Hiroko turned, mop in hand, to face Mari, but she didn’t stop running until she was within striking distance.
“Mari-san, don’t tell me they even sent you after me.”
“Iie, it’s not like that,” Mari pleaded. Now that she was close to Hiroko, she could see that Hiroko was breathing heavily and bleeding from her left temple. “I came to beg you to come back. It’s not too late! If you apologize… Otherwise, they’re going to kill you!”
“They’ll kill me even if I come back.”
“That’s not true! Minna wants you back.”
“You wakarimasen. They found out I’m a member of HIMITSU. There’s no going—” Hiroko stopped mid sentence as she heard the sound of a branch snapping. Aina and Sena were circling around the clearing in opposite directions, preparing for a pincer attack.
“Gomen, Mari-san,” Hiroko grunted, kicking Mari to the ground and raising her mop to skewer the younger girl. She hesitated for the briefest of moments, caught off guard by Mari’s stunned expression. That hesitation saved Mari’s life.
Three coasters whizzed out of the forest towards Hiroko. With one swift, practiced movement, Hiroko shifted her mop to her left hand, unsheathed her broom’s sword, and deflected the coasters with the blade. Three more coasters came from a position to her left, and she turned to deflect them. A flare went up from their origin, but Hiroko bit down on a switch in the left side of her mouth, sending up dozens of flares from around the forest. At the same time, she turned back to the right to meet the charge she knew was coming.
Any slower and she would have been too late. She expected to find an assailant a few paces out of range of her mop, but Aina had already closed the distance and was preparing to knock Hiroko’s mop away with her duster. Left with no other choice, Hiroko pivoted on her right foot, swinging her body around it, pulling the mop away from Aina’s strike, and slashed at Aina with her sword.
Aina barely leapt back in time, and Hiroko used the chance to check her left side. Sena was running towards her, sword out, as fast as she could, but she was still several paces away. She returned her attention to Aina, who was now preparing to dash around behind her. If she succeeded, Hiroko would either have to turn her back to the girl or to the gynoid. She pivoted again, on her left foot this time, and turned ahead of where Aina was moving, slashing straight down to prevent her advance, then slashing horizontally to return Aina to per previous position.
Without looking in Sena’s direction, Hiroko swung her mop to parry Sena’s sword. She had used the sound of Sena’s footfalls to time her approach and was very familiar with how gynoids were programmed to fight. Although she knew Sena would adapt eventually, her first few strikes would be the same as any other gynoid’s and could be countered without looking. The mop would be able to hold Sena at bay, but one-handed, wouldn’t be powerful enough to do any damage. She needed to take the girl down quickly so she could damage the gynoid and make her escape.
Hiroko could tell that Aina was fast but inexperienced. Though she wielded the duster well, she was unsure of how to best counter Hiroko’s one-handed sword technique. But that inexperience also made her a wild card in this battle. Novices would often make foolhardy, unpredictable moves. Perhaps, Hiroko thought, she could force one such move and use it to her advantage. If she advanced on Aina quickly enough, Aina might retreat faster than Sena could keep up.
With a yell, Hiroko ran towards Aina, swinging her blade wildly, but to Aina’s credit, she danced just outside the sword’s range, occasionally parrying it by striking the side of the blade with her duster. She also slowly rotated around Hiroko as she dodged, curving Hiroko’s advance and allowing Sena to keep up.
Time was almost up. Soon Sena would start adapting to her spear technique, so with one final swing to force Aina to back up, Hiroko switched her attention to Sena, intending to kick her in the abdomen to buy a little more time.
“Chance!” Aina shouted as soon as she was out of Hiroko’s line of sight. Sena dropped to the ground to sweep Hiroko, who jumped over Sena’s leg. She looked back in Aina’s direction to find that the girl had disappeared. She frantically looked back towards Sena to find the gynoid missing as well.
Were it not sunset, Hiroko would have noticed as Aina’s shadow passed over her. Aina had leapt high into the air, and Sena had converted her sweep into a roll, rolling under Hiroko as she jumped. It was a move that the two of them had practiced in secret, and it was paying off in their first battle together. Hiroko noticed Sena first, and brought her sword down on the gynoid, who parried with her own from her position on the ground. Aina grabbed the mop as she landed and tore it from Hiroko’s grasp, throwing it far behind her. Not only was Aina fast, Hiroko realized, she was strong as well.
