Saya, in her characteristic butler uniform and maintaining immaculate posture, tapped an index finger on her knee. “Maybe it is not her?”
“”Impossible.”” Her mistress and lover responded perfect harmony.
“You two are really getting along lately.” She shot Ageha a sharp look. “Maybe a little too much.”
“I didn’t believe Kai at first either. Then I remembered the fight at the gas station. The robot’s swordsmanship was very similar to Mitsuki’s.”
“Nice change of subject,” said Kaika.
“No, I pulled us back to the topic at hand. Stop trying to trap me all the time.” Ageha glanced at Saya. “See? We’re not getting along at all.”
The three of them were lounging on the sofas in the Nikaido mansion drawing room, brainstorming about how to deal with their most formidable foe yet.
Saya made a cute pout. “Not from where I sit.”
“Don’t worry about it, Ageha. Saya’s just acting because you called her jealous fits cute.”
“And that confirms it.”
The blushing butler covered her face with both hands and whimpered like a defeated animal.
“C’mon people,” said Ageha. “This is adorable and all, but we have more important things to talk about.”
“Fine.” Kaika crossed her arms. “I’m certain Mitsuki, more accurately her other personality Sakuya, is controlling the robot.”
“I am still having a hard time swallowing this split personality theory, Ojousama.”
“It’s not a theory. I confirmed it from Mitsuki’s former doctors.”
Kaika had bribed the psychiatrists for the information. Blinded by money, the fools had not foreseen what Valeriya would do to them for disclosing that secret. Par for the course, those doctors had vanished shortly after the Russian’s enlightening conversation with Kaika at Mei Xing’s former inn.
“When I was working for her, Ria brought up Mitsuki’s mental problem a few times. It was caused by a childhood trauma.”
Saya furrowed her brow ever so slightly. “But they might be lying. This could be a clever trap.”
Kaika shook her head. “I confirmed the truth myself. Putting aside Ria who is extremely hard to read, I spoke directly to Sakuya during Arashi’s birthday party.”
“And you waited all this time before telling us?” asked Ageha.
“Would telling you sooner have changed anything?”
He fell silent.
“Controlling information is one of my jobs as the boss. I hope you understand that.”
“Fine. Go on.”
“There is more circumstantial evidence. First, Ageha told me about Mitsuki’s prodigious ability to copy physical movements. Second, Saya mentioned having fought Arashi and Mitsuki at a playground over who gets ownership of Ageha, and the girl actually held her own.”
“First time I’ve heard about that,” said Ageha.
Saya averted her eyes from him. “I-I didn’t think it was important enough to mention.”
“The lover’s spat can wait.” Kaika sighed. “Those two facts make Mitsuki the ideal pilot for the robot. Moreover, Saya reported Mitsuki behaving like a different person during their contest. Merciless, mischievous. That tidbit supports the split personality aspect. A piece or two of circumstantial evidence is flimsy, but there’s a limit to coincidence. With everything lining up like this, I think it’s safe to conclude that she’s our most dangerous enemy.”
“Half of her, Kai. Mitsuki doesn’t know anything.”
“Actually, I don’t think that’s true. At least not anymore.”
“What have you been hiding this time?”
“I wasn’t hiding it. I just doubted the validity of the information. It came from Arashi’s ramblings, after all.”
“What did she say?”
“She asked me for advice about her friendship with Mitsuki. Apparently, Mitsuki called her saying they can’t be friends anymore. Mitsuki apologized for being unable to stop herself. That made me think she knows about her condition at least. I know it’s flimsy, but I think it’s safer to plan with that assumption.”
“Does Arashi know?” asked Saya.
“No, and we need to keep it that way. I don’t want her attachment dulling her fighting ability. We can’t afford unnecessary risks. Fortunately, she hasn’t seen the robot fight, so she has no clue.”
Ageha nodded. “I agree. Arashi doesn’t need to know. Going against friends is… never easy.”
Kaika knew he understood that better than most. Ageha had severely injured his first love and killed his former best friend in vengeance.
“Understood.” Saya nodded. “I shall also keep this from her.”
“We can tell her all about it once everything is over,” said Ageha.
Kaika raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean? You know we can’t beat that robot directly. We need to go after the pilot. Arashi isn’t going to be happy if we tell her we killed her best friend.”
“We’re not going to kill her.”
“Here we go again.” Kaika held her forehead. “First Mashiro, now Mitsuki. Just so you know, Mei Xing wants the person responsible for Mao’s injury dead.”
“I’ll deal with Mei. Hopefully, Ria’s defeat is good enough to satisfy his thirst for revenge.”
“Why are you going so far for that girl? Even if she’s doing it through a remote, she’s still a killer.”
“That’s Sakuya. Mitsuki’s a good kid. She doesn’t deserve to die for something she wasn’t fully responsible for. If it comes down to a fight, I agree with targeting the pilot, but we should capture her to make Ria surrender. Then we can make Ria promise to stay out of your way. She’ll honor it. You know that.”
Valeriya would only honor such a promise if it was made after an acceptable defeat. She knew that they would target the pilot and would naturally prepare for that. There were ways to render such preparations meaningless, but those involved “dirty” tactics, like bombs or poison. Ageha’s attachment to Mitsuki would force everyone into a “fair” fight, something Valeriya wanted and Kaika was terrible at.
Did she plan ahead this far?
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one drafting the plan to make it happen. Do you realize how much keeping that girl alive limits our options?”
“You seem to be forgetting I’m the one putting my neck out there.”
