Category Archives: Volume One

Afterword

Special thanks go to Kyle Tolray for doing a fantastic job editing this light novel. I have learned many things from your work, and I hope I can apply them to the following volumes.

Gratitude goes to my pilot reader Augustus, who has contributed greatly to the story content by sharing his ideas. He also pointed out parts that are too cryptic, an issue that I have struggled with in my writing. This story is far easier to understand because of his help. His impressions on the illustrations also prevented me from publishing physically abnormal characters.

Many thanks go to the readers who have actually completed the novel. Your comments and insights are greatly appreciated. Know that I consider all of your input when writing the continuation of this story.

Volume 2 is in the works. Please look forward to it!

Definition of Terms

Cooking and Food Terms:

The terms are arranged as they appear in the first volume.

Guanciale – Italian cured pork jowl or cheek.

Parmigiano – Parmigiano-Reggiano is the full term for this hard and grainy cheese.

Scaloppine – An italian dish that consists of a dredged and pan-fried thinly sliced meat served with a sauce.

Spaghetti Alla Carbonara – An italian pasta dish with an egg and cheese sauce.

Secondo – The meat or fish entrée course of a formal italian meal.

Primo – The typically non-meat entrée course of a formal italian meal. This course is lighter than the secondo.

Ristorante – Italian for restaurant.

Cucina – Italian for kitchen.

Natto – Fermented soybeans.

Cotoletta – Breaded bone-in cutlet of veal.

Polenta – Cornmeal porridge.

Sala – Italian for dining room.

Camerieri – Italian for wait staff.

Capo cameriere – Italian for chief wait staff.

Cameriera – Italian for female wait staff.

Spaghetti naporitan – Japanese pasta dish with a tomato-based sauce, vegetables, meat, and tabasco.

Tonkatsu – Breaded and fried pork chop.

Uramaki – Sushi roll with the seaweed inside instead of outside.

Dolce – The dessert course of a formal italian meal.

Antipasto – The slightly heavy starter course of a formal italian meal.

Okonomiyaki – Cabbage pancake with various toppings.

Lardon – A french term for pork fat.

Ventreche – French bacon.

Burgundy – Dry red wine made in the Burgundy, France.

Demi glace – A french brown sauce that is typically used as a base for other sauces.

Aioli – A french sauce made of garlic, egg yolks, lemon, and olive oil.

Bonito Flakes – Flakes of fermented, dried, and smoked fish usually topped on okonomiyaki.

 

Honorifics:

In order to express the character relationships and the distinct speaking style of each character, honorific titles were used in the story. This is because the story is set in Japan where such titles are used.

Ojousama – Term of respect for a daughter of a rich household.

Otousama – Exaggerated formal address for a father.

-San – Honorific suffix for names. This denotes respect and/or distance in the relationship between the speaker and the person specified.

Oniisama – Exaggerated formal address for an older brother or a person in a similar position.

Oneesama – Exaggerated formal address for an older sister or a person in a similar position.

Niisan – Honorific address for an older brother or a young adult male.

 

Epilogue

“We will now hold the election for the position of Chief Executive Officer. That said, there is only one candidate after I, the interim holder of the position, have withdrawn. The motion will be passed once a majority vote is reached. Those in favor of Kazuki Nikaidou succeeding the CEO position of the Nikaidou Group of Companies, please say aye.”

“””“Aye.””””

The faces displayed on the large screen almost simultaneously voted affirmative. There was one that did not join the overlapping agreements and remained silent.

It must be hard having to vote for me.

Kazuki observed Saya’s face on the left corner of the screen. It was a blank sheet with no trace of disdain. After a few seconds, she parted her lips and cast her vote.

“Aye.”

“The vote is unanimous. Congratulations, you are now the CEO of NGC,” said the man with an air of dignity only fortified by his advanced years.

“Thank you, Makita-san, everyone. Being able to succeed my father and support our company is a great honor. While I am unsure if someone like myself is up to the task, I pledge to give my utmost in serving the interests of our corporation.”

“You do not have to be so humble. It was due to your efforts that the bill for reduced restrictions on cybernetics was passed, Nikaidou-san.”

“Please call me Kazuki like before. I will always be grateful for your support, and I am hoping for your assistance in the future. I have much to learn from from all of you.” His tone was completely sincere as he bowed, his face disappearing from the profile box on the screen.

“I believe I am speaking for most of us here when I say that your achievement is laudable. You managed to follow through despite such a tragedy. To die of illness at such a young age…” said a female member of the board of directors, looking truly distraught.

She must have a thing for Kousuke. That damn gigolo. Well, it was handy so I shouldn’t complain.

“Kousuke’s passing… was a shock to us all. He was not only a brother to me, but a trusted and reliable partner. I was surprised that he kept his heart problem a secret even to me, but it was also typical of him to not want others to worry. It was unfortunate that his latest project did not materialize despite all his hard work. His contacts trusted him alone. It would have gone well if he… were still here. He deserves this position, not I.” Kazuki’s chubby cheeks trembled in grief.

“The bill you helped pass will rake in more profits in the next six months than the Exceed partnership would have yielded in years. I do not know what you did, but convincing that stubborn Kawahara to whip the votes in the lower house was quite a feat. I am sure Kousuke would be glad that it was you who took his place,” said Makita, wrinkles outlining his smile.

“Thank you. I will do my best to live up to your expectations.”

Several more topics relating to Kazuki’s promotion were discussed. The faces on the screen bleeped out one by one as farewells were traded at the end of the meeting. Kazuki finally dropped from the call.

That went better than I thought. I prepared for the possibility that Saionji would make a desperate attempt to denounce my election, but I guess Kaika is too smart to do something that would ruin her reputation among the board. Smart, but naive.

Kaika lost the moment Kureha was killed. Threats only had meaning if they came from the winning side. Kawahara happily took a nice chunk of NGC shares for betraying Kaika. It was a bribe Kazuki, unlike his sister who had to keep fifty-one percent, could afford to dole out after inheriting Kousuke’s shares.

He was satisfied with his victory, but it did not make him overconfident. He had lived most of his life being the underdog, so confidence was something he industriously built. Those luckily gifted with self-assurance tended to overestimate themselves. He was not one of them.

Kazuki was still in hiding and generally conducted business digitally. The board of directors were not aware of his current situation because most matters could be handled without the need for physical presence. Holing up did not hurt his pride like it did for Kousuke. That intrinsic difference was probably why one was on the throne of the NGC empire, while the other in a coffin.

He scanned through several documents he needed to study for a meeting with a business partner this afternoon.

But I didn’t expect her to have enough military power to actually kill Kousuke. Reprogramming Unit 02 to get rid of him was a wasted effort.

He expected both Kaika and Kousuke to fall when they clashed, but his little sister was proving to be more resilient than he predicted.

I’ll make sure that you catch up on the shut eye you missed all these years, sister.

 

***

 

Rin rolled on her bed for the thirty-seventh time tonight. Her long, disheveled hair clung to her face and neck. Her panties and belly button were exposed due to her loose nightie catching between her bolster and the bed. She normally disliked such exposure because she got cold easily, but her mind was too occupied for such trivial worries.

It can’t be…

She recalled what she saw several days ago. She had been hiking with a group of friends but got separated from them. Too embarrassed to call her companions and admit that she was lost, she wandered around alone in the forests of Mount Takao. A surreal sight welcomed her as she approached a clearing. A masked man dressed in black was leaning on a tree. The setting sun illuminated red stains all over his body.

Rin instinctively hid herself behind a tree. She knew that revealing herself to a strange man covered in blood was not the wisest thing to do. She silenced her breathing as her heartbeat drummed loudly in her ears. She continued to watch because she feared losing sight of the mysterious individual.

The man reached for his mask and slowly removed it. He wiped the blood dribbling down his brow and cheek using the back of his hand. His face was clearly visible despite the shade from the trees darkening his features. She wanted to deny it, but she had studied that face far too well to mistake it. She remained still until the bloody young man, her co-worker, friend, and maybe something more, donned his mask again and left.

Ageha…

 

***

 

“Come on. Stop being so stubborn, Ageha-sama. You came all the way here already.”

“Okay, okay. I’m going.”

The butler, walking in front of the chef as she held his hand in hers, pulled him towards their destination. Their mistress was already there, impatiently watching their stop-and-go approach.

“Kureha-Ojousama, I have finally managed to drag your pigheaded Oniisama here.” The two of them lined up next to the first visitor and faced the tombstone.

“Stop openly insulting people like that.”

“It is not an insult if it is true.”

“No, by definition, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. It’s still an insult.”

“So you admit that it is true then.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“…You two,” said Kaika, brows furrowed.

“I apologize, Ojousama.”

“She started it.”

“I’m fine with you flirting, but please choose the time and place. Holding hands in front of Kureha’s grave… I wouldn’t be surprised if she haunted you both.” She shook her head, her eyes shut.

Saya’s hand flew from Ageha’s as if it were a hot pan.

“We were not doing anything of the sort. I only hauled this mulish dolt over to pay respects.”

“Is it just my imagination or have you been verbally abusing me recently? With increasing brutality.”

“It is just your imagination.”

Ageha had not looked at the tombstone directly since entering the Nikaidou family cemetery. It was obvious from his demeanor that guilt still gripped his heart.

“Are you still worried about seeing Kureha before Kazuki is dealt with? Let me tell you, that promise may seem cool to you men, but it’s nothing but a nuisance to women. Put yourself in the shoes of the one who has to wait while you try to sate your pointless pride,” said Kaika. She sounded harsh, but her intentions were less thorny.

You can’t trip up here. We’ve only just started.

Ageha remained silent but directed his gaze to Kureha’s grave. He walked closer and reached out to the tombstone. He gently brushed the top, as if dusting it off.

“It’s just not the same. Even if it’s about the same height, it’s not fluffy at all,” he muttered, a miserable smile soiling his fine features.

The other two remained silent. Saya held her breath, as though suppressing an emotion.

“…I’m sorry.”

His hand limply returned to his side. Kaika noticed the repaired silver ring on Ageha’s right hand. It was the same hand he used to touch the monument.

I guess it doesn’t matter if there’s no hair to catch on anymore.

Kaika glimpsed the vacuum that had been carved out of Ageha by Kureha’s demise. Wearing the gift on his right hand was likely a constant reminder that Kureha was no more. Whether that would lead him to salvation or carnage, even Kaika did not know. But she knew she could tilt the odds.

At the edge of Kaika’s vision, she saw Saya’s torment as the young woman fixated on Ageha. It was a brief leakage of her naked feelings. It was blinding, beautiful.

And useful.

“Thank you for bringing me here, Saya.”

“..! I… I just thought that… You are welcome.”

It was a short visit. There was no farewell. All he said was a concise apology. Kaika understood that Ageha held no romantic sentiments about death. What he came here to do was to resolve his feelings, his reality, and his desire.

“You two can go ahead. I want some time alone with her,” said Kaika.

Ageha and Saya both looked surprised but nodded and walked away.

Such a rude pair.

Kaika watched them until they were out of earshot. She turned to Kureha’s gravestone. She wordlessly stared at the intricately engraved name. Her expression gradually darkened.

“I know you won’t forgive me, especially for what I’m doing to Ageha. I deserve every bit of hate you can throw at me…” Her voice started shaking.

“I knew your death was a possibility when I invited that attack. I also knew what it could do to Ageha. But I didn’t know… what I wanted to happen..! I just calculated the odds and rolled the dice without placing a bet..!” She gripped the skirt of her black dress as if trying to tear it. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I can’t even proudly say I killed you..! I’m so sorry!”

Kaika

Kaika cursed her own weakness. She should have been willing to sacrifice anything and bear any loss to see her goal realized. Yet she could not even kill her estranged sister. To her, it was the utmost insult to the life that had been used and extinguished. Forestalling her own decision, she had simply let luck decide the outcome.

“I’m sorry the sister you looked up to is such a coward! To top it all off, I lost!!! To that pig!!!”

The sacrifice was further blemished by her failure to see through Kazuki’s facade even though he saw through hers. Mutilated to the point of being unrecognizable, her pride was in tatters.

But that was a minor setback.

Despite being peerless amongst those her age, Kaika’s life was a string of defeats. She was shackled, blindfolded, and gagged. She was helpless and could not change most outcomes. Losing was nothing new, and piecing together her shattered pride was second nature. Gamblers always lost more times than they won. What mattered was when they won.

Kaika soon ceased her outburst and dried her face. Unbinding her twintails, she pulled off her ribbon and placed it on top of Kureha’s offering altar. She took out the pair of crimson clamshell hair ties, which was the one and only present from her sister, and clumsily bundled her hair with untrained fingers. Her head looked more unkempt than ever, but anyone would agree that her current self was her most regal appearance.

“Your death will be redeemed. The perfect condiment I created and you completed will spice up this bland world,” she promised without falsehood for the first time since she could remember.

Kaika and Ageha believed themselves strong because they held nothing important. They were both wrong.

This rusted world will move forward, even if I have to make it crawl on its hands and knees.

 

 

Volume One End.

Chapter Fifteen: Boiling Point

“I did not think he was this cold.”

“Ageha, you mean?”

“Yes. I thought that… Kureha-Ojousama’s passing would affect him more.”

“Is that how you see it?” asked Kaika as she swiveled her chair to face Saya. She was seated at the large table in the middle of the room. The butler stood a few paces to her right.

“How can I not? He simply left the mansion after undergoing repairs and treatment. According to our surveillance, he has returned to work at Sapore as if nothing happened. As it is, I feel sorry for Kureha-Ojousama. She… cared for him.”

“What do you propose he do? Kousuke and Kazuki have gone into hiding, and we didn’t know where they were until just recently. Running around blindly is meaningless.”

“I can understand that much, but his attitude is far too unconcerned. He did not even attend her funeral! I called to inform him, but he only gave me non-committal answers. I had thought that he was grieving in his own way, but like this he is exactly like…”

Kai-Ojousama.

“Go ahead. You can say it.”

“I beg your pardon, Ojousama.” The servant made a deep bow.

“I can’t blame you for thinking so given my composure, but even I would be offended if my thoughts are decided for me by an outsider.”

“I did not mean to overstep my bounds. I am just… angry. I did not intend to vent it out like this.”

“For you to be so openly angry… That’s quite a rare sight.”

“Who would not be? I informed him that we have finally discovered your brothers’ whereabouts and that he should come here for a meeting immediately, but he is over an hour late already! What is he thinking..?” Saya closed her eyes and shook her head.

“…Do you feel betrayed?”

Surprise overcame Saya’s static features. It dawned on her that Kaika was correct. She trusted the Ageha she had observed over the past few months, and his disregard for the death of someone he appeared to care for shook Saya’s trust in him and in her ability to judge people.

“You don’t need to answer.”

Saya indulged herself in her mistress’s generosity. A knock from the drawing room door ended their conversation.

“Enter,” said Kaika.

A maid opened the door and introduced the visitor.

“Shikimi-sama has arrived.”

Ageha stepped into the drawing room for the first time in more than a week. He brought the same nonchalant face, effortless clothes, and confident gait. The only difference was a large, black bag strapped to his back.

Saya was battered by a complicated wave of emotions. She was both furious and relieved to see that he looked well. Her disdain towards his indifference to Kureha’s tragedy and her desire to see him again fought to devour each other. The former barely won.

How can you look so normal!?

“You are one hour and twelve minutes late,” said Saya.

“Sorry. I was at work when you called, and I had to grab a few things. I figured it would be faster to bring them along rather than pick them up later,” he said as he tugged on the bag twice.

Each and every unfeeling word that escaped his mouth pierced Saya’s chest. She had never really been that close to Kureha. They hardly spoke because Saya was tasked to be with Kaika at all times, and it would have been out of line to speak to Kureha wantonly when her mistress was present. The only occasions they conversed without reserve were when the foreign element, Ageha, was there. Saya did not want to admit it, but those interactions were precious to her, and she believed they were precious to Kureha and Ageha as well. Ageha’s normalcy despite the destruction of those golden days was an unbelievable sight to her. She doubted reality.

“You..!”

“Saya.”

“I apologize, Ojousama,” said the butler in a strained voice.

She noticed a pained expression that quickly dissipated on Ageha’s face as she rose from her bow. She convinced herself that it was just her attachment playing tricks on her.

“Did Saya tell you why you’re here?”

“Just that you found your brothers.”

“That’s about it, really. We finally caught their tail. They’re hiding in a safe house on Mount Takao. Aside from being close to us when we’re after them, it’s a convenient location. They can maintain their lifestyle even while in hiding due to its close proximity to civilization. They regularly send out men to get luxury items. That was lucky for us because that’s how we found them. Even knowing their lives are in danger, I have to admit they have guts staying within Tokyo.”

“Not as much as you, staying in the same house that’s been attacked twice.”