With her free hand, Hiroko grabbed Aina’s duster, intending to disarm her as she had been disarmed, but Aina held firm and was pulled from the ground. Upon learning how light Aina was, Hiroko tossed her back towards the forest. It wouldn’t buy her much time, but hopefully it would be enough to deal with Sena, who she now turned to face.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a brief flash of steel, but it was too late. Mari’s blade sunk a few inches into Hiroko’s side. Before it could go any deeper, Hiroko grabbed the blade with her left hand, all the while continuing to fight off Sena with her right. But Mari held firm, letting out a loud battle cry as she fought with both hands to drive her blade into Hiroko.
It had been stupid to forget about Mari, but she had prevented the blade from reaching her heart. If she could pull it out quickly enough…
Hiroko’s last hopeful thoughts came to an abrupt end as Aina ran up behind Mari and, placing her palm on the pommel of Mari’s sword, pushed it into Hiroko. Mari kept a firm grip on the hilt and guided the sword directly into Hiroko’s heart. Hiroko convulsed, releasing her grip on both of the swords. Aina placed her hands over Mari’s and firmly, but gently, helped her to pull the sword from Hiroko’s body. Mari screamed, falling backwards as she tried to get away from Hiroko’s collapsing body, which hit the ground with a dull thud.
Keeping her sword at the ready, Sena knelt down to confirm Hiroko’s death. It did not take long. A few seconds later, she stood back up and sheathed her sword.
“Listen to me very closely, futari tomo,” Sena commanded. If Mari heard her, she gave no indication, and kept her gaze transfixed on Hiroko’s corpse. Aina nudged her shoulder, breaking her out of her shock.
“Gomen. Nani did you say?” Mari asked, blinking.
“Reinforcements will arrive soon,” Sena explained. “Whatever you do, do not say anything. Keep your mouths shut. If forced to speak, do not contradict me. This is not a joke. If you say the wrong thing, they will kill you both. Wakatta?” Both girls nodded. Satisfied, Sena pulled out a flare gun and fired it into the air.
Within a few minutes, all seven groups were assembled in the clearing. The group composed of Chikako, Karin, and the leader of the prime minister’s meido arrived last.
“Report,” Chikako ordered.
“The target has been terminated,” Sena replied. “Mari-san provided confirmation of the target’s identity before the attack.”
“Who got the kill?” asked Chikako.
“They both did,” Sena answered.
“Uso,” One of the prime minister’s meido shouted. “You’re telling me she was taken out by two novices?”
“Uso ja nai,” Sena countered.
“I still don’t believe it,” the meido said. “Even together, those two girls couldn’t overpower Hiroko-sama.” Sena turned her head to Chikako, who nodded.
“Aina-chan, pick me up,” Sena ordered. Aina too looked to Chikako, who nodded again, before walking over to Sena and lifting her off the ground as if she weighed no more than a housecat.
“I’m convinced,” the leader of the prime minister’s meido said as Aina set Sena back down. “Did the target say anything before or during the battle?”
“She did not,” Sena lied. Aina and Mari remained silent, as per Sena’s instructions.
“Alright, let’s head back,” Chikako shouted. “We’ll leave the cleanup to your group,” she told the prime minister’s meido.
“Excuse me, Chikako-sama,” Sena interjected, “but I believe Mari-san and Aina-chan still have some personal issues to work out. Is it alright if we meet you back at the mansion?” Snickers broke out from both Akira’s and the prime minister’s meido.
“Normally, I’d say no,” warned Chikako. “Demo, they did get the kill, so perhaps they earned it.”
“And perhaps you cannot countermand Naomi-sama’s orders on the matter,” Sena inferred. Chikako shot the gynoid a dirty look before turning away and heading back to the mansion.
“I’ll expect you back in no more than an hour. The rest of you, with me,” she called out as she left.
“Mari-san, do you know your way back home from the Wright estate?” her leader asked. Mari nodded. “Jya, I’ll see you tonight. Ganbatte.”
“This way,” Sena called out, leading them to a looping forest trail that would eventually end near the mansion.
“That was my first kill,” Mari admitted once they were alone. “I’m still shaking. Aina-san, how are you so calm?”
“It wasn’t my first.”
“Did you feel like this too?” Mari asked.
Aina tried to think back to how she felt after she offed Zakharchenko. It had been six years—more than half her lifetime—but she couldn’t remember feeling much of anything when she burned him alive.
“Iie,” Aina shook her head. “If we didn’t kill her, she would have killed us. There’s nothing to feel bad about.”
“I know that, but I still feel bad. I guess I’m still not as tsuyoi as you,” Mari lamented.
“That’s all right,” Aina assured her. “At least you’re alive to feel bad.”
“Speaking of, arigatou for saving me. I should have thanked you earlier. You must have thought I was ungrateful.”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Aina said. “I only saved you because we needed your help to take down the target. Sena-chan and I couldn’t have done it alone.”
“That’s the only reason?” Mari asked.