“Along with Saya and Arashi.”
Ageha looked like he swallowed a bitter pill.
“I think Ageha is right, Ojousama. I am fine with the risk. I am sure Arashi would say the same thing if she knew about everything.”
“Wait, you’re taking his side?”
“No. I just think that we should aim for a complete victory instead of settling.”
“This is gonna be crazy hard.”
“Deal with it,” said Ageha. “You’re the genius.”
A fight to protect instead of to destroy.
A fight to regain instead of to steal.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
Embers of challenge kindled, Kaika looked to the distance, brandishing a confident grin. “Better get to work then.”
Ageha waved a hand to get her attention. “Sorry to rain on your parade, but that might not be necessary.”
“I was so ready for a scene break right there!”
“I said I’m sorry. Anyway, Mitsuki asked me out on a date.”
“What,” said Saya.
Kaika tossed him a wry smile. “And you accused me of hiding important information.”
“She just called yesterday. I think this is a good opportunity to confirm our suspicions. If she’s controlling the robot, then I’ll convince her to not fight. She really likes me, so there’s a decent chance this could work.”
“What,” said Saya.
“Why go through the trouble? Just grab her right there.”
“I can’t. That’s not fair. Either way, I’m sure Ria will have snipers on us the whole time.”
“Then I’ll have Arashi watch you two.” Kaika clicked her tongue. “It’s gonna be a pain explaining this to her without revealing the connection between Mitsuki and the robot.”
Saya shot up from the sofa. “Why is everyone talking about this as if it’s bound to happen!?” She glared at Ageha. “And why are you planning to go on a date with another girl? You have me!”
“She’s thirteen, Saya. Or is it fourteen now?”
“That’s the problem!”
“You still think I’m interested in little girls?”
Kaika put an index finger on her chin and tilted her head slightly. “Well, you do lay in bed with me all the time.”
“She’s talking about the head massages, Saya.” Ageha tried to pry his lover’s alloy fingers from his head. “Could you let go? You’re gonna make the headaches worse.”
“For the record,” said Saya, “I’m completely against this date. It’s definitely a trap.”
“Ria wouldn’t use her daughter as bait.”
“It kinda pisses me off how much you trust the enemy, but you’re right,” said Kaika. “Mitsuki is Ria’s second greatest weakness, the greatest being her motherly love. This is likely a genuine attempt to negotiate from Mitsuki. When is it?”
“I don’t know. She said she’ll take care of everything and just message me the details.”
“That makes it hard to plan anything. In any case, I approve this mission.” Kaika whipped her index finger at Ageha. “Go and seduce that child.”
“I don’t have a say in this, do I?” said Saya.
“I’m the boss, so no.”
Did I come too soon?
Mitsuki looked around the deserted entrance to Inokashira park. Barren trees lined the outside perimeter and dotted the inner fields, making it seem like a dying forest. The intimidating convoy of cars parked around her five minutes ago had disappeared. She had gone to great lengths to convince Valeriya to leave her alone for this date. The process involved doing strange poses and saying cringe-worthy lines, a spectacle that would make her die from embarrassment if seen by anyone else. Strangely, Viktor, her regular driver for a while now, had not escorted her to the meeting place.
Squeezing her gloved hands together, she tried to calm her beating heart. Despite having arrived an hour early, she still had not managed to quiet the excitement and nervousness swirling in her chest.
She gave herself one final fashion check: light blue wool jacket, white sweater, grey miniskirt, black leggings, high cut khaki boots. Still not satisfied, Mitsuki rewrapped the navy blue loose knit scarf around her neck and patted down her matching beanie. Then she checked the contents of her shoulder bag for the tenth time.
Okay, all good.
Despite thinking so, she still took out her mobile and checked her face with the camera. Valeriya had called her the personification of moe, but her mother tended to exaggerate when it came to her. Unable to take Valeriya’s compliments at face value, she lacked confidence going into her first date.
Wait, maybe it’s not my first date.
I technically went out with Ken.
No, that was Sakuya.
That doesn’t count, yup.
The clock on her mobile read 10 a.m., the designated meeting time, but Ageha still had not arrived.
Shouldn’t the guy show up at least ten minutes before the agreed time?
Maybe he doesn’t even consider this a date.
I mean, he does have a girlfriend and all.
He probably thinks I just need someone to escort me around or something.
The growing negativity inside her forced out her usual frown and an annoyed snort.
“Hey, is that any way to greet your date?”
“Wah!” Mitsuki instinctively hopped away from the voice.
Ageha casually raised a hand in greeting. “Hey, long time no see.”
“You almost gave me a heart attack. W-Where did you come from?”
“I cut through the park to save time. Did you wait long?”
“…No, I just got here.”
“Hard to believe considering that scowl earlier.” Ageha took his mobile terminal from his coat pocket. “I’m right on time.” He gave Mitsuki a quick look from head to toe. “I’ve never seen you in winter clothes before. You look very cute.”
“W-W-What did you say!?” Mitsuki turned beet red with a furious expression.
“I said you look very cute.”
“What’s this all of a sudden!? You’ve never said anything like that to me before!”
“Really? I’ve always thought you were, though. I guess Ria kept chanting it so I never bothered to say anything.”
Mitsuki turned around and tried to steady her trembling fingers.
He’s just being nice.
Yeah, that’s it.
I’m just a child to him.
Calling a child cute is normal.
Having regained some semblance of composure, she walked over to him. Afraid to be accused of staring, she shot him glances, checking his appearance part by part to paint a full picture.