“I have Saya with me, and those two aren’t idiotic enough to send pawns after their queen was captured. They didn’t know that my knight had abandoned me, after all.”

“Though I did say I’m not a bodyguard, I would have stayed if you’d asked.”

“Then why did you not attend Kureha-Ojousama’s funeral?” asked Saya.

Ageha did not answer.

“Saya, this is not the time nor place.”

“Excuse me.” She did not bow. Her irritation was peaking.

“We haven’t been able to gather much intel so far. We only know that the place is practically a fortress,” said Kaika.

Saya operated the terminal and displayed a map on the screen. Ageha started fiddling with his personal terminal. His seeming disinterest irked Saya further.

Can’t he take this seriously!?

“What are you doing..?” asked Saya, her voice shaking in fury.

But the response she got was completely unanticipated.

“Recording the location. There.” Ageha pocketed his terminal and turned for the door.

“Where are you going?” asked his employer.

“To kill your brothers.”

Eh?

“Have you gone mad? We know nothing of their defenses. We have to properly formulate a plan!” shouted Kaika.

What?

“It‘ll be too late if they relocate.”

“No, it won’t. I’ll make sure we reach them, so don’t go! Think rationally! This isn’t like you!”

Ageha wordlessly paced towards the exit.

The exchange that just took place threw Saya into confusion. What Ageha said and what she thought of him did not reconcile. She realized how foolish she had been.

Kaika said it herself. Ageha was not cunning. He merely distrusted everything and everyone. He was always on guard even when he bantered with Kaika and herself. She recalled the moments when Ageha was with Kureha and searched for wariness in his actions.

How can I be so stupid..!

She found none.

How can you be so clumsy..!

Kureha was special.

And she was gone.

“Saya, stop him!”

Her mistress’s order brought her back to reality. She realized that she needed to prevent Ageha’s rage from consuming him. Going on a suicidal revenge mission would not be something Kureha would want or Kaika could afford. But above all, Saya knew she would never be able to forgive herself if she let him go.

Mustering all her power, Saya rocketed towards Ageha’s back. He reacted instantly and faced her direction. She knew that Ageha anticipated her favorite first strike, a jaw-targeted kick, so she opted to use it as a feint. She still performed the kick but with little force. The rotational momentum she gathered would be used to increase the velocity of her follow up turning side kick. If she could force him to block, he would still be blasted to the wall. It would be her only chance to incapacitate him safely.

She highly rated Ageha’s speed and capability, but surprise was her ally. As expected, Ageha dodged the roundhouse by leaning his head back. She continued to her second attack as planned. Impact.

What just happened!?

Saya was lying face down on the floor at the far end of the room. Her vision sparkled, and her head throbbed. She tried to recall what happened. The memory came together piece by piece.

Ageha dodged her side kick by turning sideways. Without pausing, he grabbed her kicking leg with his left hand and then used the momentum of the kick to pull her in, swing her around, and throw her towards his favorite sofa. The sofa absorbed most of the force, but she still bounced off of it and hit the wall. Her spine and organs would have been obliterated without the cushion. She tried to rise, but her legs would not move. There were a number of reasons for it:  concussion, cracked ribs, shock. But she knew the true cause:

Fear.

The best attack she could come up with was manhandled in the most inhuman way. She opened her eyes and stared at the creature that bested her. A fiend. She trembled. A shaky high-pitched moan escaped her throat.

That all vanished when the demon turned to her with an expression that made it seem like the world was about to end and said,

“I’m going to see her once I finish everything.”

Saya could do nothing to stop him as he left the room. Guilt and a feeling of powerlessness assailed her. Tears began rappelling down her cheeks. She wept on the floor, fists clenched in regret.

“How long are you going to keep lying down?”

Kaika’s words jolted her from despondency. She dried her face with her sleeve and then supported herself with the wall as she stood up.

“I have no excuse.” She spat the words out in self-hatred.

“What are you apologizing for?”

“I… could not stop him.”

“Seeing what happened, no one would blame you. But that isn’t what you’re actually sorry for, right?”

Saya’s heart was squeezed by a vise. Kaika always knew everything. That could be a blessing or a curse depending on the situation. In this case, it was both.

Kaika looked into Saya’s eyes and said, “About letting him go, I don’t think you need to worry.”

“What do you mean? He is going on a suicide mission. Maybe if… if I follow him…” Her face was marred by sorrow.

“I won’t allow it. Your place is here. This is for your own sake, mine, and his as well.”

Kaika ignored Saya’s look of confusion and helped the unsteady butler by supporting her waist. They moved away from the wall and Kaika made her sit on an unflipped sofa to rest.

“This may not be a suicide mission,” said Kaika.

“Of course it is! He knows nothing about the enemy, and it is only noon! If he goes there directly, he will reach it well before sundown. It would be one thing if he tried to sneak in, but from the looks of it-”

Saya cut herself off before she could describe the horrible image that surfaced in her head.

“I know that much.”

“Then why-”

“Because I also know Ageha.”

Saya knew of Kaika’s abnormal interest in Ageha. Kaika had spent a lot of time analyzing him and planning for ways to influence and manipulate him. She had not held back, going so far as using Saya in her machinations. Her claim had validity, but Saya was dumbfounded at how she could be so confident.

“Ageha is strong. Of course, he is inevitably so because of his ARMS and his ability to endure pain that allows them to be used, but his true strength stems from something more fundamental.”

Saya wracked her brain but could not come up with anything outside of the cliché. She did not speak of them because she understood Kaika’s answer was different.

“It’s his ruthless rationality. He’s analytical and unswayed by emotion. He hates taking chances and always minimizes risk. He has probably avoided persecution so far because of that quality, and his battle prowess was likely honed by that mindset.”

Saya had reported all of Ageha’s combat information to Kaika. It was reasonable that Kaika, combining that knowledge with her own interactions with Ageha, would come to that conclusion. In fact, Saya now felt the same after hearing the hypothesis.

“But that is precisely why I had to stop him. Right now, he has lost his calm and is not thinking logically-”

“Didn’t you feel it, Saya?”

Feel what?

Kaika continued before she could reply.

“Fear.”

Saya immediately understood. She had been consumed by instinctive terror after she was instantly defeated. She felt like she had seen something beyond human.

“You’re misunderstanding something,” said Kaika as if she had read Saya’s thoughts.

“Ageha is strong because his cold, detached reasoning makes him the optimal killing machine. He’s a monster of logic. However, that’s also his greatest weakness.”

Weakness?

Saya could not reconcile that word with that man.

“His rationality tethered him. His logic deluded him. He saw himself as a machine. The problem with machines is they only work according to specifications, well, unless they are defective, but I digress. Ageha hated human irrationality and sought strength to correct that by forgetting that he himself is human.”

The butler glimpsed what her mistress was trying to tell her. She dipped her head in thought.

“I, for the most part, agree with his view on humans. They are filthy, illogical and unfair creatures. However, he and I differ when it comes to our affection for them. He abhors people, with some exceptions.” Kaika shot a meaningful glance at Saya. “But I love humans. Do you know why I cherish them so?”

Saya filtered through her knowledge of Kaika. There was one thing she valued more than anything.

“…Entertainment.”

“One hundred points! Humans go beyond predictions, rationality, logic, and limits! Few things are as entertaining!” A manic smile was spread across her face. “Ageha has now broken free of the chains that bound him. That’s what happened just now and what I believe will recur when he faces my brothers.”

“…A miracle?”

“A gamble.”

A fiend. She had long ago accepted Kaika’s cruelty and twisted motivations, but the display before her caused a seed of doubt to sprout.

Could it be that she… the attack that night..?

“All-or-nothing. If Ageha fails, then I’ll likely fall. If he succeeds, then I’ll have my vengeance for Kureha.”

The wrath in Kaika’s gaze dispelled her doubt. She had learned her lesson from misunderstanding Ageha. This was the devil she chose to serve, and she would entrust her body and soul to her until the end. She took a deep breath, assembled her broken mask, and stood up.

“As you will, Kai-Ojousama.”

 

***

 

“How many?”

“Only one, sir.”

“That can’t be.”

“The sentries and cameras around the perimeter are all intact and have not detected any other intruders.”

“This must be a trap. I can’t believe that little wench found me this quickly. Judging from the strategic ability she has shown so far, that lone intruder is a decoy,” said Kousuke, four of his fingers tapping consecutively and continuously on the table.

“I believe that is highly possible,” said his security chief.

“Not highly possible. It’s definitely a ruse of some sort. Keep the sentries at their posts and tell the guards to keep the perimeter secure. Sending one person during daytime is obviously a bait operation. Kaika must be trying to get information or gain entry while we’re distracted. Where’s Kazuki?”

“He left this morning. He said that he had your permission to leave the premises and handle some business in your stead.”

What? He never spoke to me about that. Maybe he had something to take care of and didn’t think it was necessary to waste my time.

Excluding himself, Kousuke trusted his brother more than anyone else. He had certainly earned it. Kazuki had assisted him for years despite being his senior in terms of age. Not blinded by Karasuma’s glaring presence, Kazuki was one of the few people who recognized Kousuke’s ability. Kousuke felt insecure not having his brother with him during this crisis but also relieved that he was safe.

“I see. Send several men to neutralize the target. I’ll stay here in my office and monitor the area using the security cameras.”

“Roger, sir.”

The stiff security chief, clearly displaying his military experience, turned about face and rigidly marched out of the room. This assuaged Kousuke’s fears to a certain extent. Despite the costly overhead, he had hired the best people he could afford for exactly this kind of situation. The police were a joke, so people in power naturally relied on hired professional guards.

He pressed on his terminal, and several video feeds appeared on his display. He easily located the intruder, who was walking towards the mansion on the forest path. He was close enough to the building for the cameras at the walls to see him when zoomed in.

The man was garbed in black. It was a pointless camouflage during daylight hours. He wondered why the man chose to wear it despite that. The man’s face was hidden by a mask of the same color, and his torso was encased by alloy armor.

Isn’t that the armor that Unit 01 used?

He gulped at the possibility that this lone intruder was the one who defeated the cyborg that he sent to kill Kaika. Dismissing that as impossible, he clung to the belief that it took most of Kaika’s resources to survive that attack. This perception was reinforced by his youngest half-sister’s death.

The black infiltrator zipped into the trees once the first group of security personnel reached the gate. They started firing their rifles without restraint. Mount Takao had long lost its tourist appeal due to pollution and had become relatively deserted. It eventually recovered its natural beauty after the tourism industry abandoned it, but it still remained unpopulated save for the occasional hikers. Kousuke had this safe house built years ago taking those factors into consideration.

The armed guards chased after the infiltrator but were met by a falling cherry tree. Shocked by the incredulity of it and unable to escape, two of the guards were crushed underneath.

Impossible!? Even with ARMS, felling a tree like that…

Kousuke zoomed in on the tree trunk and figured out what the intruder had done. The intruder had carved out one side of the tree by rapidly pulling off chunks of it using his fingers. That was certainly possible with cybernetic hands, and so was using alloy legs to kick down a tree with a hollowed trunk. Kousuke’s focus on the absurd feat robbed him of his chance to see the defeat of the remaining guards. Beaten off-camera, they lay convulsing on the forest floor and leaking iron onto the verdant grass.

“Sir, the vanguard unit has been eliminated. I will send two more units to neutralize the target. The target appears to have multiple cybernetic limbs and is armed with a combat knife. He is also carrying a belt bag with unknown contents,” said the voice from the terminal.

“I can see all that. By the look of things, I think he’s the same mercenary that killed Masayoshi. I’m sure he’s a decoy, but make sure to appropriately judge the danger he poses.”

“Sir, the second guard unit just reported that the third was eliminated. They are currently engaging the target in the front lawn.”

What!?

Kousuke directed his eyes to the display and searched for the correct feed. He was stupefied by the scene.

The intruder held a  guard with one hand as he darted towards the rest. Considering the load he carried, his speed as he randomly changed directions to avoid enemy fire  was astonishing. The few bullets that were directed properly bore holes only in his human shield. Using the hostage as a ram, he smashed into one of the guards. Bullets bounced off his arm and body armor as he sliced open the necks of two more people.

Kousuke was terrified. What that man, if he could still be called that, was doing was beyond common sense. Even blocked, the impact of the bullets should have rattled his brain and organs. The risk of dying from a lucky headshot should have prevented him from diving into a rain of bullets. It was pure lunacy. This controlled insanity was one of the major goals when he and Kazuki decided to use drugs to remove emotions and instill obedience in their cybernetic soldiers. The intruder was doing exactly what they had simulated with drugs.

One of the two units they had produced was lost in the failed blitzkrieg on Kaika’s mansion. He thanked the gods he had never believed in that he brought Unit 02 to the safehouse as an extra precaution.

“Bring Unit 02 to my office!”

“…Understood. Should we also send the sentry patrols after the intruder?”

He almost approved the suggestion but regained some manner of calm after calling his best weapon to his side.

“No. That’s exactly what that witch wants. We can’t risk opening a hole in our defenses.”

She thinks she has me in check, but she failed to foresee that I could castle.

A few minutes later, the security chief entered Kousuke’s office with Unit 02. He handed a remote device to his employer.

“This is the last resort. It would not be wise to use such an unstable weapon,” said the chief as he released the device. “I will now personally lead the three remaining units within the building to intercept the enemy. One unit each will guard the east and west hallways. My unit will stay in the corridor leading to this office. We will perform a pincer attack once a unit engages the enemy. Only when the gunshots cease, and I do not report victory, should you activate it.”

“…Thank you, Sanada.”

“It is my job.” The security chief bowed to his employer before leaving the room.

Kousuke sat back down on his chair and stared at the unmoving cyborg the security chief had just left with him. With a press of a button, it would be injected with stimulants, thereby activating it from its dormant state. He rubbed the remote device like a rosary while mumbling words of consolation like a prayer.

He did not want to look at the display in fear of what he would see, but anxiety surpassed that so he moved his eyes to the video feeds. The intruder was checking each room as he ventured further into the building. He slowly got closer to Kousuke’s location. The office, which was at the center of the large house, was the farthest point from any entrance.

He really doesn’t know where I am?

Kousuke questioned his decision about maintaining the perimeter defenses. It was extremely unlikely, but he pondered the possibility that there was no deeper plot in the enemy’s attack. In the end, he opted to trust the decision he made when he was still unflustered.

Like a gang member with a metal bat, the intruder ran while dragging a corpse on the ground with his left hand. He turned a corner and entered the west hallway where he met gunfire. He immediately threw the body towards the group of guards. Using the hallway intersection as cover, the four guards split into pairs and dodged left and right.

The intruder followed right behind the pitched corpse. He punched through the edge of the left wall corner and smashed the jaw of the guard behind it. He then slit the throat of the remaining guard and used the limp body as a shield.

The two guards across the hallway opened fire, but the bullets only hit their crimson dyed ally. The intruder kicked the cadaver towards the guards. The bloody corpse obstructed their vision. The intruder dove to the ground and rolled to the first guard. He cut open the guard’s knee with a swipe of his reverse-gripped knife and then stabbed the second guard on the right side of the neck after standing up. The intruder pulled back, tearing the throat open. He continued with the pulling motion and stabbed the kneeling first guard’s nape behind him. The smell of iron wafted as abstract patterns of red formed on the white walls.

Kousuke tried to stop his hand from trembling but could not. Seeing the monstrosity that came for him, he felt an urge to relieve himself. He barely noticed his pants getting soaked. There was a toilet several paces away from his desk, but he could no longer remove his eyes from the display.

The swift demise of the west hallway unit meant the failure of the pincer operation. Despite the time the intruder took in checking rooms, he still traveled swiftly deeper into the building.

The intruder arrived at the central hallway that led to his office. The two remaining units led by Sanada were already in position. The intruder still carried a corpse as a shield. Some bullets pierced the flesh barrier but simply ricocheted off his limbs and body armor. One of those bullets hit the camera that monitored the last hallway. Kousuke was now blind.

His teeth chattering, he tightly held onto the remote with both hands as he watched the large double doors at the far end of the room. The gunshots waned. Sanada was silent.

I don’t want to die.

I don’t deserve to die here.

I don’t deserve to die!!!

His fear morphed into fury and elation. He was pushed over the edge.

I’ll kill you you son of a bitch I’ll kill you right here right now die die die!!!!

He pressed the injection switch. The cyborg jerked to life. It scanned the room but found only Kousuke. Kousuke realized his mistake when the visor focused on him. The cyborgs were indeed unstable, as Sanada had said. Moreover, they were not suited for precision work such as protection and defense. They were better treated as bombs than soldiers.

Without any other target, the cyborg marched towards him. It was supposed to obey his every command, but it seemed to suffer from a malfunction. He tried shouting, pleading, begging it to stop, but it kept its stride. It probably considered Kousuke as a minor threat since it did not sprint towards him, but a threat, no matter how small, was still destined for elimination.

