Arashi loves snacks, so we got her some rare Chinese treats.”
“It’ll taste like chemicals the first time you eat them,” said Mei Xing, “but you’ll get addicted soon enough.”
Isn’t that because there are addictive chemicals in it?
“There’s even dried Baiji in there,” said Setsu.
Kaika shot up from her seat, eyes wide open. “Baiji? The dolphin species!? I thought they were extinct!”
“Like I said, these are rare treats. And we heard Arashi likes fish.”
“S-So cruel…” Kaika slumped her shoulders. “And dolphins aren’t fish! Arashi won’t be happy receiving something like that!”
“She seems to like it though.”
Arashi was busy munching on some dolphin jerky. “Mmm… Good.”
Kaika covered her face in her hands. “Murderers… All of you are murderers…”
It was finally Ageha’s turn. He wanted to give his present in private to avoid a fuss, but he could not back out now. He took out a small felt-covered case and handed it to her. Arashi opened the box, revealing a white gold necklace with a flower-shaped pendant. The petals were thin and sharp, spouting upwards.
Ageha took it out of the box and moved behind the frozen Arashi. “This is a bird of paradise flower necklace. In flower language, it means freedom.” He then put it on her while carefully clearing away her fake hair.
Arashi loved fish, but what attracted her to them was how they freely swam without worries. Their first date at the aquarium had taught Ageha that Arashi longed for freedom more than anything else, and now she had that, even if it was within the confines of the devil’s palm.
A single tear slid down Arashi’s cheek. She then spun around and hugged Ageha. “Thank you!”
He patted her on the back while enduring the sharp gazes of everyone in the room.
Having recovered from her melancholy, Kaika asked everyone to follow her out the room. They traveled to the farthest wing of the mansion, one that had been under renovation for the past few weeks.
Kaika placed her hands on the double doors. “Behold! The Nikaido private aquarium!” With a push, she unveiled a gigantic tank filled with sea life, something you would normally find in a commercial aquarium.
Arashi wasted no time running up to the tank. Her breath fogged up the glass in front of her as she stared at the colorful marine-life in excitement. Her bored expression was overwritten by a bright smile.
Ageha could almost see her fake wolf tail wagging like a cub playing with its first bone. He had heard about Kaika’s plan, but he was still impressed by the scale.
Ageha crossed his arms. “You could probably keep dolphins in there.”
“Ah, those are arriving next week. It was tough getting around the animal protection laws.”
Kaika moved to Arashi’s side. “How do you like it?”
Without answering, Arashi lifted Kaika by her armpits and embraced her.
“Stop! You’re crushing me!”
Gotta admit defeat this time.
Thanks to Kaika, Arashi brandished a smile that could light up the whole world. Ageha looked around the room and saw his friend Mei Xing huddled with his family. He then glanced at the bewitching witch beside him, who was smiling at the scene.
Ageha felt something warm spread within his chest.
Everything felt right in the world.
Is this… happiness?
The group spent some time admiring the newly built exhibit. While the others were busy chatting, Ageha snuck out of the room.
“Where are you going?”
Ageha looked behind him and saw the bear approaching. “The restroom.”
“Do you have a moment? I wanna talk to you about something.”
The two of them moved to the veranda. Valeriya approached the outdoor table and began vigorously wiggling her left arm for some reason.
“What are you up to now?”
“I’m just gonna cool off.” Her fingerless paw popped off and flopped on the table, revealing her left hand.
“…You could’ve eaten just fine by yourself.”
“And miss out on a ‘Say ahh’ moment with Mitsuki? Are you insane?”
No, you are.
Valeriya then removed the gigantic bear head and put it on the table. Loose strands of her balled up blond hair fluttered in the wind as beads of sweat rolled down her brow.
“Whew. This thing is insanely hot.”
“You didn’t have to keep it on the whole time.”
“No cosplayer worth their salt would shed their outfit so easily.”
Since when did you become a pro cosplayer?
“Whatever. What did you wanna talk about?”
“Actually, I have a favor to ask.” Valeriya’s face turned several shades of serious. “Will you leave Kai’s side and join my organization?”
“…Is that a joke?”
“No. Name your price and position, and you’ll have it.”
“I’ll tell you if you promise to keep it a secret.”
“That’ll depend on what you tell me.”
“I guess that’s fine.” Valeriya unwrapped a bright red lollipop and moistened it with her tongue. “It’s Mitsuki.”
“What about her?”
“Remember her mental condition? Well, it’s gotten worse. Recently, she’s been having lapses in memory and acting really weird.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“According to the shrinks, emotional stress is one of reasons. The changes began when you left us and returned to Kai. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to blame you. But it is fact that Mitsuki was more stable with you around. I’m sure you know why that is.”
Ageha knew about Mitsuki’s affection for him, but he never thought his existence affected her that much.
“I’d really like to help you out, but-”
“Not just that. I don’t want to fight you, Ageha. For my daughter’s sake and mine. If you’re worried about Kai, you don’t have to be. Without you, she isn’t much of a threat. I’d be able to crush her without killing her. Think about it. This is the best path for everyone.”
“Sorry, but the answer is no.”