A light brown hip-length trench coat served as the top layer of his rather fashionable attire. A black knitted turtleneck peeked out from his coat collar. Beige slim pants partnered with rugged winter boots to complete the ensemble.
During Ageha’s time with Mitsuki, he had always worn simple clothes, like shirts and jeans. Seeing him all dressed up was a nice change.
She cleared her throat. “Y-You look pretty good too.”
“Thanks. Makes them a good buy.”
“…You bought them just for today?”
“Yeah. So where to?”
“Oh right!” Mitsuki hurriedly checked the itinerary on her mobile. “Umm, first, let’s ride the swan boat. Inokashira park is famous for it.”
“Isn’t that closed in winter?”
“What!? That doesn’t make sense!”
“No, it does. Who would go paddle in the middle of a lake in freezing weather?”
Mitsuki slumped her shoulders. “I was looking forward to it too…” She made a sharp gasp.
“That’s not a good sign. What did you realize just now?”
“I prepared bento for a picnic lunch, but considering the temperature…”
“Yeah, eating outside is a no go.”
The nervous energy fueling Mitsuki instantly drained out. Fatigue from lack of sleep and disappointment overwhelmed her. She considered going home and crying in her blanket.
Ageha placed his cold hand on her beanie. “Did you forget about the season when you made this date plan of yours?”
“…I did. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. There has to be something in the itinerary we can do.”
“Hmm… The zoo might be open. And there’s also the Gheebli Studio Museum. Ria highly recommended that place.”
“I’ve seen a couple of their animated movies, but I’m not really interested in how they’re made. Let’s try the zoo.”
The trivia I learned from watching documentaries will finally be put to use.
I’ll entertain Ageha and show off my knowledge at the same time!
The zoo was open, but unfortunately, most of the animal exhibits were not. Winter simply was not the right season to visit. Overall, the zoo tour could be summed up in one word: underwhelming.
Excluding her martial prowess, Mitsuki was just a sheltered fourteen year old with no experience in romance. Having trouble planning a date was expected, but that did not lessen her disappointment in herself.
Today was a special day, one that would never come again. In spite of that, she had ruined it with her lack of common sense.
Seeing her strange behavior, Ageha suggested they rest on a bench near the zoo exit. Mitsuki meekly agreed and sat about two feet away from him.
“A sad face doesn’t look right on you. Pout or smile, choose one.”
But she could not wipe away her dejected expression. “I’m sorry… Sorry for wasting your time like this.”
“What are you talking about? It’s not even noon.”
“But I’m all out of ideas… The main event was the picnic, and that’s not happening in this cold.”
Ageha closed his eyes, slightly scrunching his brow.
Is he thinking about ditching me here?
I haven’t even said what I needed to say!
I’ll just do it now!
Mustering her courage, Mitsuki forced her lips to move, but Ageha beat her to the punch.
“Then let’s go with my plan.”
“…You have a plan?”
“My boss told me you can never have enough. What do you say?”
Mitsuki sighed in relief. “Okay. Sure.”
He pulled a pen from his coat, gave it a twist, and then waved it over Mitsuki’s head and body, like a magic wand.
“Um, what are you doing?”
The pen made a beeping sound when it hovered over her belly button and left foot.
“Sorry, but I have to do something strange if we’re gonna have a proper date.”
“That pen is plenty strange already, but okay. I decided to go with your plan.”
“Be careful what you wish for.” In a blink of an eye, Ageha grabbed her by the waist and dragged her into the bushes. Then he rolled up her jacket to her stomach and pulled off her belt.
“Eh!? Eh!? Eh!?”
Is my first time gonna be in the middle of a park!?
I heard parks are often used for dirty things…
Wait, that’s not the issue here!!!
A terrifying shriek echoed in the distance. It sounded like Valeriya saying, “Shoot that pervert!”
Ageha grabbed Mitsuki’s leg and pulled off her boot. After examining it, he tore off a small chip from inside the front flap and squeezed it. The small device emitted a faint buzzing sound before going silent.
“Your shoe, princess.” Ageha quickly put the boot back on.
“Bingo.” He took out a small receiver from his right ear and tossed it. “Now we have no one listening in on us.”
“W-What are you planning to do?”
“Don’t worry, this isn’t my first time. I know it’s not yours either.”
“Who said that!? This is my first time!!!”
“Huh? Ria said you were kidnapped when you were younger.”
“Oh. Kidnapped. Okay then… No, it’s not okay at all!”
“Relax, I just want surveillance off our backs. Having my head in a rifle scope is never a good feeling. I bet Arashi isn’t happy keeping you in her sights, either.” He grabbed her bag and scooped her up like a princess. “C’mon, grab my neck. We’re getting outta here.”
“Wait, wait, wait! Where are you taking me?”
“The train station.”
“To ride a train, duh.”
I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a train before.
At least I don’t remember.
I think Sakuya did, though.
“Your minions are coming. Keep your head as close to mine as possible. I don’t wanna get sniped. Hang on.”
Mitsuki obediently pressed her burning cheek to his neck, letting herself be swept away by the sudden turn of events.
Truth be told, she had also considered going to other places for their date. The aquarium had not been in her list of choices because she knew Arashi and Ageha had already visited one together. She had wanted this trip to be different, to be special.
The amusement park was another venue at the top of the list, but bringing in outside food was not allowed. She really wanted to show off how much her cooking had improved since he taught her the lemon ricotta pancake recipe for White Day. Crossing off the amusement park was a difficult decision because the idea of going on a thrill ride with Ageha sounded very tempting.