Pressing the deactivation switch would sedate the cyborg, but Kousuke would also be defenseless against the intruder. The doors blew open before Kousuke could reach a decision.

The mindless cyborg immediately recognized the higher threat level of the new enemy. Kousuke stared at the intruder. The enemy was heaving, visibly exhausted. There was blood all over him. He fought all the way here, so it would not be surprising if some of the red liquid was his own. Kousuke’s faint hope billowed.

The cyborg turned to the intruder and dashed. The intruder was caught by surprise and was forced to block a punch by crossing his arms. He was blown back, but he used the force to shuffle backward and create distance. Witnessing the difference in current fighting strength, Kousuke felt ecstatic. He did not mind the wetness in his pants despite returning to lucidity. He was that joyous.

Die, you scum! I’ll make sure your client follows you soon!

The intruder dropped his knife and stuck his hand in the belt bag on his lower back as Unit 02 drew closer. The instinct driven cyborg launched another right punch, this time a hook. The intruder raised his left forearm to block the blow as he dug his right foot into the floor to brace himself.

He blocked the cyborg’s hook, but the force was immense. Cracking his mask, his own blocking arm smashed into his face, but he managed to hold his ground. He countered with a right hook of his own, but it was easily blocked by the cybrorg’s left forearm.

“Go, finish him off!!!”

Gunshots exploded in the room.

Kousuke initially thought it was from security reinforcements, but reality was not so kind. The intruder held a handgun in his right hand and repeatedly shot point blank at the cyborg’s helmet. The bullets ricocheted, but the impact shook the cyborg’s human brain. The cyborg fell lifelessly to the ground. The intruder effortlessly twisted the unconscious cyborg’s neck two full rotations, as if opening a bottle of soda.

…What just happened?

Kousuke’s addled brain tried to analyze what just occurred. The handgun came from the intruder’s bag. The counter hook that the intruder threw was meant to be blocked. The cyborg’s only weak point was its head. It was all planned. Kousuke’s euphoria was suddenly extinguished.

…It can’t be. …He was the one who defeated Unit 01?

Kousuke realized that his first suspicion had been right.  He would not be in this situation if he had obeyed his instincts more.

The intruder retrieved his knife. Blood dripped from his chin. He removed his damaged mask and wiped the red fluid staining his left eye using his wrist. He approached Kousuke, who had already scampered away and hugged the wall.

“You probably think you know why I am here.”

I don’t want to die..!

“But you’re wrong.”

…What?

“Kai, Kaika did not order me to kill you, at least not yet.”

Kousuke saw a lifeline.

“How much is she paying you? I’ll pay you double! No, triple! Just name your price!”

“This is personal.”

“What do you mean!? I don’t even know you!?” shouted Kousuke, his handsome face dripping with tears and mucous.

“But I know you and what you did to your sister.”

Kaika..? No, Kureha..!

“I wasn’t the one who planned that attack! It was Kazuki!!!” He easily betrayed his trusted sibling and partner.

“I was just about to ask you about him. Where is he?” The intruder was now standing over the shivering man.

“H-He left the house earlier today. I don’t know where he is right now, but I can make sure you meet him! He’s the one you really want!”

“That would be the best course of action, but unfortunately, it is taking all I have to speak with you right now. I do not think I can hold off a minute longer,” said the intruder calmly. His emotionless face did not show an inkling of the urgency he spoke of.

“You do not deserve a swift death. You will experience what she did when she was powerless in front of a monster. It is only fair.”

“Please wait! Please, please don’t! I-”

The intruder grabbed Kousuke by the mouth and proceeded to rearrange his limbs as if following a blueprint etched in his mind. Kousuke wished to die each time his consciousness surfaced from the darkness, but it only ended after the black demon gave a nod of satisfaction after seeing his frozen, terror-twisted face.

 

 

Epilogue

Chapter Fourteen: Flash Freeze

“That is Masato Kuribayashi,” said the older Nikaidou. His gaze was directed at an aged man in a suit slouched at a table in the hotel restaurant.

“He looks quite seedy,” said Kousuke. The brothers were walking towards the table, but were still a fair distance away. A group of bodyguards walked with them, some moving ahead to secure the area.

“Based on our reports, he is. All we need to get him on our side is to exceed Saionji’s offer.”

“I hope so. He’s the only one left with enough influence on the Excell board to get us that partnership. The situation is desperate. I wouldn’t have agreed to meet in person otherwise.”

“I apologize, but he strongly insisted. He would not meet if not directly with you. He must be an old fashioned businessman.”

“Hard to say because he’s meeting us at such an open place. Don’t older folks prefer more private meetings?”

“I am afraid this was also  one of his conditions for this appointment.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s a minor gripe. You did well.”

“Thank you.”

They ceased their conversation as soon as they reached earshot of the table. The old man stood up and greeted the brothers.

“Hello. I am Masato Kuribayashi. It is a pleasure meeting you,” he said with a lazy bow.

“Hello. I am Kousuke Nikaidou, and this is my brother Kazuki. It is nice to meet you as well.”

The brothers bowed in return. Masato gestured for them to take a seat, so they did. The posse of guards seated themselves at nearby tables.

“We would like to discuss a certain business opportunity with you,” said Kousuke.

“Oh, that can wait,” said Masato as he signaled for a server.

Displeasure almost burst forth from Kousuke’s face, but he managed to rein it in. The old man ordered a bottle of wine and a cheese tray.

“How do you feel about flowers?” asked Masato.

“Excuse me?” The younger Nikaidou could not help but raise an eyebrow.

“Flowers. Lilies, roses, and the like.”

“I have no particular opinion about them. I have sent a bouquet or two as gifts.”

“You see, I really like the idiom ‘stop and smell the roses.’ I think it is particularly meaningful for a businessman like me, the word busy being the first two syllables of the profession. I am sure you understand.”

“Although I do understand how hectic it can be, I am the type that prioritizes efficiency foremost.”

“That is the privilege of the young! When you get to my age, appreciating the beauty of the things you missed in youth is the only pleasure left.”

Kousuke felt insulted at being called young. Being in his thirties, he was indeed quite youthful for his current standing. The speed of his climb up the corporate ladder was fueled partly by his father’s influence, but it was mostly his own ability. People flocked to him because of his handsome face and charisma. He believed that his older brother was one of them. No matter how frequently he heard it, the accusation that he begged his father to gain power was something he never got used to.

“We young folks also have our pastimes. We simply cannot engage in them as often because of how ruthless this world is to its members. It is taking all the time we have to stay afloat,” said Kazuki in his brother’s place.

Kousuke thanked his brother inwardly for preventing him from answering harshly.

“Very well then. Let us talk business.”

“I appreciate the consideration,” said Kousuke.

Kousuke explained the details of the partnership being offered by NGC. During his explanation, the server arrived with the wine and cheese. Masato, hardly looking at Kousuke, immediately busied himself with the food and drink. The wrinkles on his face undulated as he chewed on the assorted slices. The lack of interest irked Kousuke, but he knew that Masato was already informed of the details because he had been seen meeting with Saya on several occasions. This explanation was but a formality before the actual negotiation.

Kousuke finished his explanation at the same time that Masato downed his second glass of wine. The old man laughed and said, “This is really good wine!”

“…I see. About the partnership-”

“It does not seem to benefit my company much. A promise of intangible future benefits does not hold water.”

“As expected of someone of your caliber, we can get things moving along quickly.”

“Whether it goes anywhere is the question.”

“We are here to propose a deal, with you personally.”

“…What sort of deal?”

“We can provide you personal funding much larger than anyone else can offer,” said Kosuke, alluding to Saya’s dealings with Masato.“ In exchange, all we ask is that you convince the Excell directors to agree to the partnership.”

There was no surprise on Masato’s face.

As expected, Saionji already spoke about something similar.

Masato heaved a large sigh. “The Nikaidou lady was right.”

“…What?” muttered Kousuke, confusion dyeing his expression.

“You know what I really like about flowers? It is not the color or the shape but the fragrance. I think that is what attracts humans to them. We are also animals, just like the ones that pollinate them.”

Kousuke turned to his brother, but his pillar of support, similarly perplexed, shook his head.

“My experience with both people and flowers has taught me how similar they are. Some people exude a certain scent that attracts others. I think you, Kousuke, are one of those people. I, however, am somewhat different.”

“What is the meaning of this!?” Kousuke slammed a hand on the table.

“Have you ever heard of the rafflesia arnoldii? It is a flower that smells of rot. Do you know why?”

“What nonsense are you blabbering? What are your ties with my sister!?”

The seedy old man ignored Kousuke’s protests.

“It is to attract flies. In our case, I am the rafflesia. Guess what you two are?”

Everything suddenly clicked inside Kousuke’s head.

Kaika!!!

He realized that his father’s decision to bequeath his wealth to the first daughter was not out of senility. He had underestimated the young girl and fooled himself into thinking that his enemy was Saya alone.

“What did she tell you?”

“I only spoke with Saionji-san, who was her representative, and we did not talk about business that much.”

“But you met several times. Are you plotting something together?”

“Hardly. We just chatted about mundane things. Like I said, ‘stop and smell the roses.’ And she is quite a rose.”

“A honey trap..?” Kousuke’s dashing face twisted in disgust.

“How immature. It is called class. Trust is necessary in any joint venture, and she invested time  to establish that. To answer your question, the Nikaidou lady informed me that you were trying to short-change Excell, and that you would approach me like you did Tsutomu Masayoshi, who is now dead by the way. Did he back out at the last minute?”

“Are you implying I was involved in that?”

“That is why I chose to meet you in a public place. I would not want those gentlemen to get any ideas,” said Masato as he cocked his head towards a table full of bodyguards.

“That was Kaika’s doing!”

“You do understand how implausible that sounds? She warned me about this deal out of her desire to clean up NGC. It is a bit naive but something I can sympathize with. I myself play the role of bait to protect my company. I guess the two of us are fellow heroes!” The hardened businessman cracked up laughing.

What the hell is this!? This whole thing, including killing Masayoshi, is part of her plan!?

“How can you believe the words of a brat like that!?”

“I find it more astonishing how you can actually say those words.”

Kousuke’s face reddened in shame and anger. He was not only read when he negatively reacted to being called young but also cornered into becoming a spectacle of hypocrisy.

“Consider any ties with Excell severed. The supply arrangement that we have currently will also be terminated once the contract expires. We are not in short supply of clients. Now that our business is settled, I will excuse myself.” Masato stood up. “I trust that you can handle the bill considering you had the confidence to outbribe your majority shareholder.” Masato walked out of the restaurant as if nothing happened.

Kousuke was frozen on his chair, but flames seethed within. He collected himself and exited the hotel with his escorts. He could not ruin his public appearance. They had already attracted attention due to the volume of his shouts. Kazuki, likely being considerate of his brother’s current mental state, did not speak to him.

He screamed the moment the car doors closed.

“She’ll pay for this!”

“Please calm down, Kousuke.”

“How can I calm down!? Excell is going to cut ties. This isn’t at the level of failing a potential high-profit deal. We are going to lose money. My influence in the board will plummet! The CEO chair was so close..!”

Kazuki fell silent. Everything Kousuke said was true. Sandwiched by two SUVs that housed their protectors, their car left the hotel and sped along the highway.

“If only there was another way to obtain the CEO position…” said Kazuki.

“…There is.”

“How?”

“Kaika just has to die.”

“…Even if that happened, her possessions will go to Saionji. Saionji is already acting as her guardian and technically has limited control of her assets. She even represents Kaika during board meetings.”

“To an unrelated employee? We are blood-related, even if only through father. We can fight that in the courts easily.”

“But even if you become CEO by using the majority share vote, everyone on the board, even the interim CEO, will oppose you in light of this failure.”

“The alternative being not getting the seat at all? I’ll take it. We can iron out the wrinkles when I’m there. I’m not a fifteen year old brat. They would accept it eventually.”

“You should not underestimate her. We have tasted defeat once already.”

“I’m not, not anymore. She is brilliant. Moving so many steps ahead of us is nothing short of that. That’s all the more reason to get rid of her.”

“I see. …I agree that this is the path we should take.”

“I didn’t think you would consent so easily. You’re usually more cautious.”

“Only when we can afford it. Now is the time for action.”

“We’ll use that. It’s past the experimental stage. It would make for a good practical test.”

“I should warn you that it can be traced to us if captured. Very few have that kind of technology.”

“Are you suggesting it might fail?”

“No, that is impossible.”

“I didn’t think so.”

Kazuki lowered his head in thought for a few beats and then said, “We should do it tonight.”

“Why so soon? Shouldn’t we plan this out more thoroughly?”

Kousuke was amused at the role reversal. The smile on his brother’s puffy face suggested he felt the same. Kousuke’s anger had dissipated in light of his enemy’s impending destruction.

“I bribed a maid in Father’s mansion to serve as an informant. She can only get menial information around the house, but her recent catch is a boon for our specific purpose.”

“What did you find?”

“Saionji is leaving on an errand tonight. The maids were advised to wait for her late arrival. She should be absent until past midnight.”

“It would be better to do this when Kaika is without her bodyguard. Even father praised that woman’s capability. What of the masked killer? Is it possible he’s working as a guard?”

“There were no new guards hired recently. The last change was right after Father’s death. Kaika probably hired a mercenary. Keeping a murder suspect around the house is too risky.”

“Then we move tonight. Let’s teach our little sister her first and final lesson as her seniors in this world.”

You should have stayed in your shell.

 

***

 

“How’s your wound?” asked Kaika as she welcomed Ageha into the drawing room.

“Like I said yesterday, I’m fine with everyday activities.”

“What about non-everyday activities?”

“I see. You really work people to the bone. Who, when and where?”

“No, nothing soon. I just want to fully grasp your condition. It’s better to prepare for the unexpected. One can never predict what’ll happen.”

“I think you’re doing a fine job doing just that.” Ageha sat down on his favorite sofa.

“I try my best. Judging from your reaction earlier, I’m assuming you’re good to go?” Kaika sat on the arm of the sofa beside Ageha, her legs dangling due to the height.

“I wouldn’t say good, but yeah, I can manage. Medical technology is pretty impressive.”

“It should be since I got the best, well, amongst those willing to operate secretly. Do you know how much I paid for your treatment?”

“Please keep it a secret. It might make me want to actually try hard on my next job.”

“Are you sure you should be saying that to the one who pays your wages?”

“My employer is generous so I’m sure she’ll forgive something so insignificant.”

“You realize that now? I’m the best boss anyone can have.”

“The way she gets carried away is cute too.”

“Did you think you could get a reaction from me like you do with Saya and Kureha?” Kaika merely smirked.

“It was worth a try. I wasn’t expecting much.”

“Sorry for not meeting expectations,” she said sarcastically.

“Don’t be. That maturity at your age is something I admire. There are young prodigies everywhere, but you’re of a different ilk. It feels as if I’m speaking to someone my senior. The fact that I find you cute regardless is true though.”

“I also admire how you always state your thoughts so directly. No wonder Saya has so much trouble with you.”

“What’s wrong with saying what’s on my mind, especially praise?”

“Nothing, if you weren’t speaking with the opposite sex. They tend to misunderstand quite easily. You are aware of your above average looks, right?”

“I never lacked attention from women, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“So was all of it calculated?”

“Not at all. Just because I know how it might end up doesn’t mean I’m doing it intentionally.”

“Don’t you feel any responsibility?”

Ageha delayed his response as he digested Kaika’s inquiry.

“You might be right. I may have been too irresponsible.” He placed a thumb to his chin. “Maybe I should make things a bit more clear since there’s little chance of me pursuing that kind of relationship.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Like you, I have trust issues.”

“No elaboration?”

“…I’d rather not. You probably know the gist already. I’m sure you’ve already looked into my past. It should be easy for you since NGC was the one who covered it up in the first place.”

“I won’t deny it, but there’s value in hearing it from you. Records only speak of events, not experiences. The latter is what intrigues me.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“I’ve lived all my life trapped in this house. Most of my time was devoted to study, practice, and training. Even sleep was reduced to the shortest period possible, so I ended up with this stunted body.” Kaika raised her dangling lower legs alternately. “I did have chances to go outside, but those were reserved to my father’s educational trips. That’s the reason why I hate being called by my name. ‘A flower within a shell’ may have suited my father’s intentions for my future but not mine.”

His suspicions about her abnormally juvenile physique were confirmed. He knew severe sleep deprivation slowed growth, but the severity of her case practically froze her development.

“Why do you insist on being called Kai then?”

“It’s a matter of pride. Completely rejecting my name means escape, so I kept the part that I hated the most and made it mine. A shell can be considered as armor, after all.”