“Un. Nee, Sena-chan,” Aina changed the subject, “Nani’s HIMI—”
“Stop,” Sena ordered loudly but unemotionally. “You must not ask that, Aina-chan. You must forget what that meido said and never ask that question for as long as you live. I know you are curious, and saying this will only make you more curious, but even knowing about that organization is enough to get you killed, so you must promise me not to look into it. If anyone tries to tell you what it is, you must kill them. If you cannot kill them, you must run from them and inform Naomi-sama. Wakatta?”
“What if Naomi-sama tries to tell me about it?” Aina asked.
“That will not happen,” Sena assured her.
“And if it does?”
“In that case, we are all doomed,” Sena said. “Play along with her, but be ready to betray her at the first opportunity, before she can betray you.”
“Wakatta,” Aina assured her.
“And that goes for you as well, Mari-san. If they learn that you heard about it from that meido, they won’t just kill you, they’ll kill Aina-chan too.”
“I won’t tell, I yakusoku! I’ll mamoru Aina-san with my life!”
“Ii,” replied Sena. “If you were not willing to do that, you would be an unacceptable risk, and I would kill you right here.”
“You’re just going to trust her?” Aina asked. “This is my life we’re talking about.”
“I have my reasons,” Sena assured her. “Besides, we don’t have a good excuse for killing her.”
“She bullied me in school,” Aina tried.
“Is that reason enough to kill?” Sena asked. As much as Aina didn’t want to admit it, Sena was right about that.
“You could say I felt so guilty about bullying Aina that I committed suicide,” Mari suggested.
“Ha?” blurted Aina. “Do you want to die or something?”
“Iie! Hontou. The thought of dying really scares me, even more than the thought of killing. Demo, you did save my life. If taking it would mamoru you, I have no right to complain.”
“Be quiet,” Aina told her. “We’re not going to kill you. Demo, what you just said was pretty baka. You should value your life more, since you never know how long it will last.”
“I did not think it was baka,” Sena stated unhelpfully.
The three of them walked on in silence for a while. Sena didn’t have anything else to say, Aina couldn’t wait to get away from Mari, and Mari was having trouble deciding exactly what she wanted to say next. It was only when Sena announced that they were getting close to the mansion that Mari was forced to speak up.
“Aina-san, I know I already said this, but about bullying you… Gomen nasai! You were smart for your age, so I thought you understood what I was trying to do. If I had realized how much I was hurting you, I would have backed off.”
Aina breathed in deeply, gathering tension into her body, and let it all out in one big sigh.
“Forget it. We’ll probably never see each other again, so let’s just both drop it. That way we don’t have to live the rest of our lives with it hanging over us.”
“Does that mean you forgive me?” Mari asked.
“I guess you could think of it that way.”
“But that doesn’t mean I like you,” Aina said. “In fact, I’m happy I’ll never see you again.” But Mari had stopped listening, or perhaps she had willfully ignored that last statement.
“Nee, nee, can I call you Aina-chan?”
“Gomen, gomen. I got a little ahead of myself. I understand that you don’t want to see me anymore, but I want to make things right. I want to do nice things for you. I won’t insist that we meet in person, but perhaps we could exchange email addresses?”
“There’s no way they’d let us do that,” Aina said. “Do you have any idea how improper it is for meido serving different families to be emailing each other? Not to mention the security risk, and in case you haven’t noticed, they monitor everything you send and receive. There’s no way we could get away with it.”
“I don’t care. I’ll beg my goshujin-sama if I have to. He typically rewards his meido for a job well done, and I got the kill!”
“Whatever,” Aina rolled her eyes, confident that the prime minister of all people would never grant such a scandalous request. “I can’t give you my address, but if you feel that strongly about it, you can ask Naomi-sama for permission.” She was even more sure that Naomi would refuse. She might even kill Mari for her insolence, but at least it would get Aina out of this idiotic conversation.
“I “will, Mari promised. The group emerged from the forest, a few dozen meters from the mansion.
“Jya, I’m going to go ahead,” Aina declared. “My shift is long since over, and if I don’t get to my bed soon, I’m going to fall asleep standing up. Sayonara, Mari-san.”
“Jya ne,” Mari called back, as Aina sprinted off towards the mansion gate.
As tired as she was, Aina made sure to enjoy a short bath before bed. She needed to get the smell of the forest—and of Mari—off of her if she was going to sleep peacefully. She headed straight back to her bedroom after the bath, already half asleep, but when she arrived, Momo was waiting outside her bedroom door. Mimi was standing next to her, holding her hand, and glaring at Aina with her bright yellow eyes. Aina didn’t know exactly what was going on, but she could tell one thing: Mimi was pissed.