She got her thrill ride though, only in the most unexpected way.
Mitsuki screamed her lungs out as Ageha jumped from rooftop to rooftop, her small body snug in his arms.
“Be quiet,” said Ageha. “You’ll bite your tongue.”
“I can’t help it! This is crazy!”
They landed in an alley and promptly entered the main street. The Kichijoji train station was in sight.
“Sorry, I had do that to shake our tail.”
“Don’t be. It was scary, but fun.” A strange laugh escaped Mitsuki’s lips. “That was amazing. A roller coaster can’t beat that.”
He gently put her down and returned her bag. “Is your bento okay?”
“I packed it properly, so a bit of shaking is fine.”
“Good. Have you taken an interest in cooking?”
“Yeah. I had a lot of fun when you taught me how to make pancakes. I love watching Ria eat my dishes. She looks so happy.”
“You sound confident. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Don’t! I can only make simple things! They can’t compare to anything a chef makes.”
“The simplest dishes are actually the hardest to make properly. There’s very little to hide laziness or mistakes.”
“Thanks a lot for not dialing up the pressure.”
Ageha laughed. “Nothing you can’t handle, right?”
With a nod, Mitsuki smiled brightly and walked with him to the station. “So, where are we going?”
“Huh? But I brought food.”
“You’ll understand when we get there. Which reminds me, I better call to give them a heads up.” He dialed a number on his phone and spoke to someone in a hushed tone.
Realizing it was rude to eavesdrop, Mitsuki stepped away to avoid hearing the conversation.
Inside the station, they bought tickets and headed to the train platform. Mitsuki tried her best to not look out of place but failed to hide her curiosity. She stared at the express bullet train speeding through the terminal and shot glances at the shameless couple making out by a pillar. Everything felt new and fresh compared to her usual travel stuck inside an armored car.
Sakuya was different.
Mitsuki’s other self comfortably used public transportation, blended in with crowds, and communicated perfectly when she wanted to. A part of Mitsuki began to feel envious of Sakuya, but she quickly scolded herself. She, who had tossed all her suffering to her other self, had no right to feel that way.
Ageha and Mitsuki boarded a train heading for the mysterious restaurant. The view of the city from the train car greatly differed from her SUV. The elevated tracks ran well above the height of normal houses, giving her a good view of the tokyo skyline.
Mitsuki felt too embarrassed to start a conversation with Ageha around strangers, so the train ride ended up rather quiet.
After leaving the train station, Ageha tossed her a question. “Wanna walk or take the bus?”
“I hate the cold, so the bus is better.”
“The bus it is.”
Mitsuki spent the ride watching other passengers. Two cute children kept running around to their mother’s dismay. A huge African American man tried to fit himself in a miniscule bus seat. Those were sights she could never see from behind reinforced, tinted windows.
“Here we are.”
They finally arrived at their destination, an Italian fine-dining establishment.
Mitsuki read the sign just above the front doors. “Sapore?”
“Yep. I used to work here as a sous chef.”
“I see.” Still confused as to what they were doing there, Mitsuki headed for the door.
Ageha gently held her shoulder, stopping her. “We’re not going through there. Follow me.”
With him leading the way, they went around the corner into a narrow alley.
Ageha opened a door on the side of the building. “This is the service entrance for employees and suppliers. After you.”
“Oh, we have one in Ria’s building too.”
A memory of Ken practicing his punches near the back entrance of Valeriya’s headquarters flashed in her head. A sharp pain behind her eyeballs made her wince. She quickly turned away to hide her face from Ageha.
Please lend me this body a little longer.
Just a bit more.
I haven’t told him yet.
The pain faded.
She showed him the best smile she could muster. “Nothing! Let’s go!”
They entered the building and followed a narrow corridor.
“Which would you like first, the kitchen tour or lunch?”
“Tour? You mean I get to see the kitchen in action?”
“Yeah. Since you started cooking, I figured you’d want to see how the pros do it. You have a chef at home too, but a restaurant kitchen has a completely different atmosphere. Sapore usually doesn’t let outsiders watch, but I called in a favor.”
Mitsuki felt touched. She had visited many entertainment facilities with Valeriya, from shopping malls to aquariums to water parks, sometimes even renting out entire venues. To put it simply, despite being a sheltered princess, she had already experienced the more common leisure activities. Watching a professional kitchen in action was a first. Not only that, Ageha giving her so much consideration and attention made her genuinely happy.
“The tour! Let’s do the tour!”
“Sounds good. It’s perfect to build up an appetite. Just a small warning, it’s gonna be intense.”
“I practically run a dojo. I’ll be fine.”
It turned out she would be more than fine. She was mesmerized.
The kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine. No, it pulsed like a living organism pumped with adrenaline. The chefs passed dishes from one station to the next without missing a beat. Flames blazed from the burners. The air trembled with the sound of chopping, searing, and shouts. Ingredients coalesced into intricate works of culinary art before her eyes.
Almost forgetting to blink, Mitsuki tugged at Ageha’s sleeve. “Amazing… Is it always this busy?”
“Busy? Even if it’s Valentine’s Day, today’s a weekday lunch. You should see it during weekend dinners.”
A woman with a ponytail burst in from the front house doors. She handed a few order slips to the head chef before noticing Ageha and Mitsuki. After getting permission from the head chef, she rushed over to them.
“Is she the latest addition to your harem?” asked the waitress.