He remembered how Kaika’s flawless mask cracked when Kureha presented the clam hair ties. “Kai” was her sword that she gripped by the blade, the edge cutting into her flesh. The young man admired her pluck, yet felt melancholy for the plucked flower.

“I’ve gotten off track. What I meant to say was I didn’t have time for personal enjoyment. I have practically no hobbies, so you could say that listening to your story is a form of entertainment for me, and you know how much value I place in that.”

Ageha pondered whether he should tell Kaika about it. Thinking about his past was more painful for him than his periodic ARMS nerve realignment. However, the person in front of him had exposed herself willingly, gambling that he would do the same. He wanted to be equitable.

“It’s a long story.”

A rare, kind smile flashed on Kaika’s face. “Then make sure I don’t get bored.”

Ageha began unraveling the tangled memories of his childhood. He voiced out the names he had sealed within himself for more than a decade.

Jin. Airi.

It was unexpectedly easy. The usual pain that threatened to crush his heart lacked the severity he remembered. Had time finally scabbed the lesions? Or was it something else? He had no answer.

It was not as long a story as he had imagined. It was probably because he did not like to talk in length to begin with. The version he narrated to Kaika was redacted for brevity.

“That’s about it.” He slowly breathed out after finishing his story, as if releasing something pent up for a long time.

“Naive.”

“I have to say that isn’t the reaction I expected.”

“I would have secretly killed them one by one and avoided the whole NGC issue.”

“…I didn’t want to kill them.”

“Why not? Because they didn’t kill you? What they did was far more grievous.” The red on her cheeks indicated a different emotion than usual. She was furious.

“I didn’t expect you to get angry. I was expecting you to laugh or even joke about it. I thought you were more accustomed to suffering and injustice.”

“That’s precisely why I find purity precious. Don’t misunderstand. My anger isn’t from any sympathy for you. I merely feel like your friends smeared mud onto a beautiful painting.”

“I wasn’t anything like that.”

“You were and still are, even after being defiled. I wouldn’t have tracked you down and made you my partner otherwise. My eye for people is one of the most exceptional out of my multitude of talents. Take Saya as proof.”

He never intended to be self-deprecating. Still, he was glad that Kaika came to his defense, even if it was laced with her boasting. He never defended his way of life even to himself. He was prepared to be killed for everything he had done. It would be fair. Someone taking his side despite knowing his monstrosity was refreshing. If it was Kureha who warmed his heart, it was Kaika who washed it clean.

It takes a monster to know a monster.

“I heard you chose Saya because she looked like a cute boy.”

“…That was a condition on top of everything else,” said the blushing girl, looking away from him. He knew she was intentionally acting the terrible liar in consideration of his attempt to lighten the mood by bringing up Saya’s story.

He was about to tease Kaika about her hiring criteria when a blaring noise echoed throughout the mansion.

“A fire?” asked the young man as he rose from the sofa.

“No.”

Ageha recalled that this was the same alarm he heard during his first visit to the mansion.

“An attack?”

“They timed it when Saya’s out. I didn’t think they would move this fast. Looks like I have no choice but to depend on you this time,” said Kaika as she hopped down from her seat.

“I’m not a bodyguard, you know? Maybe I should ask for a raise?”

“I’ll consider it if I make it through this.”  Lips tightly shut, brows furrowed, and eyes alert, the gravity of the situation showed clearly on her face.

“…Is it that serious?” Ageha’s expression turned sharp and cold, like an unsheathed blade.

“Kousuke wouldn’t move unless he’s confident. He’s certain he can kill me.”

Frantic knocks came from the door.

“Enter and report,” said Kaika.

A maid opened the door and explained the situation while panting.

“Only one man..?” said Kaika in disbelief.

“Yes, no other reports were received. The sentries are all in position except for the one at the southwest wall. He was likely incapacitated by the intruder.”

“Has the intruder been dealt with?” asked Ageha.

The maid pulled out a radio from her apron and asked for the latest information. She then relayed it to Kaika as she listened to the report.

“All the guards in the building are trying to stop the intruder with no success. Some of them have fallen, while the others are in pursuit. …The intruder is barehanded.” The maid displayed a baffled face as she relayed the last detail.

“An elite assassin… I didn’t think our methods would overlap. Ageha, please intercept the intruder.”

“I thought you wanted me to protect you?”

“That’s the best way. From the report, it seems that our lone enemy is like you. I believed you were singular, but this proves me wrong.”

Ageha himself was surprised at the existence of someone like him. Kanou had said that his case was unique. Ageha attributed this inconsistency to the advancement of ARMS technology in areas even Kaika was not aware of.

“If that’s the case, it would be better for you to fight him away from me. It would remove the danger to myself and allow you to focus on combat.” Kaika turned to the maid and gave her an order. “You, call several guards here to escort me while Ageha deals with the intruder.”

“The chef will..?”

“Just do it. Where’s the intruder now?”

The maid used the radio to communicate with mansion personnel.

“He is in the main hall. The guards are trying to hold him there, but they will not last long.”

“Ageha.”

“Understood.”

Ageha ran through the open door and into the corridor. On the way to the main hall, he dropped by his temporary room and procured his knives. The last time he sprinted through these hallways, he still had outdated, black market ARMS installed and had to consider stealth. This time, he cracked the flooring with the power of his strides. It took him no time at all to reach his destination.

But even then, it was too late. There were only two guards left, one of which was held by the intruder. The other guard pointed a handgun at the intruder but could not shoot in fear of hitting the captive. Ageha concluded that the enemy had used human shields throughout the battle to avoid being shot. Although bullets could not penetrate ARMS, the force of the impact could still cause damage to human organs.

The intruder’s torso and neck were covered by metal armor. The rest of his body was obviously cybernetic from the lack of skin coating. The alloy elbow and knee caps were visible. A black helmet with a tinted visor covered his head.

That’s practically a robot…

Ageha knew that robot limbs were weaker and less flexible than ARMS. Moreover, artificial intelligence was not advanced enough to be effective in live combat. The fact that Ageha had destroyed two Arax units by taking advantage of their tactical gaps was proof of this. His thought only meant that there was almost no sign of humanity left in the enemy.

The intruder threw the guard he was holding at the one with the gun. The man could not dodge the body that hurtled towards him. Both men tumbled backward and crashed to the ground.

Ageha took this chance and dashed towards the intruder. The intruder noticed his approach and ran towards him.

What!?

This reaction surprised Ageha because it made no sense tactically unless shock was the only goal. Ageha canceled his attack and tried to dodge the enemy’s running hook.

Too fast..!

Ageha raised his left arm and reinforced it with his right fist. The hook collided against his arm and blew him away. He rolled to dissipate the impact and promptly stood on his feet.

He analyzed the opponent’s movements. They were amateurish, or more accurately, instinctual. This made it hard to fight the opponent because of unpredictability. That abnormal speed and power were also troublesome.

The intruder was already on him before he could complete his thoughts. He dodged another hook by ducking and performed a sweep that hit its mark. The intruder’s left leg was taken off the ground, but he managed to regain footing. Ageha slashed at the intruder’s chest. A metallic scratching sound was produced.

It was worth a try.

Ageha checked the durability of the chest armor. His attack did not even leave a mark. The intruder’s hands reached for Ageha. Ageha tried to jump back, but his clothes were caught. He always wore skin tight clothing in combat for this reason, but he did not have the luxury of time before this encounter.

Before he could free himself by forcefully ripping his clothes, Ageha was lifted up and tossed into a wall. Spinning in the air and using his arms and legs to temper the impact, Ageha landed on the wall like a spider.

When Ageha was taken off his feet, he thought that he had already lost. It would have been over if the enemy smashed him head first into the floor. He reevaluated the intruder.

He didn’t use the guard earlier as a shield. He just picked up the closest thing he could throw at the other enemy.

Ageha realized that the enemy had no regard for tactics. If the enemy moved on pure instinct, then the attacks should be simple. Ageha found a sliver of hope when it came to defense.

But I still can’t damage him. He has no weak points.

That was fact, so Ageha decided to take a different approach. Taking the offensive, Ageha pounced on the approaching enemy, his dual knives brandished. He slashed his knives downwards while falling. The intruder raised his arm and blocked the strike. Ageha leapt back to avoid a kick but closed the distance again right after. The intruder used his arms to block the knife swipes coming for his head.

Ageha defended against a swinging kick by raising his knee. The impact threw Ageha to his left. Instead of killing the momentum, he used his legs like a spring to kick off the ground and unleashed another wave of slashes towards the opponent’s face. Sparks flew from the intruder’s right arm as he fended off the blade.

Should be soon…

After several similar exchanges, Ageha noticed that his right leg was not moving as he wanted. The damage from the kick earlier was taking a toll on his mobility. His previous injury had also reopened and bled into the thick bandages. Weakened, he failed to dodge a straight, which grazed his cheek. There was almost no contact, but the force of the blow cut his face and caused him to see stars. Ageha instinctively took distance. His vision blurred and vomit leaked from his lips.

I won’t make it..!

He had taken too much damage. With his mobility and sight decreased, he would not be able to keep up with the enemy’s abnormal physical capability. Ageha could overcome pain but not the damage itself. He was affected just like anyone else if something was mechanically impaired.

He remained crouched as his opponent sped towards him. Time slowed as he accepted his imminent demise. Ageha was a realist, and he knew the situation was hopeless. It was his turn to pay his dues.

As he was about to accept his fate, several faces flashed before him: the arrogant and adorable little genius, the stone-faced butler and her embarrassed blush, and the timid girl who suffered the same loneliness. They would all die if he fell here.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to his feet. Adrenaline did nothing to his ARMS, but at least it cleared his murky mind and steadied his sight. The odds had not changed. It was almost impossible to defeat the enemy in his current state.

He recalled a certain miniature devil’s words.

“Nothing of worth can be achieved without a corresponding amount of risk.”

As if she had finally won their suspended argument, Kaika’s smug grin intruded into his thoughts.

The image put a similar grin on his face. It was the first time he ever smiled in battle.

Let’s do some gambling.

Ageha rolled the dice three times.

He bet on the enemy attacking from the left. He no longer had the speed to dodge on reaction so he simply picked a side at random. He hopped to the left a split second earlier than the robot’s assault. His gamble paid off, and he managed to take the intruder’s flank after the whiffed grab attempt.

He bet on the enemy performing a backfist. He himself preferred that move when flanked, but there was no reliable way to predict the enemy’s reaction. He dropped one of his knives and held the remaining one with both hands. He parried the incoming backfist by slashing the enemy’s elbow.

He bet on the possibility that his slashing parry, which used the intruder’s strength against him, cut deep enough to sever the artificial nerve connection inside the ARMS. The slash was aimed at the intruder’s elbow joint, which was already damaged by his repeated, targeted attacks. The intruder’s scream declared another winning roll.

Ageha had never been so lucky in his entire life.

It seems Kaika wasn’t my jinx.

Targeting the intruder’s head, he launched a roundhouse kick with his left leg. The enemy raised his right arm to block as usual, but the forearm just dangled downward. The arm lost control from the elbow down because of the disconnected nerve. The kick smashed into the helmet and cracked the surface. It was not strong enough to destroy the headgear, but that was irrelevant. The force shook the intruder’s brain and caused his knees to buckle.

This strategy was inspired by Ageha’s first contact with Saya. He felt a peculiar gratitude and thanked her in his thoughts. He then grabbed the intruder’s head and slammed it repeatedly onto the marble floor until the helmet broke open. He inserted his knife into the intruder’s eye for good measure.

Ageha dusted himself off. His injury did not bleed enough to go through the bandages, and his concussion was mild enough to endure. He started walking to the drawing room to report back to Kaika, but he felt a certain contradiction.

Why was this robot guy in the main hall?

The intruder’s target was Kaika. The first room he would visit should be hers, which was closer to his entry point than the main hall. Ageha remembered what time it was, and a bud of fear sprouted in his heart. He delayed his report to Kaika and decided to check on her room instead.

He jogged down the corridors until he saw a door on the ground. The ornately carved wooden door to Kaika’s quarters had been ripped off the hinges and discarded on the hallway floor. He tried to calm his rampaging heart beat. He felt the limited amount of blood in his body gather in his head. His face burned. He tried to deny the possibility, but his body involuntarily peeked into the room.

There she was.

Ageha

Her cute bob cut was sticky with red. Her soft and warm arms that had embraced him were pointed in odd directions. Her porcelain skin was mottled with black and purple. Tears pooled on the wooden floor by her cheek. The glittering irises that stared at her sister in admiration and at him with adoration had transformed into black swamps.

Ageha stepped forward. He felt the ground crack underneath him. He walked on thin ice, and each step spread the fissures further. He recalled the times she smiled at him, called him brother, and purred as he patted her head. His tightening grip warped the silver ring on his finger. The mutilation of the ring’s form paled in comparison to her face that was twisted in terror. When he finally reached her mangled form, the ice floor cracked open, and he fell. He was engulfed in freezing water, which extinguished the warm flame recently rekindled in his heart.

In its place, a deafening blizzard raged.

 

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Thirteen: Marination

“How are things going with Ageha?”

“Everything is proceeding normally, Ojousama,” said Saya.

“Normally? Surely you underestimate. You two look very close.”

“I am only doing as ordered.”

“Really now?” Kaika cast a doubting gaze.

Saya’s dispassionate face did not budge from the provocation. She appeared sincere.

Or so she thinks.

Kaika knew that Saya became more rigid when she was trying to hide something. A perfect poker-face was also an obvious sign of a lie.

“Be careful,” said the mistress.

“I am always careful. Who knows how he will react if this is discovered.”

“I’m not talking about that. I’m referring to the reason you held your breath just now.”

Saya twitched in response to the subtle accusation.

She really is cute.

Kaika had not really noticed any abnormality in Saya’s breathing. She simply threw in bait, and Saya readily took a bite.

I suppose having some form of attachment is inevitable. They have similar pasts, and although she’s fairly skilled at it, she never liked deception. It’s an acquired taste, I guess.

“Should I be worried?”

“Not in the least. I do admit that this task was not unpalatable due to his…” Saya searched for the correct word.

“Charisma.”

“…Yes. But I assure you it has no effect on my judgment.”

You tried lying to me earlier and then say that? Well, she probably knew she would get seen through but tried to coddle her pride anyway. Forgiven.

“If I may,” asked the butler as she corrected her posture. They were both seated on a long rectangular dining table. Kaika occupied the head seat, Saya at her diagonal left.

“What is it?”

“Is this really necessary?”

“By ‘this’ you mean?”

“Establishing an intimate relationship with Ageha-sama.”

“I wouldn’t ask it of you if it weren’t.”

“I think he is already invested enough in our group, if not our cause.”

“Naive. Invested is not enough. We need him to be committed,” she said as she raised her index finger and wagged it in rejection.

“He took a bullet to save the painting.”

“And you.”

“Kai-Ojousama.”

“I’m not teasing. The painting was probably the last thing on his mind then. He doesn’t even know what it’ll be used for. It’s simply proof that your efforts have borne fruit.”

“Then there is no need to take it further, is there?”

“Is your hesitation from guilt or fear?” Kaika dissected Saya with her vision.

“…Probably both.”

“It’s good that you’re honest.”

Saya dipped her head in embarrassment.

She’s at least aware of her own feelings, enough to be afraid of losing control of them. That makes her more predictable.

“What you don’t understand, Saya, is that commitment has levels. We need his to be absolute. Taking a bullet while protecting himself with his alloy limbs doesn’t even come close to that. Right… He should be able to gladly take one in the heart and still keep crawling until he sputters to a stop.”

Saya’s eyebrows wrinkled at Kaika’s description.

“You say that, but I do not think you would toss away someone you rate so highly.”

“Of course. I’m going to great lengths to groom our knight. I wouldn’t do so if I didn’t like him. I would go so far as to say he’s a favorite,” she said with a brilliant smile.

Which vanished the next instant.

“But there are risks that we must take. He has cooperated so far because he knew the odds were in his favor, but what if it were reversed? What if he’s likely going to die if he complies? Making those questions moot is the purpose of this exercise.”

Saya fell silent and nodded, seemingly comprehending Kaika’s intentions.

“If we want his trust, would it not be counterproductive to admit to any deceit? Why tell him about the park incident?”

The tone in Saya’s questions had changed from doubtful to curious. This stirred up Kaika’s desire to teach.

“There are several reasons.” Kaika crossed her legs, her frilly violet dress fluttering under the table.

Saya, eager to understand what she had failed to discern herself, gazed at Kaika intently.

“The first reason is because he already suspected it. The fact that I ordered you away from my side is enough for anyone to sense the incongruity.”

Saya’s shoulders slightly slumped.

“Don’t take offense. You were merely on the wrong side. Well, it’s actually the right side, but I digress. Different standpoints provide different insights.”

Saya regained her perfect posture. Kaika loved how much influence her words had on the butler. Only she could make the stiff pole sway so much.