“Is it Saionji?”
“Among other things.”
Ageha leaned on the veranda’s guard rail. “There is another option.”
“What would that be?”
“If possible, I want to fulfill Arashi’s birthday wish. She and Mitsuki are friends. I also want to help Mitsuki if it’s within my power. All you have to do is keep peace with Kai. I’m not telling you to help her. Just don’t get in her way.” He looked at her profile. “I don’t want a rematch with you, Ria.”
“Sorry, but no can do.”
“Can’t you find your thrills elsewhere?”
“I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to duking it out with your mistress. That’s what makes me who I am, just like how you obsess over your own brand of justice. But that isn’t everything. You know what she’s planning, right?”
Ageha kept quiet.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Then you should know her final goal threatens to trample over the things that took me decades to build. Her plan will produce a surplus of chaos and orphans. Raising Mitsuki has changed me, Ageha. Watching Kai grow has been fun, but I can’t let her succeed.”
He sighed. “It was worth a try.”
“If you want peace that badly, why not convince Kai to stop? She’s gotten far enough.”
“Impossible, according to the person who knows her best. It’s either she succeeds with me or fails without me.”
“A recent job offer inflated my ego.” Ageha grinned.
Valeriya placed her hand on Ageha’s head and ruffled his hair. “Too bad we couldn’t be on the same side. I’ll miss doing this.”
He would never admit it, but Ageha enjoyed Valeriya’s touch. It felt like being pampered by the elder sister he never had. “Mother” would have been more fitting, but he had settled on “sister” in fear of the Russian reading his thoughts.
While gently pushing her hand away, Ageha moved towards the veranda’s doorway. “I’ll keep this talk a secret, as requested.”
Sakuya woke up to the sound of a running faucet. She was in the Nikaido restroom, her face dripping wet.
Mitsuki should have been enjoying herself at the party, but Sakuya still surfaced. That was not unexpected. She had been taking control more frequently, regardless of Mitsuki’s emotional state. It had become so common that Mitsuki had begun questioning her memory gaps. Valeriya had explained it as narcolepsy, but that excuse would not work for long.
Despite that, Mitsuki had kept control the entire time she was with Ageha.
What’s so good about that guy anyway?
Sakuya still planned on killing him one of these days, but that had dropped in priority as part of her recent changes.
“Ken is much more interesting.”
Sakuya tapped her index finger on her bottom lip.
What did I just say?
Kaika Nikaido strolled into the large restroom. “Sorry, the door wasn’t locked.”
“…I was just washing up.” Sakuya closed the faucet.
Kaika passed her and walked to the farthest toilet stall. Sakuya wiped her face using the fragrant towel on the countertop and then tossed it into the small basket underneath.
“See you back inside.” Sakuya opened the door.
She reflexively turned to Kaika in response to her name. Her eyes sharpened as she studied Kaika’s smile. “How did you know?”
“How could I not? You’re not pouting.”
Sakuya clicked her tongue. “You already knew about me beforehand.”
“Of course. I called you by name, didn’t I?”
“What’s your deal?”
“I just wanted to greet you. I hope you enjoy the party.” Kaika entered the stall and shut herself inside.
Not my problem.
Sakuya left the restroom and almost bumped into the Chinese zombie girl.
“Sorry.” The zombie bowed.
The paper charm stuck to her hat hid a portion of her face, but Sakuya could tell the girl was staring right at her.
Where have I seen her before?
Sakuya could not remember where she met the zombie. Thinking it was nothing important, she ignored her and went to join the others.
At the lobby, Sakuya saw Ageha heading her way. “Done with the party?”
Remembering the secret she, or more precisely Mitsuki, heard from Arashi, she decided to tease him a little. “By the way, I have something to tell you.” She beckoned him closer.
Ageha leaned over. Sakuya grabbed onto his neck and hugged him close. Before he could react, she whispered into his ear.
“I know the devil’s secret.”
He froze in place, confused by the line. Then Sakuya relinquished control to Mitsuki, excited to see how things would turn out.
“Mei Xing doesn’t know about our involvement in his mother’s accident,” While holding her secure mobile, Valeriya dexterously unwrapped another lollipop with her teeth. “That, or he is an even better actor than Kaika.”
“I doubt that,” said Viktor. “That’s one less worry then.”
“Confirming that was well worth the info I gave Ageha.”
And struggling not to ogle Lo-Li Xue.
“Speaking of whom-”
“Be prepared. He’s the monster who killed Zhi Zhu.” She rolled the candy inside her mouth. “But then again, you’re just as scary.”
“That doesn’t make me happy.”
“That’s why I said it.”
“Always the cheeky brat.” Viktor cut the call.
Valeriya fixed up her costume and left the veranda. She saw a peculiar scene upon arriving at the lobby.
On her far left was Kaika coming from the east corridor, and on her right was the rest of the gang, back from the Nikaido aquarium. In the middle of the hall stood Ageha and Mitsuki.
They were entangled in an embrace.
Everyone else in the lobby came to a complete stop after seeing them.
The two of them looked around, still stuck to each other. ““This doesn’t make sense!!!””
“““That’s our line!!!”””