Ageha shrugged. “Oh c’mon, I told you on the phone.”
The waitress laughed and then gave Mitsuki a wink. “You’re Mitsuki-chan, right? Nice to meet you. I’m Rin Natsume, Ageha’s ex-girlfriend.”
“Rin, what the fuck.”
“Hey, watch your language in front of kids.”
This woman is his ex!?
Rin was certainly beautiful. Her smile was bursting with infectious energy, yet she carried her formal uniform with elegance.
Mitsuki shook her head, a sharp pout on her round face. “It’s fine. I’m used to hearing much worse.”
“What’s with this girl, Ageha!? So adorable! She’s like a reverse-Kai!”
“I know right.”
Mitsuki turned red from the unexpected praise.
What’s a reverse-Kai?
Rin clapped her hands in front of her and made a bow. “Sorry, but I can’t show you around. Shimatane, the not-so-new cameriera, burned herself on a hotplate again a few minutes ago. She’s out for first aid. Gotta pick up the slack.”
“Can we take a look around?” asked Ageha. “I’ll make sure not to get in the way.”
“Get in the way? I’m more worried you’d start doing their jobs for them.”
“If that happens, I’ll do it better.”
Rin jabbed his chest. “Not the point.”
“Day off. That’s why we’re a little behind even though the dining room is only half full.”
“Want me to take over?” he asked jokingly.
Rin made a bitter smile. “Even if Head Chef Kirishima gives the okay, some of the staff won’t be happy about that.”
“Gotta get back to work. Have fun looking around, Mitsuki-chan! See you later at the break room!” Like a whimsical gust, Rin left as abruptly as she came.
Ageha tapped Mitsuki’s shoulder. “Seems you’re stuck with me.”
“That’s better. I don’t like her.”
“Never one to mince words, as usual.” Ageha motioned to the left with his hand. “Let’s start the tour then.”
They went around each station, taking care not to bother the staff. Ageha knew the place inside out, so they managed to swiftly cover everything without incident.
“I’m surprised so much of the food is precooked,” said Mitsuki.
“Prep begins early in the morning for lunch service, and some more in the afternoon for dinner. If we prepared everything from scratch for each order, we’d never finish serving the guests. At least not before they walked out pissed.”
“I liked the idea of baking chicken before grilling. I had trouble grilling bone-in chicken because the skin gets too dark before the inside cooks completely. Warming plates for pasta is also a great idea. I’ve always wondered why mine cooled so fast after serving. This was a very educational experience.”
“I’m glad you liked it. I was a little worried, to be honest.”
“You? Worried? You don’t seem like you worry about anything.”
“Are you saying I’m stupid?”
“N-No! I meant, you always seem to be in control.”
“Ah, that’s just pretense. It’s part of growing older. People learn to hide their feelings better. Leading a double life for years just made me a little better at it than most. I worry about stuff as much as the next guy.”
“Hmm.” Mitsuki made a satisfied smile.
“Seeing all that food made me hungry. Let’s go to the break room for lunch. Rin said we can borrow it because no one will be using it during lunch service anyway.”
They arrived at a barely decorated room with a table and several chairs. It was not exactly the romantic lunch setting Mitsuki wanted, but since eating a homemade bento in Sapore’s fancy dining room was out of the question, this was the only choice.
Ageha took her outerwear and hung them with his on the rack behind the door. Then he strode to the table and pulled a chair out for her. “Sorry it’s drab.”
“I-I don’t mind at all?”
He chuckled. “You’re a terrible liar.”
“Well sorry about that.”
“Don’t be. I like that about you.”
“Wuh, Wuh, Wuh-”
“Is that some kind of kung fu breathing technique?”
“What’re you saying all of a sudden!? Are you seriously flirting with a fourteen year old girl!?”
“You’re the one who asked for a date. This is how dates go. What’re you complaining about?”
She turned away in a huff.
Ignoring her fake tantrum, he took the bag from her and began to set the table. “Take a seat.”
Mitsuki sat on the chair and crossed her arms. Three bento boxes, grey, blue, and pink, were lined up in front of her. She noticed Ageha reach out for the pink box.
“Wait! Not that one!” She grabbed it and hugged it to her chest. “This can wait.”
“Uh, sure.” He took out a thermos bottle from the bag and opened it. “Wow, you even made miso soup.”
“I figured it’d be good in the cold weather…”
“You should’ve figured out that boating and picnicking wouldn’t work too.”
“I’m just kidding. Don’t mope.” He poured the contents of the bottle into two plastic cups hidden under the cap and pushed one over to her.
Mitsuki pulled the blue box towards her and pushed the grey one to Ageha. “This is yours.”
He took a seat and opened the box. “Not bad.”
In it were perfectly identical tamagoyaki slices, a fillet of grilled salmon, a scoop of potato salad, a few pieces of karaage, a colorful assortment of vegetables, some pickles, and white rice sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds.
“The balance of the dishes is good. It was also packed to the brim, so it didn’t get too jumbled up even after all that jumping. Good job so far.” He tried the different dishes and took a sip of the soup.
He sounds like a food judge on TV!!!
Mitsuki watched him intently, dreading his evaluation. Cold sweat rolled down her neck. Feeling a single bead glide down her throat made her gulp.
“H-How is it?”
“Well done. Very well done, actually.”
I did it!
Mitsuki wanted to jump on the table and do a fist pump with all her might, but she managed to endure by grabbing her seat with both hands.
“These are all simple dishes, but everything is spot on. The seasoning of the miso soup is on point, and the rice was meticulously prepared. You added sake to the rice before cooking, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I saw it in an anime once.”