No, Ageha too.

“The second reason is because truthfulness only works on the innocent. The naive foolishly believe and foolhardily get hurt. A single lie can damage the relationship with such people. However, Ageha’s hardly of that category.”

“Indeed. He is more cunning than I imagined.”

“Rather than cunning, he’s fundamentally distrustful. He doesn’t take anything at face value. For that kind, even the truth can be construed as the opposite, and the connection halts there. It’s best to tell an insignificant lie and purposely be caught to shroud a more relevant deception.”

Realization emerged on Saya’s visage. “If Ageha-sama thinks that he is able to distinguish the truth in your words…”

“His arrogance will blind him from grasping the true lies. It has already worked wonders twice. Once in our meeting in the park and again when I confessed about the same incident.”

But to underestimate him here could lead to problems. He may suspect more than he lets on.

“The last reason is to shrink our distance.”

“Distance?”

“Yes. Although he agreed to help us because I faked being in danger from my brothers’ plot, it was purely out of his own twisted sense of justice. There’s no camaraderie or affection. By revealing to him my real objective and desire for power, I established a commonality. No one craves for power as much as a man who has cast off his humanity for it. Sharing something fundamental, he suddenly finds me much closer to him.”

“I cannot imagine him agreeing to your terminal wish and method.”

“I had to be truthful about my goal. He already knows my amorality. A righteous excuse would have been impossible to swallow. I did keep the method secret by saying the plan hasn’t been drafted.”

“And he accepted that?”

“He said he didn’t care as long as he can do what he wants. Of course, it was under the condition that he’ll only eliminate those who qualify his standard.”

“That sounds like a pointless agreement.”

“No, no. What you fail to see is that Ageha is not my subordinate. I may treat him as such when he cooks, but only then. We are partners, at least in his eyes, so I can’t expect unfailing obedience. He doesn’t need to share my objective, only my resources. I’m already providing a considerable amount of support and financing to him. Most of his current body is my provision. Considering his fixation on fairness, the conclusion is inevitable. Given such a spread, he’ll willingly jump out of the frying pan and into the fire for me. Well, eventually.”

Especially with you and Kureha as garnish.

“For now he can rest. He did well getting us the painting.” Kaika stretched her arms after finishing her explanation.

“That is not very convincing since he is currently slaving away in the kitchen because you ordered him to prepare dinner.”

“This is what I hate about couples. Always so eager to defend each other.”

“We are not-”

“Kureha is helping him. How can he complain with such a cute assistant?”

“It has only been five days.”

“His wound is closed. The only thing he has to deal with is the pain, which I’m sure you know is paltry for that monster.”

Saya winced.

“You disapprove?” said Kaika.

“…No.”

Saya looked like she was having trouble reconciling her thoughts.

“You misunderstand. That’s probably the highest praise I can give him.”

Since I’m a monster myself.

Saya remained silent, as if she read Kaika’s thought.

“Don’t worry. I won’t ask him to do anything dangerous until he recovers. He’s not necessary for the remainder of the first phase anyhow.”

“Speaking of which, the preparations for my other assignment are complete.”

“Excellent. That was quicker than calculated. It seems your little affair with Ageha has not kept you too occupied.”

Saya shrugged her shoulders in resignation to the chronic teasing. In contrast, Kaika merrily nodded several times.

“I think he will move soon, maybe even today. He has intensified surveillance on my meetings recently.”

“Then it’s also time to move the other piece,” said Kaika after crossing her arms on her meager bosom.

“Delivery of the painting?”

“Yes. Hang it in Kawahara’s bedroom when he and his wife are asleep.”

“…Is that not too strong a move?”

“That’s precisely why I’m making it. He needs to understand that he can’t use our theft of the item as leverage in any way. We’ll have him abide by the agreement to the letter.”

“This is practically threatening him.”

“Not practically. I am threatening him.”

“Then why did we go through the trouble of illegally acquiring a bribe?”

“To give him an excuse. An influential member of the national diet can’t bend over easily to threats. Politicians have to preserve their pride and appearance. He can accede to our demand without damaging either if it’s in exchange for the painting he adores.”

“Understood. I will deliver it tonight.”

“No, leave it for tomorrow. I don’t want any tension ruining the meal.”

“You really are partial to Ageha-sama’s cooking.”

“Aren’t you?”

“I never denied it. You make him prepare the oddest dishes, but the results are always delectable somehow.”

“I’m tired of the usual fare. You’ve shared the same meals as me in this prison for years. Don’t you feel the same?”

“I do, but a French okonomiyaki might be too avant-garde for me,” said Saya as she closed her eyes and touched her chin.

“I’ve never had okonomiyaki.”

“Neither have I, but that is all the more reason to have it the traditional way.”

“Life offers too few meals to waste them on mediocrity.”

“I am certain Ageha-sama’s dish will not turn out mediocre.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Kaika paused in thought for a moment. “You know how scarce leisure has been for me, correct?”

“Of course.”

Kaika knew that if anyone understood the weight of her statement, it would be her loyal aide who underwent the same trials and torture, albeit for a shorter time.

“That hasn’t changed due to my preoccupation with my goal, so I want what little of it I can get to be meaningful in inverse proportion.”

Saya still looked puzzled, so Kaika continued her explanation.

“How did it feel during your first time?”

“Horrible and painful,” said Saya, as emotionless as always.

“Okay, my fault. Bad example. Let’s try something more pleasant. Which meal of Ageha’s left the biggest impression on you?”

Saya closed her eyes for a few moments and then opened them. “I believe it is the Spaghetti Alla Carbonara.”

“That’s the case for me as well. That’s because we were treated to not just the taste, but also the surprise from the unexpected and the delight of novelty. First experience has that magic. With that in mind, the most fruitful way to spend leisure time would be a collection of firsts. However, being physically human, we have no choice but to repeat certain activities, such as getting sustenance.” Kaika traced the rim of a half empty wine glass, her dainty finger going around several times. “If the activity must be repeated, then the content will have to change instead. Never eat the same thing twice.”

“Thousands of digested dolphin cookies turned in their graves just now.”

“…The exception proves the rule,” said Kaika, her bottom lip stuck out and a little blush showing on her white cheeks. “Anyway, if I can eat an item only once, I want it to be special. Wasting my only chance to try something for an ordinary experience is absurd.”

“So we get French okonomiyaki?”

“No, we get Ageha’s French okonomiyaki.” She smirked with her eyes shut.

Saya shrugged her shoulders after witnessing the mistress brag about her favorite pet. “I am fine with ordinary. That is already a luxury for both of us.”

“You really have no greed.”

“Someone has to stay grounded so that you can climb higher.” The butler made a contented smile.

Kaika was intrigued by how two people brought up in the same environment could have such different personalities. She enjoyed lecturing Saya, but she also understood that the young woman had qualities that she did not. Saya held her back when her recklessness manifested and protected her when that failed. Saya was more of a sister to Kaika than Kureha, and Kaika thought of her as such.

You really are an excellent sister.

“Thank you, Saya,” she said sincerely. She was truly grateful for Saya’s existence.

Sisters are useful tools, after all.

 

***

 

Kureha carefully used a mandolin to create thin strips of cabbage. She had her eyebrows wrinkled in concentration.

“You really didn’t have to help, you know,” said Ageha, his voice coming from behind her.

She intentionally chose to have her back towards him. The view of him cooking distracted her from the task at hand.

“I want to. Oneesama is really mean, making you cook despite your injury.”

“It’s my job, and I’m fine. Look.” Ageha hopped to showcase his recuperated self.

Kureha turned to Ageha and expressed a look of concern. She knew that he was forcing himself. He always had a smile on for her, but she was not dense enough to miss the subtle hints in his behavior. They had spent most of this week together, and that resulted in a better understanding of the young man.

“I understand, so please stop pushing yourself.”

Why is he always so nice to me?

Kureha felt jealous of her sister and Saya. Ageha spoke more naturally with them. In comparison, there was something phony in his interactions with her. She could not blame him though, because she too assumed a role.

“I should say that to you. You really don’t have to play the shy little sister anymore, you know?”

If he already knows this much, why does he act so distant?

“I am not playing. I really am a shy little sister.” She smiled ear to ear.

“I don’t think someone who can say something like that qualifies as shy.” Ageha had been talking while preparing a pan-sauce version of burgundy demi-glace.

“What about you? …Are you not forcing yourself to be nice to me?”

The question halted his knife. The thyme ceased its dance on the butcher block.

“…I’m sorry if it came off like that, but that wasn’t my intention. Believe it or not, I’m trying my best to be genuine.” He scratched his head with an apologetic look. “…It seems I forgot how. I didn’t think I was this clumsy.”

So I am special but in a good way?

Kureha tried to control her rapidly beating heart. She wanted to believe he was lying because she feared disappointment if she got her hopes up.

“I bet you say that to all your little sisters.”

“I don’t have any little sisters.”

“I knew it. You were just toying with me…”

“I meant blood-related little sisters, and don’t say things people would misunderstand.”

Kureha giggled as Ageha complained. She gave up on keeping her back to him, moved her tools and the cabbage to the counter Ageha was using, and looked at the chef. His eyes were focused on the ingredients in his hands.

“It is not an act,” she said as she adjusted the white fabric wrapping her torso. The apron she had borrowed from Ageha was too large for her. It made it look like she wore nothing else.

Ageha responded by raising his sight to meet hers.

“I really do not have any confidence.” She resumed her work. “The reason I pretend to be clueless is because I do not want anyone to expect anything from me.”

“Why don’t you want that?”

“Who would, after seeing Onee-sama go through all that?”

Kureha admired her sister, but that was not an emotion that drove her to become like Kaika. It served the opposite purpose. She intentionally placed her sister on top of an unreachable pedestal to alleviate her fear of responsibility.

Ageha kept silent, not being privy to the details.

“Eventually, it became a habit. Then it became real. What was it called, a self-fulfilling…”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m impressed you know such a concept.”

“It does not count because you helped,” she said with a frown, but the displeasure quickly left her features and was replaced by a tender expression. “But talking with you over time gave me back a little bit of confidence. You were always patiently waiting for me to finish. It felt… comfortable. It was something I had not felt for a long time.”

“I kind of feel guilty now for finishing your sentence earlier.”

“But you did that out of good will. Everyone else just left or ignored me before I could speak my mind. I do not blame them though. Even I felt impatience at my own timidness.”

Ageha continued cooking throughout the conversation. He had thinly sliced several shallots and was now caramelizing them in a pan.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course, Ageha-Oniisama.”

“Why did you approach me when I first visited the mansion?”

Kureha ceased her slicing and thought for a while before answering.

“Because Oneesama was interested in you. I already knew that you were the chef she had hired before we introduced ourselves because the maids had been gossiping about it. I was curious why she chose you.”

Half of it was jealousy, but she did not voice that part.

“I hope I didn’t disappoint,” he said, a self-deprecating grin on his lips.

“Far from it! I am really thankful because you gave me courage. Not only that, you also gave me things I had lost and things I never had. Even the meal we are preparing now would be impossible without you.”

Kureha was always alone in the mansion. She tried to get close to Kaika, who she admired, but was always deflected. Trying to get some semblance of sibling affection, she often ate, slept, and played alone in Kaika’s room when Kaika was not there. She was desperate for warmth.

“I have always wanted a family. Eating dinner together like this… feels like a dream.”

Ageha showed a pained expression after hearing what she said. He left the saucepan on the stove and walked towards Kureha. He placed his hand on her locks and combed them per usual.

“You did well coming this far.”

Tears started sliding down Kureha’s cheeks. “Huh? Why… Huh… It won’t stop…” she mumbled as she frantically wiped her tears with her palms.

Someone had finally acknowledged her loneliness, her suffering, and most importantly, her effort. It was not her strength but her hard work that she took pride in.

“Stupid, why are you crying? That isn’t an onion.”

“Please… do not call… me stupid…” Her reply was broken up by sobs.

So this is a brother…

Ageha left his hand on her head as he smiled warmly at the crying girl. Ageha’s touch made her feel weak but safe. Barring her infancy, she had never truly cried in front of another person. Coming in torrents, her tears increased, as if the dam holding them back all her life had finally collapsed.

Seeing Kureha weep, Ageha knelt down on one knee and gently pulled her towards him. Kureha wrapped her arms around his neck without ceasing her sobbing. Ageha patiently rubbed her back without saying anything. Both of them stayed that way until the smell of smoke pierced the bubble surrounding them.

 

***

 

“I feel stupid after singing your praises earlier.”

“I must concur,” said the butler, nodding at her mistress.

“I’m sorry.”

“Please do not blame Ageha-Oniisama. It was my fault.”

Kaika threw Ageha an accusatory stare. “Don’t tell me you were distracted because you were doing something to Kureha?”

Kureha’s cheeks lit on fire.

“Where there is smoke…” said Saya after seeing Kureha’s reaction.

“Wait, wait, wait. There was smoke, but that was because of the burned shallots. And I did something to Kureha, but nothing like what you’re thinking, okay?”

“But you do admit to doing something,” said Kaika, her left eyebrow raised. “I didn’t think you had that preference. No wonder you like Saya’s AAs.”

“They are A cups!”

“I suddenly feel in danger. You must have been lusting after my body all this time. Now I have no choice but to bring a robe to the bath.”

“Please do not ignore me! It is true!”

“Do not mind it, Saya-san. Both Oneesama and I do not even wear brassieres.”

“I know it’s humiliating being told that by an elementary schooler, but calm down,” said Ageha, having hastily caught Saya’s wrist as it extended towards Kureha’s bob cut. “I remade the sauce, so let’s just eat, okay?” He released her hand.

“What an obvious attempt to escape from interrogation.” Kaika closed her eyes. “However, I do feel both generous and hungry so I’ll leave it at that.”

“…I am not lying…” The tiny voice leaked from the depressed butler as she slumped her shoulders, consequently depressing her bust even more.

Ageha suppressed a laugh after seeing her in that state. Despite his joking manner, he did feel sorry for the two who had to wait an extra fifteen minutes before dinner was served. He could not even remember the last time he had made such a mistake in the kitchen. Forgetting the pan was an amateurish error, but instead of feeling ashamed, it only furthered his surprise at how distracted he had been.

He did not want to admit it, but Kureha reminded him of his first love. Their kindness, their straightforward affection, and their admiration towards him all overlapped. Of course, sexual attraction was not present due to the difference in age, but a warm elation that lowered his guard existed.

So this is a younger sister…

Ageha placed two hotplates on the cork mat on the hand-carved dining table. Kureha sat to the right of her sister, and Ageha seated himself beside her.

“So what did you prepare for us?” asked Kaika while observing the plated food.

“As requested, French okonomiyaki.”

“You have to be more detailed than that if you want to be a celebrity chef.”

“I never said I wanted to be one. I don’t cook to entertain.”

“I, however, eat for entertainment, so indulge me.”

“I would like to know the details as well,” said Saya.

“It’s a cabbage pancake pan-fried in lardon, topped with ventreche, and ladled with my second attempt at the burgundy demi-glace. It’s drizzled with aioli and garnished with sliced chives and fried shallots.”

The hearty fragrance of the of the ventreche, which was essentially unsmoked bacon, permeated the dining room. Ageha conjured up a version of pork and scallion okonomiyaki using French ingredients.

“It certainly looks like an authentic okonomiyaki,” said Kaika.

“I aim to please.”

“Leave the bragging for after the tasting.”

Ageha deftly sliced the first savory pancake into eight pieces. The knife easily slid through the pork slices, despite its crispness. Without muddling the decorative, white, checkered lines of aioli, he skillfully lifted a slice from the hotplate and placed it on Kureha’s dish. He then served Saya, Kaika, and finally himself.

“Serving me last… Is that some sort of prank?” asked Kaika.

“I was last, and no, I didn’t think about that. I just served starting from the closest plate,” said the chef as he seated himself.

“Serve me first. Isn’t that common sense? I’m your employer, not these two.”

“That pettiness is making me less inclined to do so.”

“This is about hierarchy.”

“But you rank middle in both height and breast size.”

Saya virtually glowed at Ageha’s statement. Ageha ignored the stoic butler’s equivalent of a fist pump. Kaika was about to reply but Kureha spoke first.

“Oneesama, the food is getting cold. Okonomiyaki is best served hot. That is why they are on hotplates.” She pointed at the cast-iron dinnerware.

“Hmph. You always take Ageha’s side. I’m your sister, you know.”

“Not at all! I just want to eat our meal at its best since Ageha-Oniisama took the trouble to make it.”

“That’s his job. Well, I do agree with your suggestion, though for a different reason.” Kaika ceased her tantrum and picked up her silverware. “Since we’re having French, Bon appétit!

That’s my line.

They started eating after the mistress’s signal. Ageha took a bite of his creation. Immediately crumbling and melting on the tongue, the paper-thin, crisp pork unleashed a surge of flavor. The richness of the meat and aioli was cut by the refreshing chives and the acidity of the wine in the sauce. The cabbage tempered the bold flavors. He purposely architected the consecutive, contrasting layers for this effect, and he felt proud of his execution.

Excellent.

He looked at the previously irritated Kaika. She was now joyfully munching on the fusion dish like the child she appeared to be. She always showed her most unguarded side during meals, and in those respites, Ageha even found the diabolical schemer adorable. He could not blame Saya for failing to hurt her for that sole reason.

Saya also looked pleased as she quietly partook of the dish. In contrast, Kureha vocalized her opinion.

“This is so good!”

“Thanks.”

“It is worth every second of the wait,” said Saya.

“I thought that cooking it in pork fat would be too much because you already used a fatty cut for the protein…” said Kaika. Her long curly lashes suddenly rose, showing her black irises in full. “Got it! You used a sparing amount just to brown the bottom! The use of the fried shallots to mimic bonito flakes isn’t just for plating. It adds the sweetness okonomiyaki sauce is known for to compensate for the lack of it in the demi-glace.

The cook was dumbfounded after his technique was dismantled after only a few bites. “You really should just give up on your schemes and become a chef.”

“I specialize in consumption, not creation.” A smug grin was plastered on her face.

Is that really something to brag about?

“It feels odd eating okonomiyaki with a knife and fork,” said the Japanese chef.

“It’s French okonomiyaki, so isn’t it fine?”

Ageha felt that Kaika’s statement was strangely convincing. He stood up and placed another slice on her quickly emptied plate, as if rewarding her. He served a slice each to the other two, leaving a single slice on the first hotplate.

“Is that all you will eat?” asked Kureha, noticing that Ageha only had one, albeit large, slice.

“Yeah, I don’t have much of an appetite.”

Saya gave a look of understanding. She could guess  the reason for Ageha’s weak appetite. He only needed enough energy to fuel his human parts, which were exceedingly scarce compared to normal people. His ARMS were charged directly using a charging device.

“I was thinking of leaving tonight.”

Kureha turned to Ageha in shock. “What!?”

“I’ve recovered enough for everyday activities, and I need to get back to work. Rin keeps telling me how much trouble they’re having with the kitchen short-handed.”

Both Saya and Kureha twitched at the mention of the pretty waitress’s name.

“I don’t mind,” said Kaika. “I’ll just call for you when I want to have your meals.”

“Don’t treat people like slaves.”

“Slaves don’t get a salary like yours.”

Ugh.

“Can you not stay one more day? You can leave tomorrow evening. That way we can have dinner together again!” said Kureha, who stopped eating after Ageha’s announcement.

“Tomorrow’s a Saturday, the busiest day for restaurants. They could really use my help.”

“And I have a prior engagement for tomorrow night,” said Saya. “I am afraid I cannot accompany you for dinner, Kureha-Ojousama.”

Kureha lost the brightness that she had just moments ago. Seeing this, Ageha felt a prickling in his chest.

“…I suppose I can stay one more day.”

“Really!? Thank you, Ageha Onii-sama! I love you!”

Ageha felt that a bomb was mixed in with her words but chose to disregard it.

“You’re spoiling her too much,” said Kaika, a wry smile on her face.

“What, are you jealous?”

“Check with Saya. I couldn’t care less.”

“Please do not involve me for I do not have anything to say about whatever it is that Kureha-Ojousama said that definitely does not affect me in any way because no matter what I will not be negatively affected since I do not care about who loves anyone in view of the fact that I do not love anyone.”

“Get a hold of yourself,” said Kaika.

Kureha laughed happily at the scene. Ageha did not notice that he, dragged in by the cozy atmosphere, was also laughing along. It reminded him of the past, but the waves of emotion he was currently experiencing swept away anything painful that threatened to arise. What was left was a nostalgic longing for a sweet dream that he once lost. It poured over him, tenderized his calloused heart, and imparted a flavor he had long forgotten.

I’ll have to call Rin and Kirishima-san to tell them I’m taking one more day off. I better get ready for an earful.

And so, bathed in familial bickering and chortling, he decided to play hooky for the second time in his life.

 

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Twelve: Unveiling

On Ageha’s blanket-covered lap was a black ball of hair. It reminded him of a small animal curling up for warmth during winter. An IV tube was sticking out of his neck, and his torso was wrapped in white bandages. He sat up, ignoring the pain on his left side. He looked around and realized that he was in one of the rooms in Kaika’s mansion. The location confirmed the identity of the creature on his lap.

Just when he was about to wake Kureha from her slumber, a familiar buzzing sound emanated from the bedside table. He took his terminal and accepted the call.

“Yes?”

“Ageha! Great, I finally got a hold of you,” said Rin, her voice filled with relief.

Ageha checked his terminal’s display. There were five missed calls. The clock informed him that he had been asleep for almost an entire day.

“Sorry, I was asleep.”

“The whole afternoon?”

“Yeah, I have a temperature.”

“I see. Your ankle sprain is that bad…”

Sprain?

“An acquaintance of yours called Sapore about your accident. I’m guessing that was your rich employer?”

“Yeah, I had her call for me.”

“Your employer… is a woman?”

That was careless. I gave unnecessary information.

“More importantly, how’s Sapore holding up?”

“What do you think? Lunch service was a war zone due to two missing chefs. Matsunaga-san’s replacement isn’t doing very well. Why did you have to get into an accident..?”

“Sorry.”

“Ah, no, wait, I wasn’t blaming you! It’s not your fault! I was just thinking about how these unlucky things keep happening, and I-”

“I get it, relax.” He chuckled upon hearing her fluster. Her tendency to panic always amused him. It was charming, in a way.

He caught a sigh of relief from the receiver.

“So, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine. I may need a couple more days off. I can’t put any weight on my ankle, so I can’t stand in the cucina. I’d just be in the way.”

“I know it doesn’t sound convincing after that rant, but take as much time as you need. Kirishima-san said the same thing. …Though Yama-san was laughing about how you slipped in the kitchen despite being a chef.” A soft giggle followed.

Kai..!

“Oh, sorry, but I have to go. My break’s almost over. Take care of your injury. I’ll call you later after work.”

“Thanks for worrying about me. Please take care of Sapore while I’m gone.”

“You can count on me!”

Ageha placed the terminal back on the table. He noticed that the cuddly ebony plush on his leg was stirring.

I’m amazed she can sleep so well using a metal pipe as a pillow.

“Mhmm…”

Kureha rubbed her eyes as she sat up.

“…Ageha-Oniisama?”

“Good afternoon, Kureha-chan.”

“Ageha-Oniisama!”

“Yeah, it’s me.” He wore a smile that contradicted the current state of his body.

“Are you okay? Oneesama said you were hurt, so I came to visit you, but you were asleep, so-”

“So you used an injured person’s leg as a pillow?”

“I am sorry! I did not mean to nod off.”

Ageha placed his hand on Kureha’s small head and gently stroked it.

“It’s okay. Wasn’t it hard and cold though?” Ageha was sure that Kureha already knew about his limbs from previous contact.

“Not at all. It was comfortable. I would not have slept so soundly otherwise.”

“That sounds like an excuse.”

“Ageha-Oniisama…” The outer ends of her brows and lips tilted downward.

“I’m kidding! Don’t make that face.”

Her frown instantly vanished. Ageha realized that Kureha was faking it. She countered his jab perfectly. Her growth caused a fuzzy emotion to well up inside him. He believed that he was at least partly responsible for it.

“It was not an excuse. I really do feel at ease with you, more so than anyone else.”

The directness she did not have before caught Ageha off guard. His response, though already determined, was delayed.

“…That makes me happy. Thanks, Kureha-chan.”

They exchanged smiles.

“Are you feeling alright? Does your injury hurt?”

“No, I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt at all as long as I stay put.” It was a kind lie.

“I am glad. Oneesama did not tell me what happened, so I was worried how serious it was…”

“It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Oh right! I have to tell her that you woke up. Please wait here for a moment while I fetch her.”

Kureha stood up and trotted to the door. She was wearing brown shorts and a yellow shirt. It was a very sporty look that contrasted with her personality. Ageha wondered if it was part of her effort to be more outgoing.

“I will return immediately,” she said as she looked back at him one last time before leaving the room.

Ageha did not have to wait long before the mistress arrived. Saya opened and held the doors to the room. She waited for the sisters to enter before closing the door behind herself. Followed by the other two, Kaika approached the bed. She was in a simple grey one piece, and the butler was in uniform.

“How are you feeling?” asked Kaika.

“Everyone keeps asking me that.”

“Would you rather be ignored?”

“Depends on who’s asking.”

“If you can talk back like that, I guess you’re fine.” Kaika eyed him like she was observing a strange animal. “Still, you really are impudent, even to your boss.”

“That’s not true, right, Kureha?”

“Yes, Ageha-Oniisama.”

“Wow, I thought only Saya fell victim to your poisonous tongue, but even Kureha-”

“Kai-Ojousama, what are you saying!?”

“Isn’t it the truth? She was so frantic when she called me on my terminal and asked for a doctor. You should have seen her when she dragged you back here. What’s the story there, Ageha?”

“She did promise me an arm pillow.”

“No, I did not. I said I will think about it,” said Saya.

“That wasn’t the last thing I heard.”

“…You were awake!?”

“I wasn’t sure if I dreamt it, but that just now confirmed I was indeed awake.”

Saya was crimson down to her neck. It made Ageha speculate if her organs were getting enough blood right now.

“My, my, this is far worse than I thought. To think that the two of you made this much progress,” said Kaika.

“There is no progress! It is Chou- Ageha-sama’s usual teasing!”

“Oh? What’s this? You even have nicknames?”

“As a matter of fact-”

“Shikimi-sama.” The rumbling change of address halted Ageha’s statement.

“Looks like my lips are sealed.”

“I order you to tell me. Saya, stay there and be quiet.”

The two employees did as their boss decreed. Ageha filled Kaika in on all the details that Saya had omitted from her report. He made sure to censor any information not fit for Kureha’s ears. Due to that limitation, the report became merely a chain of embarrassing events involving Saya. Saya was squatting down while holding her head and mumbling to herself by the time Ageha ended his story.

“How lucky…” whispered Kureha.

“I see. It wasn’t as juicy as I expected, but at least we have a continuation,” said Kaika.

““Continuation?”” asked yesterday’s tag team simultaneously.

“Saya has yet to fulfill her promise, right? An arm pillow is a small price to pay for being saved from turning into a beehive.”

Guilt crept into Saya’s unusually reactive face. Her brows wrinkled in thought for a short while.

“…Okay.”

“What,” said Ageha.

“Now that’s more like it!” said the instigator of this fiasco.

“Saya, you do know what an arm pillow is, right?”

“…Of course.”

“I find that hard to believe, considering your consent.”

“Do not underestimate me.” Saya sat down beside Ageha on the bed. “…Go ahead.”

“I can’t do it with you sitting like that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I knew you were misunderstanding something.”

“Is an arm pillow not when one of two people sitting beside each other leans his or her head on the other’s shoulder?”

Kaika’s snickers served as ambient noise for the embarrassing discussion.

“No. In the first place, that’s impossible with our height difference. Listen, an arm pillow is…” Ageha explained the position in detail.

The visible part of her face glowing red, Saya stood up reflexively and tried to leave the room.

“You wouldn’t go out and leave your charge alone, would you?” asked Kaika.

“You were fine with me being gone for one night!”

“Don’t be so childish. An arm pillow isn’t such a big deal, is it?”

Saya ceased her departure and started shaking. Then she flipped.

“Who is the childish one here!? I am not the one always eating dolphin-shaped cookies secretly at night!”

“W-W-What are you talking about?”

“Oh, I know those. Oneesama keeps them in the bottom drawer beside the bed.”

“Kureha..!” Kaika glared at her sister.

“Now, now, don’t get angry, at your little sister, for telling the truth,” said Ageha while pausing periodically to stop himself from laughing. His efforts failed in the end.

“Wha- what’s wrong with dolphin cookies? I’ll have you know that dolphins are very intelligent despite their docile and cheerful appearance. I like how similar they are to me.”

You left out how cruel they can be.

“And they are cute,” said Saya.

“Right, they are so cute…” It was Kaika’s turn to go beet red. “No, wait, that isn’t what I meant to say! I don’t care if they’re cute at all!”

Ageha continued laughing despite knowing it could open his wound. Kureha had joined in at some point.

“I don’t want to be laughed at by a mercenary who can’t even use a gun!”

“You told her that!?” shouted Ageha, glaring at Saya. Even he had become a victim in the snitching free-for-all.

“I had no choice! Ojousama needs to know that information for her plans. And you also brought up the arm pillow promise, so you do not have the right to complain!”

Before Ageha could reply, he realized that the content of what they were talking about was supposed to be secret to one of the people in the room.

Ageha slowly turned to Kureha. Seeing this action, the other two did the same. They were at a loss as to how to resolve this unexpected information leakage.

“Do not worry, everyone. I did not hear a thing,” said Kureha politely, an innocent smile on her face.

Like sister, like sister.

The three heaved a sigh.

“Okay, this stops here,” said Kaika, eyes closed. “Saya, can you take Kureha outside? I need to speak with Ageha privately.”

“Understood. Kureha-Ojousama, would you like to accompany me for a game of cards?”

“Okay. Please take care, Ageha-Oniisama. Please do not bully him too much, Oneesama.”

The two left Ageha and Kaika alone in the room.

“Hmph. What did you do to that girl?”

“Which one?”

“I would say both, but I can’t believe Kureha just said that to me.”

“About not bullying a man with a bullet wound?”

“Yes. She used to be unable to hold a conversation with me, much less joke around like that. She’s changed so much in such a short time.”

“I think she was probably always like that. She just didn’t have anyone who would listen to her. I was like that as a kid, so I can understand.”

“You may be right. I never really had the patience to deal with her.”

“You had a lot on your plate.”

“…Did Saya tell you?” There was no anger or irritation in her demeanor.

“Not much. It’s mostly speculation.” Ageha shrugged his shoulders. Deciding to get to the point, he asked, “So, am I going to be bullied for getting shot?”

“Is that what you were expecting?”

“Once burned, twice shy.”

“No burning is going to happen today.”

“That’s good. I was worried about the bridges.”

Kaika looked a little surprised by his reply. She glanced at the door Saya and Kureha had left from. “Their affection isn’t unrequited?”

A photo sticker with three smiling faces surfaced in Ageha’s mind.

“I wonder about that.”

“You can be pretty cruel.”

“I don’t want to hear that from you.” He smiled wryly.

“…You’re right. I want to thank you for protecting both Saya and the painting, but more importantly, I have a confession to make.”

Ageha unconsciously straightened up. It was already unexpected that she would express gratitude sincerely. For her to confess something to anyone was downright astonishing.

“My brothers are not after my life. I staged the attack at the park.”

Ageha’s expression did not change much.

“You don’t look surprised.”

“I would’ve been a few days ago. Carelessly going out shopping clued me in, but sending Saya with me to steal that painting was the clincher.”

“I didn’t think you were this shrewd. Did I adopt a very dangerous pet?”

“The fact that you still call me a pet means I’m not even off the leash yet.”

“You overestimate me. Anyway, I apologize for deceiving you. Trust is not a resource I have in abundance.”

“I would’ve done the same in your position.”

“Does that mean my playing with fire will lead to the unexpected conclusion?”

“You can be so roundabout.”

“Women are such creatures.”

“Says the girl who doesn’t even wear a bra.”

“Isn’t it great? It reduces clothing costs. It also makes it easier to dupe old men.”

Poor Karasuma.

“Such a different reaction from Saya.”

“Right, she did grab your hair too.”

Ageha’s face contorted in disbelief after hearing the last word of Kaika’s sentence.

“What shocks me is she even grabbed yours.”

“I was shocked too. She wasn’t even looking at me when she did it. She looked perfectly calm, as if she was reading the morning paper. I wonder if she did it unconsciously.”

I almost died.”

“She didn’t pull too hard in my case. Maybe she did have some consideration for our respective positions.”

“She was driving.”

Both of them guffawed.

“Back on topic,” said Kaika after recovering from the fit, “how does our bridge stand?”

Ageha collected his breathing after the bout of literally side-splitting laughter.

“That depends. You haven’t told me the most important thing.”

“Which is?”

“Why are you trying to take down your brothers?”

“Because I want to control NGC.”

“That doesn’t make you any different from them.”

“But I am. Their dolce is merely my antipasto.”

“…What are you planning beyond NGC?”

Kaika stuck her chest out and looked Ageha in the eyes. Her eyes sparkled. This was the first truly childlike face Ageha had ever seen her make. It was no act. Ageha doubted everything that had ever passed those beautiful pink petals, but there was something inviolable about what she disclosed next.