“Putting aside where you learned it, it was a nice touch. I particularly liked the acidity of the potato salad. It cuts the richness of the fried chicken. That’s why you didn’t include a lemon slice for drizzling, right?”
“…Well they do say luck is a skill.”
Her lips bent into the shape of an upward arrow.
“Don’t feel bad about it. Some amazing dishes were made by accident, you know? Anyway, stop staring and eat. It’s kinda uncomfortable being watched like this.”
Mitsuki dug into her own lunch box.
Delicious, if I do say so myself.
While eating lunch, Ageha asked how Valeriya was doing, a topic Mitsuki loved to talk about. He was surprisingly good at holding a conversation even though he seemed so aloof when learning martial arts from her. Mitsuki learned how multifaceted a person could be.
After finishing their meal, Mitsuki tugged on his shirt. “Time for dessert. But first, please close your eyes while I prepare it.”
“This better not be a trick.”
“What kind of life have you lead to think that in this situation?”
“I’d rather not get into it.” He hesitantly closed his eyes.
Mitsuki opened the pink box, revealing a triple layer of thick pancakes cut into a square to fit the container and some garnishes on the side. She sprinkled white chocolate shavings on the fluffy stack and topped it off with sliced strawberries. Fortunately, the chocolate had not melted thanks to the cold weather.
Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess.
“You can open your eyes now.” She handed the box to him. “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
“Is this what I think it is?”
“Yeah, this is the lemon ricotta pancake dish you taught me, only with strawberries instead of blueberries on top. I tried making other things, but this still tasted the best even cold, so…”
“Thank you.” He smiled. “This looks really good.”
It’s now or never.
I have to tell him how I feel!
Just do it!
“T-These aren’t obligatory chocolates!” Closing her eyes with all her might, she squeezed out the next line. “I like you, Ageha!”
Instead of surprise, a slightly melancholic expression appeared on Ageha’s face. “…I see. Sorry, Mitsuki, but I-”
“I know. I know… I just wanted you to hear it from me. I might not get another cha-”
The door burst open.
Ageha instantly got up and faced the open doorway, wary of an attack.
A young man in a flamboyant red coat walked in as if he owned the place. “So this is where you were hiding.”
Seeing no danger, Ageha lowered his guard. “We were just having lunch.”
“Don’t play coy with me. I didn’t believe my ears when Reiji told me you showed up, but here you are. What are you up to this time?”
“Ageha, who’s he?” asked Mitsuki.
“A former coworker. I didn’t see you in the kitchen earlier, Hiro. Are you on the afternoon shift?”
Hiro walked up to Ageha and grabbed his collar. “Don’t talk like we’re friends! I haven’t forgotten what you did to Rin-chan and Chef Matsunaga.”
Ageha raised his hands in surrender. “I didn’t come here to make trouble. I just wanted to show a friend’s daughter around the kitchen. Cooking is her hobby.”
“I don’t care about that. You lost the cooking contest against Chef Yama. You have no right to show your face here.”
“You lost a cooking contest?” asked Mitsuki with a stupefied expression. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Ageha glanced at her and made a wry smile. “I wasn’t at my best.”
“If you had a rematch?”
“I’d win ten out of ten times.”
“You beating Chef Yama? Bullshit! Everyone knows you’re just a pretender with no real skill.”
“Believe what you want.” His tone hid it well, but Ageha’s gaze clearly conveyed his condescension towards Hiro.
“Don’t look down on me!”
“I can’t help it. I’m taller than you.”
“You asshole!” Hiro tried to pull Ageha closer but failed due to his sheer weight. “Huh? What the…” He tried again to no avail. Giving up, he released Ageha’s collar and pushed him. Or at least he tried to.
Like a rock, Ageha did not budge an inch. The force of the push caused Hiro to stagger backward.
Mitsuki raised a hand to get their attention. “You two are chefs, right? Instead of quarrelling like kids, I suggest having a cooking contest to settle this. Ageha against you.”
“I wouldn’t recommend that, Hiro. I’m in pretty good condition lately.”
“Shut up! W-Why the hell would I do that? Competing against you is a waste of time! And who’s this runt with no manners?” Hiro redirected his glare to Mitsuki. “Your mother clearly screwed up in raising you.”
The sound of something snapping echoed in her head. She stood up and stomped towards Hiro. Due to their height difference, she looked up to maintain eye contact. “You don’t deserve to know my name, you lowly whelp.”
Hiro’s face turned into a mess of furious lines. “What did you say..?”
“And you, Ageha, why are you taking all this abuse?”
“I deserve it, to some extent. Some mistakes never go away.”
“I see. But that doesn’t excuse his insults against me and my mother.” With an intimidating aura unimaginable for someone her size, Mitsuki scowled at Hiro. “I’ll be nice and ask you to stop your ranting and leave this room right now. Or else.”
“You’re the outsider, bitch.” He arrogantly shoved a finger at her nose. “Take that loser and get out of-”
Mitsuki grabbed Hiro’s finger and twisted it, dragging his entire body to the side. In one fluid motion, she swept his foot and threw him face-down to the ground.
“Easy on the finger,” said Ageha. “He’s a chef.”
Mitsuki glanced at Ageha and snorted in dissatisfaction before looking down at the groaning Hiro. “A coward who runs away from a challenge is as relevant as spit on the ground to me, but even spit can get annoying if it gets on my shoe. Makes me want to rub it off on the floor.” Still holding Hiro’s finger in her hands, she stepped on the side of his head and ground his cheek into the floor.