“To change the world.”

 

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Eleven: Defrost

Ageha stared at the light on the ceiling of his hospital room. He had just finished going through several examinations. He clenched his right hand several times. He could still feel the sensation of warping and snapping bones. It did not evoke any disgust or joy in him but merely satisfied his curiosity, like when he found out what dolphin skin felt like during a visit to an aquarium before.

“I didn’t sign up for this!” yelled his father.

“Shikimi-san, please calm down,” said Ageha’s doctor, who wore the typical white coat.

“How can I be calm!? My son seriously injured six students! With that thing you attached!”

“Let me remind you that you were the one who asked us to help your son.”

“Yes, I did. But this doesn’t count as help, does it!?”

Ageha listened in on the conversation. He had never heard his father sound so angry. He had seen many unknown sides of his father since he lost his arm. He did not know if his father’s change was due to guilt from having been unable to protect him or anguish from potentially losing the successor to his culinary heritage.

“You have to understand that this is an unprecedented and unpredictable situation for us as well. The prototype cybernetic limbs are designed to induce pain when the user exceeds normal levels of exertion. Using force this far beyond human capability should have produced enough pain for the user to faint. It is not easy to overcome the limiters in the first place. You have to will the limb to move beyond normal operating parameters. It is impossible to misuse by accident.”

“I’ve heard those excuses! Why did this happen then?”

“After conducting several tests, I have concluded that your son has an incredibly high pain threshold and tolerance. This must have allowed him to bypass the limiter.”

“Don’t blame my son for this! You were the ones who built something so dangerous.”

“The strength that the cybernetic arm can exert is inherent in its design. It works much like human musculature, only with lightweight alloy fibers instead of protein. The disparity between the durability of the two materials is irrevocable. We can only prevent abuse by adding limiters, like the one I mentioned earlier.”

“Your limiters are defective. How else can you explain what happened?”

“Like I was saying, Ageha is special. This has never happened with any of the prototype test subjects before. In fact, we would like to keep Ageha under close observation and maybe conduct some more tests-”

“Who in their right mind would leave him to you?”

“We are not asking for your assistance without compensation.”

“Nothing you could possibly offer-”

“Your son will need maintenance for his right arm. Also, he is in puberty and will grow quickly, so it will need to be replaced periodically.”

Ageha’s father could not argue when the facts were cruelly presented.

“Three years,” said the doctor, who was calm throughout the entire dialog, as if he had expected this outcome.

“What?”

“Let us get research data from him for three years. He will live a normal life. We just need him to come by for examinations weekly. We want the data from his peculiar case in order to prevent similar incidents in the future. In exchange, aside from servicing his arm, we will have all the charges filed against him due to the incident dropped.”

Fear surfaced on his father’s face. Ageha understood why because he also just now grasped how frightening a group they were dealing with.

“You can do that..?”

“It is within our power, yes.”

Ageha’s father took a deep breath and feebly sat on the chair. He looked down and rubbed his forehead, his elbows resting on his knees.

“I will do it.”

The reply came from an unexpected source. The two men looked at Ageha.

“What did you say?” asked his father.

“I want to do it.”

“Ageha, you don’t understand. These men are dangerous.”

“I understand. But this is the only way. I… don’t want to lose this.” He gripped his right arm with his left hand.

Ageha’s father could not say anything.

“I will take that as an affirmative answer,” said the doctor curtly.

“Wait, I-”

“Please, Father.”

Ageha’s father had rarely denied his requests since the accident. Even after Ageha attacked his fellow students, his father never blamed him. As the accident was investigated, he found out what kind of treatment Ageha had been put through. He probably thought that they deserved it.

“…I understand. Kanou-sensei, we will agree to your proposal.” The father locked eyes with the doctor. “But please understand that if I see any untoward actions on your side that could endanger my son, the deal is off. Also, you must keep to the time limit.”

“Of course. We will not have anything over you after three years anyway. Cybernetic limbs, propelled by Ageha’s cooperation, should be on the market by then.”

The doctor stretched his hand out, but Ageha’s father ignored it. To his father, this was probably not an agreement between gentlemen but a coercion. To the boy who had already tasted power, it was the optimal outcome.

 

***

 

“How are you feeling?”

“Nothing unusual, Kanou-sensei,” said Ageha.

“It’s a bit early, but you seem to have hit the end of your growth spurt, so this should be the final replacement.”

“Yeah, I started growing early.”

“You’re plenty tall. You were already a big kid when I first operated on you. I didn’t expect I would be looking up when we talk in just three years.”

Kanou checked the shoulder connection of the ARMS he had installed on Ageha. This was their final meeting, so he wanted to make sure there were no errors.

“It looks like there are no problems.”

Kanou Gen had a good relationship with his experimental subject. It was ideal for research but not intentional. Kanou looked at Ageha’s eyes.

Lifeless, just like me.

They meshed well, not because he tried to be cordial with the boy, but because they both had numbed emotions. Kanou understood his own vitality had been sapped from years of soiling his hands, but the boy was only sixteen. This abnormality interested Kanou.

“Can you remove the pain inducing limiter on my arm?”

The question caught the doctor by surprise.

“Why?”

“Even if I can endure it, pain is still a pain.”

“So you intend to use it beyond normal capacity?”

“Yes.”

“For what?”

“Whatever I find the reason to.”

“You do understand that’s illegal?”

“It’s not like it’s our first time.”

The boy was right. In order to advance artificial nerve research, Kanou performed many borderline and, on occasion, outright illegal experiments. Ageha knew because he was the subject of most of them. These experiments were naturally a secret from his father. His abnormality had been an indispensable asset for Kanou, but that was no longer the case.

“I don’t see why I should. ARMS are already in commercial production. The data I can get from you is redundant.”

“I’m part of the reason why ARMS are out in the market now.”

“Asking for gratitude from me is meaningless. You should know that by now.”

“I know.” The light in Ageha’s eyes changed.

So it was not a request but a threat.

Ageha was privy to information that could trouble Kanou and his superiors, but the boy was deeply involved as well. He would not get away unscathed if such knowledge came to light. He would also be targeted by NGC. Kanou knew that Ageha was too rational to actually do that.

However, that personality trait applied to Kanou as well. All risks should be eliminated. A little tweaking operation was a small price to pay.

I wonder if he read that far?

“Okay. In exchange, you have to make sure you do not get caught due to this modification, and if you do-”

“I don’t know anything.”

Kanou did not trust people. It was something he, having one foot in the underworld, could not afford. However, he trusted probability. The chances of Ageha betraying this promise was miniscule. The boy has never broken his word in the three years he had known him.

“Let’s get started then.”

 

***

 

Soon after Ageha entered culinary school, his grandfather died.

“Go to your grandfather’s house and check if there are any things of value.” His father’s command came from Ageha’s mobile terminal.

“Can’t you go yourself? I’m busy with school.”

“You know I hate that place.”

“But I hardly knew the man, thanks to you.”

“He’s dead now, so I don’t see the problem.”

“Sousuke, we need you in the kitchen!” shouted someone from the background on his father’s end of the line.

“I have to go. The house is close to your university. I’m counting on you, okay?”

The call was cut before Ageha could reply. He sighed as he pocketed his terminal and walked to his next class. He had hardly seen his grandfather when he was alive, much less spoken with him. This was the root of his hesitation for this errand. He felt that he was about to ransack a dead stranger’s home.

He headed to his grandfather’s house after finishing his last class for the day.

“I can’t believe how clean this place is considering he lived alone.”

Ageha scanned the large estate. It was land that had been inherited for several generations of their family. The main building’s architecture was traditional Japanese, and a fairly large storehouse stood apart from it. Doing as Sousuke instructed, he entered the large one floor structure and checked the rooms.

In his grandfather’s room, he saw military uniforms and medals displayed on the wall. He heard from Sousuke that the man was one of the last war veterans. There had been no major wars for decades, but it appeared that his grandfather was a soldier to the end.

I can’t blame father for running away from all this. I wonder what his reaction would be if I brought home those medals.

Sousuke’s father wanted him to join the army. However, it was now a pointless occupation with no honor and rampant corruption. Sousuke rebelled, aspired to be a chef, and succeeded. The two never reconciled.

It’s ironic how he goes on to force his culinary legacy on me. It’s a good thing I actually like cooking.

Ageha found cutouts of old newspaper articles in one of the desk drawers. He scanned some of the headlines, which read, “Sustainable Fusion Achieved” and “Unlimited Energy Changes World Economy.” He wondered what his grandfather was thinking when he collected information on the breakthrough that brought prosperity to the world and an end to international conflict.

Was peace his victory, or his enemy?

No one could answer that now. Ageha stopped his train of thought when he realized its futility.

Finding nothing to bring back, Ageha finished his sweep of the main building and moved to the outlying storehouse. He used the key he found in his grandfather’s room to open it. In contrast to the rest of the estate, the interior of the storeroom was dusty and had spiderwebs decorating the corners of the ceiling. He switched on the light and observed the objects in the room.

What immediately caught his eye was something that no one would expect to find in a residence storage. A military exoskeleton stood at the far end of the room.

I knew he loved war, but this is pretty big for a souvenir. Is this even legal?

Ageha approached the machine. It was plugged into a charging unit. Out of curiosity, he pressed the activation switch.

“Please input data source.”

Ageha raised an eyebrow in response to the request. He searched the machine for something that fit that description and found a panel with various input slots. Thinking that there was nothing to lose, he checked the shelves and desk in the storeroom. Inside the desk drawer, he found numerous data chips with labels, such as “Knife Combat 2”, “Stealth Movement 3”, and “Grappling -Ground- 1,” on them. With his curiosity piqued, he plugged one of the chips into the appropriate slot on the exoskeleton.

“Activating training program Knife Combat 1. Please equip the exoskeleton.”

Ageha hesitated. He did not know if the machine was safe. All he knew about exoskeletons was what he had learned in history class. They were training machines used during the war to preserve the combat expertise of elite soldiers.

It was not curiosity that pushed Ageha to follow the voice instructions of the metal contraption. Since the time he went berserk in the school courtyard, most of his emotions had been anesthetized, but that did not mean he did not feel anything. He still believed in doing what was right but had been educated by society on how powerless he was. He was forced to swallow his rage whenever the unfairness of the world slapped him in the face.

Isn’t this the same as my right arm?

He knew that he did not have enough power with just one cybernetic arm. Punching someone you did not like was only a shortcut to jail.

But what if?

What if he had the fighting skills? What if he had not one, but two cybernetic arms? Legs? The possibilities exploded inside him. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and woke up parts of him that lay dormant for years.

“Equip procedure complete. Please give the command to start when ready.”

“…Start.”

His frozen heart started beating once more.

 

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Ten: Salt and Pepper

“I have always wondered. Why do you not use guns, Ageha-sama?”

“Are you seriously going to keep calling me that even during an operation?”

“How should I address you then?” asked Saya as she turned the steering wheel.

With streetlights illuminating the road ahead, they sped along the highway. They were riding a non-descript gray car with a fake license plate specially prepared for what they intended to do tonight.

“…Since I’m wearing all black, how about ‘Kuro?’ Hmm, but that sounds like a cat name… What about ‘Hei?’ It’s Chinese for black.”

“I do not think that is a good idea for various reasons.”

“Really? Too childish, I guess. Just Ageha then.”

“Would that not reveal your identity if the enemy hears it?”

“Well, it’s just my given name, and they’ll probably think it’s an alias anyway.”

“But still… I have an idea. I shall give you a code name that we can use.”

Ageha raised an eyebrow at the suggestion but did not decline. Saya thought silently for a while. After making another turn on the road she said,

“How about ‘Kokku?’”

“What.”

“I thought about something that represents both of your identities, a chef and a black clad killer. So ‘a cook’ (kokku) and ‘black’ (koku).

Ageha was flabbergasted, and it showed on his face. He pondered if she realized that ‘kokku’ also meant ‘cock’ in English.

“Rejected. And I don’t need puns in my name.”

“…I had confidence in it…” whispered Saya with a disappointed look.

Saya had become more expressive recently. Ageha wondered if she was actually like this by nature when unguarded or if she was only this unreserved with him. He immediately erased the latter possibility from his mind.

Recovering from her previous failure, Saya gave another name candidate.

“How about ‘Chou?’”

“Butterfly?”

My name does mean swallowtail butterfly.

“Also the second word of kitchen knife (houchou).”

Is she an old man inside..?

“Pun aside, I can work with that. It’s short and easy to say.”

“Understood. I shall address you like so during missions.”

“It sounds like your calling me chief (Chou), though.”

“I had not thought of that! A good one, Chou!”

I’m regretting this whole code name business already.

“What should my code name be then?” asked Saya, her head tilted.

“You’re asking me?”

“It is only fair.”

Ugh.

Ageha crossed his arms and closed his eyes as he cycled through possible code names for the versatile butler.

“Sebas- okay, okay, I’m sorry. I’ll think about it properly.”

Ageha instantly pulled back his suggestion when he saw Saya’s rare scowl.

I guess her becoming more expressive isn’t all good.

The car sped along the highway as Ageha mentally struggled to come up with a name that would satisfy his partner for the night.

“How about ‘Mikazuki’?”

“Crescent moon?”

“Yeah, but we need to keep it short, so ‘Tsuki’.”

“Why did you pick that?”

“I’ve always thought that your face resembled a crescent moon because of your hairstyle.”

“Choosing a name because of my hairstyle is a little-”

“It isn’t the hairstyle but what it highlights that caught my eye. Well, I can pick another one if you don’t like it.”

“…Tsuki is fine.”

Not making eye contact with her lone passenger, Saya stared straight at the road ahead.

“Back on topic, why do you not use guns, Chou?

After I tried so hard to avoid the topic..!

“You really like that nickname, don’t you?”

“It is for practice. And please answer the question, if not for my idle curiosity, for future strategic considerations.”

Cornered, Ageha surrendered and gave his explanation.

“I suck at shooting.” He breathed out a long sigh.

“Maybe you just lack practice?”

“I tried, believe me. I’ve always been clumsy, especially with my hands.”

“Your exquisite dishes beg to differ.”

Ageha smiled at the offhand compliment but did not relent.

“I’ve cooked all my life, so I ended up good at it. It isn’t natural talent. The effort is what I take pride in.”

“Is your martial ability like that as well?”

Ageha analyzed if Saya’s question was about his combat training or killing experience. He concluded it was both.

“You can say that.”

I had a very odd teacher though.

“Speaking of idle curiosity, why do you always wear a butler outfit? I think this is only the second time I’ve seen you wear anything different.”

Saya fidgeted a little as Ageha eyed her current attire. She wore skin tight black material all around her body. The torso area had thicker material but still brandished her delicate curves. Her athletic yet feminine shoulders were emphasized by the fabric stitching. Having the captivating contours of a female gymnast, her legs looked lithe despite being made of metal.

“That is Kai-Ojousama’s preference. I personally do not mind what uniform I wear when on duty.”

“She has good taste in food and fashion. The butler uniform fits you perfectly.”

“…Thank you.”

Her deadpan expression did not falter, but the pitch of her voice was minutely higher.

“Your minimal chest girth gives it a really dignified look. Why are you grabbing my hair!? That’s dangerous! You’re driving!”

Saya still bore an expressionless look while facing the road. Unmoving, her left hand was coiled into Ageha’s black hair.

“Excuse me.”

Her left hand slowly returned to the steering wheel. Saya nonchalantly continued to drive as if nothing happened. Ageha decided to forget the bizarre robotic outburst and changed the topic.

“I still don’t understand why an assassin was sent on a thieving mission,” he grumbled, faking annoyance to alleviate the heavy atmosphere.

“To put it bluntly, we need the muscle.”

“That is blunt. Are you angry?”

“No, why would I be?” she said flatly as if reading off a script.

“Anyway, why are we stealing a painting from a museum? Kai refused to tell me the true objective of this plan.”

“She did not divulge it to me either, but she must have something in mind. It must be important if she ordered me away from her side.”

Kai did say the painting was absolutely essential, which is why I agreed to this in the first place.

He almost refused to take part in this mission because it was not part of his duties, but his failure in Akihabara made him reconsider. He had not provided any significant service to Kaika outside of his cooking but had still received monetary and cybernetic compensation for their partnership. A little overtime was not an unreasonable demand from his generous employer.

“Aren’t you worried, leaving her alone in that mansion?”

“We left covertly, so the enemies should not be aware that she is unguarded right now. While I say unguarded, we still have the other bodyguards stationed throughout the mansion.”

“I wouldn’t put too much trust in those guys.”

“Coming from you, that is really convincing.” Recovering her mood, she giggled. “But we have no choice. We need at least two people with sufficient capability to fight our way out without damaging the painting.”

“Is there really no way to get it out without being detected?”

“It’s impossible to disable the alarm system from outside the security room. Moreover, the painting in question has special security measures since it is the most valuable piece in the museum. The best we could manage was to prepare a method of entry. As we discussed in the briefing, we are going to sneak in, just grab it, and run.”

“That’s not exactly the most elegant way to do it.”

“And normally impossible because of the Arax units that are stationed in the museum, not to mention the patrolling human guards. That is why you are here.”

“The muscle.” He frowned.

“Yes.” She smiled.

After several minutes of driving down narrow roads sandwiched by foliage, the two arrived at their destination. They parked the car near the museum’s main entrance. It was parked facing the exit to enable a quick escape.

They donned cloth masks, which left the mouth uncovered for easier communication, and exited the vehicle. After quickly traversing the lot, they reached the rear entrance, which had an electronic security lock. Saya opened the lock’s casing and plugged in a data stick, which she produced from her suit.

“Why does a security lock have a data socket? Isn’t that a huge security risk?”

“It is there to ensure that the doors can still be opened even if the digital panel is broken. A safety override, if you will. Only the appropriate security key can open it.

“Which we conveniently have.”

“This is a copy that we managed to get by bribing one of the museum’s greedier security personnel.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.”

With a beep, the door unlocked. Ageha and Saya silently  entered the building.

“Over here,” whispered Saya, her finger pointing towards an air vent on the ceiling.

The museum display floors had numerous safety measures. According to Kaika’s plan, the best route was through the vents. They were supposed to travel in the vents until they were close to the painting. Then they would drop down, procure the item, and escape.

Imitating a ballet lift, Ageha boosted Saya up, her feet resting on his hands. Saya removed the vent cover and tossed it to Ageha before entering. She then dropped a synthetic rope for him. He climbed up, entered the vent, and clicked the cover back in place before crawling onwards.

The vent cover design was included in their investigation. They also had the map of the museum, including the ventilation system, on their portable terminals. They had to exit the vents in certain sections to move from one elevation to another. The stairs had minimal security, so this was done with ease.

They repeated this process until they reached the third floor vents, which led directly to the painting. These vents were narrower than the previous ones.

Did they consider entry through the vents as well?

Ageha could not turn inside the vent, so he had to give up on replacing the cover. After several minutes of crawling inside the shaft, they reached the end of the vent. Saya looked down through the last grate.

“It is down there,” she whispered.

Ageha made an unseen nod. He expected Saya to open the grate like before, but it was taking too long. He tapped her shoe to check on things. He noticed that Saya sent a message to his terminal.

“The grate is welded to the shaft. This is likely another special security measure for this room. I cannot open it,” it read.

Ageha realized what was required of him, so he slowly crawled past Saya’s legs. The vents were narrow enough to prevent turning but wide enough to allow him to crawl past Saya and destroy the grate with his hands.

But it was not wide enough for that to be done smoothly.

Saya placed her back flat on the right side of the vent to maximize space. Ageha inched forward in a similar position on the opposite side, but his hands inevitably brushed against Saya’s thighs due to the lack of space.

“Chou, stop~” said Saya in an amorous voice.

What the hell is she saying..?

Ageha understood that ARMS tactile sensitivity was not much different from human flesh excepting the incredibly high pain thresholds that were designed to match the alloy durability. However, he had hardly touched her.

Isn’t she too sensitive?

Ageha opted to quickly end the ordeal by hurrying his crawl. Unfortunately or fortunately, this caused his forearm to graze Saya’s belly.

“Mhmm~”

Saya reflexively bended forward from the tickling sensation caused by Ageha’s touch and unavoidably pressed her modest breast against his face. Though petite, the mounds did exist, and a tender warmth enveloped his cheeks. Ageha has never been in such close proximity to Saya before. The fruity fragrance caused him to pause his slither. Just when he was about to give into the temptation and move his head side to side, his head was pulled back by the hair. He tilted his neck upward and saw a stare that made even absolute zero feel cozy.

Ageha smiled in return and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

He knew that Saya was very professional. She would not do anything to endanger the mission at this point. At least, he hoped.

Saya sighed and released her arctic glare. She then tucked her arms in front of her chest. This made the space for Ageha to crawl through smaller, but it protected her from further embarrassment.

Ageha reached the grate and carefully tore it off. It was going to be a race against time once they descended. They would need to collect the painting, run through the museum, remove any obstacles, and escape using the car before they were surrounded by security.

Ageha held out three fingers and counted down one by one.

Two.

One.

The torn grate fell from the vent. Ageha dove into the opening head first and then arched his body, flipping to land on his feet. The grate hit the floor just moments before he landed. The room immediately flooded with light and blazing sirens. Without pausing, Ageha rushed towards the painting and smashed the reinforced glass with his hand. He removed it from the mount and tossed it to Saya, who had just landed.

“Be careful!”

“I knew you would catch it, Tsuki!”

Saya formed a wry smile. Ageha was unsure whether she smiled due to his cockiness or his use of her code name, but he dropped that thought and prioritized escape.

They ran following the shortest course to the car. Nothing blocked their way as they cleared the third floor hallway and reached the stairs. Without slowing, they both leapt, skipping all the steps, and landed in a crouch. They continued running along another hallway towards the stairwell to the ground floor.

“Now that I think about it, is it not proper manners for the gentleman to carry the luggage?”

“Only when the gentleman isn’t expected to do the real heavy lifting.”

As if on cue, an Arax met them in the large display hall they just set foot in. Described in minimalist terms, it was a robotic spider about the size of a van. It was painted blue, likely because it was part of a security detail.

Saya signaled to Ageha with her eyes.

Ageha sped up in response to Saya’s soundless request. He leaned forward and bolted towards the enemy. The Arax raised both of its front legs, electricity dancing at their tips. The first leg came hurtling down towards Ageha. He kicked off the ground to propel himself to the Arax’s left side. After dodging the first blow, he thrust his left hand into the joint of a leg. By digging his fingers in and pulling out the wiring, he caused the leg’s movement to cease. He repeated this with his right hand on another leg before the Arax could even turn.

The Arax still kept its balance even with the middle legs limp on its left side, but its stability was quickly broken by Saya, who launched a spinning side kick at the rear left leg. The metal spider toppled over and crashed to the ground.

“I thought you wanted to be careful with the package.”

“It is your fault for taking too long.”

“Since when is five seconds too long?”

“Since I was able to put down the package and deliver the finishing blow.”

After Saya picked up the painting, they sprinted to the next hallway, leaving the damaged Arax behind. Upon reaching the stairwell to the ground floor, they saw two more Arax units waiting for them in the lobby. Guards were also steadily pouring into the lobby.

“You handle the small fry,” said Ageha.

Without replying, Saya drew her pistol with her free hand and shot a guard in the face.

From this distance with one hand…

Ageha wanted to curse his own ineptitude, but he had more important things to do. He needed to eliminate the two Arax units while preventing them from targeting Saya, who literally had her hands full, before more reinforcements could arrive.

Ageha jumped down the stairs and landed between the two spiders. Both reacted like the first one, raising their taser legs to strike. Ageha focused his attention on the Arax to his left because it attacked first. Instead of dodging the leg, he parried it by expertly punching it to the side. Using the rotational momentum, he hurled a spinning backhand blow with his other hand. His alloy fist collided with the Arax’s sensor and cracked its protective casing.

Ageha backflipped to avoid the second Arax’s leg. He crouched low as he landed and dashed back in. Targeting two legs of the second Arax consecutively, he performed a roundhouse followed by a turning long kick combo. His attacks hit and destroyed the robot’s limbs.

The Arax counterattacked by swinging one of its right legs underneath its frame and thrusting it directly at his chest. Ageha, still recovering from his kick motion, could not evade and was forced to catch it with his hands as he stomped his right foot into the stone flooring. By rooting himself to the ground, he managed to defend against the attack without being blown back. Digging his fingers into the metal, he twisted the spider leg and tore it off.

The other Arax appeared to be unable to attack because Ageha was too close to a friendly unit. Taking this chance, Ageha spun once and threw the severed leg at the other Arax. The leg pierced the Arax’s already damaged sensor and broke it completely.

The closer Arax managed to create some distance during this period to better position itself for an attack. However, the Arax with the broken sensor approached and attacked it. Ageha realized that the Arax must have mistaken its ally for an enemy. He used this chance to check on Saya’s condition. A gunfight was ongoing. Saya was taking refuge behind the stairwell. Several guards had already been shot to death.

How dependable. Looks like I can focus on the task at hand.

While the two robots were busy with each other, Ageha focused all his leg power and jumped vertically. He almost reached the ceiling of the lobby, which was two stories high. From that position, he saw Saya close in on the two remaining guards while they reloaded.

She’s probably out of bullets.

Sliding and horizontally rotating her body with her right leg extended, she swept the two guards off their feet. She was already rising as she completed her rotation and raised her right leg to gather potential energy for an axe kick.

Ageha did not need to watch further to know the result. He aimed his sight at the blind Arax as he dove towards it. A second before he reached the robot, he curled his body into a ball, spun forward two cycles, and then extended his right leg. The gravity-powered, diving axe kick slammed into the Arax’s frame. The impact smashed the armor open, causing fragile parts to spew all over the floor.

Ageha felt the impact rattle his internal organs and brain. Most of the force was absorbed by his cybernetic lower body, but what did get through was still significant. The urge to vomit welled up, but he weathered it. He was used to this kind of beating. Using ARMS like he did had such a cost, and he paid it every time it was for sale.

He leaned back and laid flat to avoid a leg swipe. The remaining Arax had switched from non-lethal attacks to simply clobbering him to death. Rolling on the ground, he escaped from a barrage of leg stabs that poked holes in the floor. He seized the attacking limb, which missed him by a hair’s breadth. The Arax reacted by raising its leg, which carried Ageha into the air. Using the momentum, he pushed off the leg and flung himself on top of the Arax, where the enemy’s legs could not reach. As if he had mounted an enemy fighter, he clasped his hands together and hammered down incessantly until the armor cracked open. With the delicate machinery exposed, he stabbed his hand inside like a knife and ripped out whatever his fingers could grasp. The Arax lost power and lowered to the floor.

“Too slow again?” asked Ageha as he stood up from the wreckage.

Saya was looking at him with her mouth agape. She quickly pressed her lips together once she saw Ageha look at her.

“…No, people do not normally survive fighting two Arax units barehanded. I was hurrying to finish on my end so I could aid you, but it appears to have been a needless worry.”

“You make it sound like I’m not a person,” he said with a wry smile.

“It was a compliment, but I am sure you know that.” She smiled in return.

Saya recovered the painting and exited the building with Ageha. Gunshots rang out as they ran towards their escape vehicle. They turned to the source and saw a guard with a rifle trained on them. Ageha realized how unfavorable the situation was. They were on open ground. Saya was out of ammo. Bullets could not be dodged. Ageha knew that running around would not significantly lessen the probability of being hit, so he decided to bet on their best chance of survival.

He placed himself in between the shooter and Saya. Taking a peek-a-boo boxing stance, he covered his face with his fists. Saya instantly understood his intention and did not leave his back. The shooter emptied his rifle into Ageha, who flinched each time a bullet hit him.

Saya dropped the package, slipped by Ageha, and darted to the reloading guard. She leapt and kicked the man’s chest with more force than she used against the Arax. The guard was blasted backward and crashed into a wall. Saya looked back at Ageha and pursed her lips. Ageha was on his knees and clutching his left rib area.

At the exact same spot where Rin elbowed me. What luck.

 

***

 

Saya assisted Ageha into the car and drove away from the museum. The only thing left was a clean escape. Saya stopped the car on the shoulder of the highway after making sure that they had not been tailed.

“We have to stop the bleeding.”

“Heh, talk about gambles not paying off. Is Kai my jinx or something?”

Saya helped Ageha out of the car and rested his back on the closed rear car door. She used Ageha’s knife and sliced away the fabric on her left leg.

“I will use this as a makeshift bandage.”

“I would be ecstatic if those were real.” He glanced at Saya’s bare leg.

“I will not lend them to you if you keep saying things like that.”

“Do you mean a lap pillow?”

“What else?”

“I’ll pass on a pillow that’s harder than my skull. An arm pillow would be welcome though.”

Saya saw the amount of blood leaking out of Ageha as she bandaged him.

This looks bad. He does not have much blood to spare in the first place.

“I will think about it.”

“Don’t make a face like that.”

“What face? It is the same as usual.”

“Exactly. Can’t you show a little more concern at a time like this?” He laughed weakly.

Joking in this situation… Is he coping with the fear or just fearless?

Something urged Saya to believe the latter. He was probably trying to calm her down. Her fingers had been trembling while treating his wound. The human guards were her responsibility because they did not fit into Ageha’s criteria. This could have been avoided If she had at least one more bullet in her handgun. She was plagued by the consequence of her failures.

They reentered the car after the first aid. Not caring about the possibility of being tagged by traffic police, Saya floored it.

“…Why did you do that?” asked Saya.

“It wasn’t for you, if that’s what you’re asking. You were holding the package. I had no choice.”

“Even so, you did not have to use yourself as a shield… Why do you try to shoulder so much by yourself?”

Ageha faced Saya, the corners of his mouth drooped. “…I don’t believe in depending on others. I tried that once, and it didn’t work out so well. All I can trust are these.” He opened and closed his hand.

Saya remained silent and gave the unusually talkative Ageha a chance to continue.

“I was part of an ARMS experiment when I was a kid.”

Saya knew this story. It was included in his profile, which she had studied a while ago.

“I lost my right arm in an accident. My father wanted me to become a chef, his successor, so badly that he made a deal with NGC to use me for an ARMS experiment. It was a godsend. Let’s just say that my new arm enabled me. It’s the reason for the body I have now.”

“…I never had that choice.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was also involved in an experiment, but it was not voluntary. My family was very poor. I know how unusual that is in this age, but my parents both loved gambling. We had enough for food and the like, but one day I was diagnosed with peripheral artery disease. My legs degraded rapidly and were eventually amputated.” She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “My parents saw me as nothing but baggage since then. I was not surprised when they decided to sell me off to NGC as an experimental subject.”

Ageha’s face looked more pained than it did right after he was shot. Saya, seeing this reaction, could not help but show a sad smile. She knew that Ageha was not pitying her. He was probably reminded of his own share of betrayals.

“I had leg and hip ARMS installed on me. I was with other teenagers. We were told that adolescent subjects were preferred because they healed and adapted faster. We performed various activities to gather data from the cybernetic parts. We were treated well, better than at my home at least. The lack of freedom was not that noticeable since I never had much of it anyway.”

Reminiscing a fond memory, Saya’s stern expression gave way to a much gentler one. “That ended after Kai-Ojousama toured the facility with her father on one of their educational field trips. She asked her father to hire me as her aide after one look.”

“Love at first sight?”

“For her at least. I did not know how to feel at first. After I moved to the mansion, I underwent an educational regimen similar to Ojousama’s, though less intensive to make room for combat training. That was hell, for a time.”

“Did you try to escape?”

“I intended to, but I was always with Ojousama so I could not find a chance. We were both under strict surveillance.”

“You could have killed her then escaped in the confusion.” Ageha, smirking, was clearly joking.

“I tried to, several times. I almost succeeded each time.”

Ageha turned his head to Saya, his eyes wide open.

“Why did you fail?”

Saya wordlessly opened and closed her mouth like a fish several times. After overcoming her hesitation, she confessed.

“…She was too cute.”

“What.”

“I tried strangling her the first time, but when I saw her adorable face, I lost my resolve. That happened about three times. That level of charm must be some sort of cheat.” The butler’s cheeks were rosy.

Ageha broke into laughter.

How can he laugh like that with a hole on his side? Saya admired Ageha’s physical and mental fortitude. At the same time, it frightened her.

“I’m amazed she didn’t get rid of you after the first attempt.”

“Me too.”

“Judging from results alone, she made the right decision though.”

I wonder if he is aware of what he is doing when he says things like this…

Saya sighed, not knowing how to take Ageha’s wonted and veiled compliments.

“Did you ever… ask Kai why she chose you?” asked the wounded warrior. His speech was fragmented and lacking vitality.

“I did.”

“…And?”

Why do I have to answer these questions..!?

Saya wanted to preserve her pride, but that same pride prevented her from declining a request from someone who had been injured for her sake, be it his intention or not.

“…She said she wanted a cute… boy butler.”

Saya felt Ageha’s gaze on her chest. Her left hand unconsciously grabbed him by his hair, but the expected yelp from the action was not heard. She peeked to her left and saw that Ageha’s eyes were shut. She could tell he was breathing, so she knew he was only asleep. This did not change the fact that every second counted if he was to be saved. She released her viselike grip on his thick, ruffled locks and gently caressed his hair, as if petting a cat.

“You can look forward to your arm pillow when you wake up.”

 

 

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