Hiro glared at her from the corner of his eye. “It hurts! Stop!” His scowl quickly turned flaccid when she gave his finger a twist. “Please!”
“Did you stop when I asked earlier?”
“I-I’ll sue you, you bitch! Shikimi too!”
Mitsuki burst into laughter. “Your ignorance is so pitiful, it’s downright comedic. I’d be amazed if you actually sued a teenage girl for kicking your ass. I wonder what the courts will say about that, not that it’d ever make it there. Same goes for suing Ageha. Just so you know, he works for one of the most powerful people in the world. You’ll disappear like a puff of smoke before the ink on the petition dries.” She put more weight on her foot, causing Hiro to squeal in pain. “Now apologize.”
“O-Okay! S-Sorry Shikimi! And you too! I’m sorry for what I said! I was wrong, okay?”
“Huh? Why are you apologizing about that?”
“B-But you just said-”
Mitsuki’s voice turned deathly cold. “Apologize for being born. Right now.”
“Scary,” mumbled Ageha.
“Bitch!!!” Anger dulling his fear, Hiro struggled under the teen’s foot, using his strength advantage to push it off. “Who would say something like that!?”
Mitsuki broke his finger.
While Hiro was busy screaming like a baby, she turned to Ageha. “You think anyone heard that?”
“Maybe, but the staff is probably too busy to care.”
“All good then.” She released Hiro’s finger and gave him one last look. “What a mess. Wanna go somewhere else, Ageha?”
“Way ahead of you.” Ageha presented Mitsuki’s bag, with everything except the pink box neatly packed inside. “I’ll have the pancakes at home. I’m sure Arashi would love to try them. She misses you, by the way. She talks about you all the time.”
“Is that so…”
“You should drop by when you get a chance. You know the address.”
Mitsuki could only answer with silence, unable to spit out the word impossible rising like bile in her throat.
Stepping over the crying chef on the floor, they collected their winter gear and left the restaurant through the service door.
Ageha checked his mobile. “It’s only 2 p.m. Where to go next?”
“Anywhere is fine. Let’s take a walk. I wanna rub the dirt off the sole of my shoe.”
Ageha chuckled. “There’s a shopping street nearby. Sound good?”
They strolled to the shopping street and looked around the various stores. Mitsuki had become a lot more comfortable chatting with Ageha after getting her confession out of the way.
“Sorry about earlier, by the way,” said Ageha. “About Hiro.”
“Oh, that? Forget about it.”
“Was that Sakuya?”
Mitsuki’s feet froze in place, as if glued to the pavement. She swallowed the saliva in her mouth and took a deep breath. “You knew?”
“I found out just recently.”
“How much do you know?”
“I know you have dissociative identity disorder, and the other personality is named Sakuya.”
“Mostly Kai, but I got a lot of clues from Ria too.”
“Do you know what… Sakuya does?”
“…Yes. She kills people.”
Mitsuki could hear her heart breaking.
It really is over.
There’s no turning back now.
Trying her best to dam up her tears, she forced her lips to move. “To answer your original question, no, that wasn’t her. That was me, but the line between us is gradually fading every day.”
“Do you share her memory?”
“Not until recently.”
“Then you know I fought her before.”
“I’ll be completely honest with you. The reason why I accepted this invitation was to convince you to stop fighting.”
The dam holding back her tears shattered. “I… I knew it was something like that…”
“No, you don’t get it. This isn’t some nefarious plot. I just don’t want to hurt you. Kai wants you dead just as much as Ria wants me dead. But I don’t want that to happen. Neither does Arashi.”
People strolling along the shopping street took notice of Mitsuki’s tears, but none of them stopped to interfere. They merely sent furtive glances as they passed.
“Does she know?”
Ageha shook his head.
She sighed in relief but scolded herself right after.
It makes no difference.
I’ve already decided.
“Sorry, Ageha. That’s the one thing I can’t do.”
“Is it because Ria asked you to? If you’ve seen Sakuya’s memories, then you know right?”
“That she killed my father? Yes, I know. Sakuya knew it all along. But I love her, more than ever. And that’s why I can’t stop Sakuya.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sakuya has been carrying the burden of that hatred all this time. That’s why I’ve been able to live such a happy life with Ria. While I was enjoying myself everyday, she’s been suffering… crying all alone. I can’t let that continue. Not anymore. I can’t pretend I don’t know about her, about how she feels. I have to take responsibility.”
“Even at the cost of your ties with Arashi and me? At the cost of lives?”
“My hands are already steeped in blood, Ageha. I just didn’t know. Sakuya has killed so many people. So, so many. The memories… They’re terrifying. But even more than that, I’m scared how I could sympathize with Sakuya’s rage, her hatred. There’s no denying it. She’s me.”
“The only way to stop Sakuya is if you kidnap me, for real this time. Maybe you can use me to negotiate peace with Ria.”
“We both know that’s not going to work. That’ll only piss her off. Even if she does agree to Kai’s terms, and she will for your safety, there’s no way she would keep them. She entrusted you to me today. Breaking that trust means throwing away the premise of a fair fight, something Ria loves and adheres to. She’d be unstoppable if that happens. No one will be safe until one side is completely destroyed. The only way this ends happily is if Kai beats Ria fair and square.”
“Or if Sakuya kills all of you.”
“That doesn’t sound too happy to me.”
“It is for her. And she’s me, remember?” Mitsuki made a heartbreaking smile, tears kissing the edges of her upturned lips. “The real reason I asked you out today was to tell you how I feel for you, and to say goodbye. Thanks for taking a child like me seriously.”
“Youth doesn’t make your feelings any weaker, or your will less valid. I broke when I was a kid, just like you. As you can see, I never got fixed. That’s why I understand your decision. I’m not gonna persuade you anymore. Kai is gonna have a fit because I didn’t try harder, but that’s nothing new.”
Mitsuki felt saved by his words. She was undertaking a fool’s errand, but he approved it. Aside from her mother, that was the first time someone had accepted her darkness.
Today was full of firsts, wasn’t it?
“Thank you, Ageha. Thank you for accepting me.”
“No problem. I do have one request though.”
“Can you let me speak to Sakuya?”
Mitsuki’s eyes went wide for a moment. “…Okay, but on one condition.”
“What is it?”
She approached him. “Could you bend down a little?”
“I think I know where this is going, but okay.” He did as requested.
Mitsuki embraced his neck and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “One for the road. I hope you like the pancakes.”
“I’m sure they’re perfect.”
Mitsuki wiped her tears on her scarf and smiled brighter than the full moon.
An emergency meeting today of all days?
Saya started the car and checked her mobile.
Are they still together?
The blip on her screen showed that Ageha was in the shopping district near Sapore. He and Saya had gone there on dates before when he was still working as a sous chef.
During the meeting, she had received a call from Kaika saying that Ageha had thrown away his earpiece and kidnapped Mitsuki. Fortunately, Saya had foreseen that possibility and planted a bug inside the collar of his turtleneck.
While driving out of the parking lot, she affixed her own earpiece and pressed a button on her mobile to connect to the bug’s audio receiver.
“What do you want?”
The voice belonged to Mitsuki. Saya remembered it from their spar on the playground.
“Wanna tangle with me? You were a bit too forceful last time, but I didn’t hate it.”
What did she just say!?
Saya never truly believed that Ageha would cheat on her. Her main concern was the possibility of a trap set by Valeriya. However, concrete evidence was hard to ignore.
Then came Ageha’s voice. “No. This time, I just wanna talk.”
Does that mean they’ve done things other than talking in the past!?
Saya floored the gas pedal and swerved past everything in her path, breaking every traffic rule imaginable. The NGC text on her car plates made sure the cops would not even think about flipping the switch on their sirens.
“Talk? Is that all? And here I thought you felt the urge to mount me again.”
“This isn’t exactly the place for that.”
She’s fourteen, Ageha!
“I’m ready to go anytime, anywhere. Not like we’ve never done it in public.”
They do it outside!?
“Not in that state. You know how hard I can pound you. We’ll do it when we’re both ready.”
Pounding a child!
Saya’s cybernetic hand wrenched off a chunk of the wheel. Fortunately, it still functioned properly.
“Heh, I gotta say you took me by surprise, taking me from behind like that. You jammed my toy in so deep. It was a pain digging it back out.”
They even use toys!!!
“I did my best.”
“Clearly it wasn’t enough. Anyway, get to the point. You didn’t call me out here just to talk about old times. I’m this close to lunging at you right now.”
The sound cut off. Saya checked the screen. The blip disappeared.
I forgot to charge the bug!!!
But she still knew their position. At her current speed, she could get there in four minutes.
I’ll catch them in the act and punish Ageha thoroughly!
With her complete focus on driving, she managed to reach the shopping district in three minutes, without casualties. Jumping the curb, she slammed the car in park and abandoned it on the sidewalk.
There they are!
Ageha and Mitsuki were standing face to face in the middle of the shopping street. Saya was about to dash towards them when a balloon from a stall behind her popped. The familiar sound of suppressed gunfire followed. It was faint enough to melt into the noise of the shopping street, suggesting it came from a long distance away.
But that was a warning shot. She had been standing stock still. If the sniper wanted her dead, she would be. Arashi had lost track of Ageha hours ago, but someone from Valeriya’s side was able to follow Mitsuki the entire time. Valeriya probably snuck an undetectable tracker into Mitsuki’s belongings.
Guess I’m not the only obsessive one.
Saya searched for the sniper by zooming with her bionic eye. The possible sniping points were few and far between, making the task easier than expected.
He was on a rooftop of a faraway high rise, far enough to think he did not miss on purpose. However, that optimism was shattered when Viktor popped another balloon.
“Don’t get in their way,” huh.
Viktor held Ageha’s life in his hands for hours but also held his trigger finger out of respect for his boss.
“You really are a scary old man.”
He popped a third balloon, as if objecting to her comment.
Noticing the commotion, Ageha marched over to Saya with a sullen look. Mitsuki was nowhere to be seen.
“Where is it?” asked Ageha.
Saya put on her poker face. “Where is what?”
“…Inside your collar.”
After removing the bug, Ageha made an exasperated sigh.
“Hey, you don’t get to be angry. I heard you two talking! I can’t believe you’re having an affair with a teenager!”
“Arashi’s also a teenager.”
“But! That’s..! This! Argh!”
“In any case, it’s a misunderstanding. There’s nothing weird going on, I promise.”
Knowing the weight of that word coming from Ageha, she knew she had been mistaken. “…Okay. Sorry for doubting you.”
“I’ll give a full report when we get back. Kai needs to hear this.”
Saya meekly peeked at Ageha’s face, feeling for his mood. “I brought the car..?”
He smiled and took her hand in his. “I can never stay angry at you.”