January 1st, U.C. 0047, 6:58 AM
Tsukasa reached her hand up to knock on the door for the third time that morning, and for the third time, she pulled it back. She hadn’t talked to Jin since the attack on the mansion, partially because the older meido had kept them as far apart as possible, but mostly because she was worried that Jin was still angry at her. With a heavy sigh, she reached up to knock again, this time determined to go through with it, but the door swung open in front of her.
“Oh, it’s you, Mme Tsukasa,” Naomi said, her hand resting on the door’s knob. “Can’t it wait until after the operation?”
“Iie,” Tsukasa steeled herself. She knew that Naomi was concerned that she would trigger a reawakening of Jin’s powers, but Jin might die on the operating table, in which case she would have to live the rest of her life regretting that they had never patched things up.
“Very well,” sighed Naomi, “just don’t upset her.” She pulled open the door and Chikako and Aina exited the room. Aina brought her hand up to clasp Tsukasa’s shoulder as she walked past but thought better of it at the last second.
“Ganbatte,” Aina wished her luck. Tsukasa stepped into the room, and Naomi closed the door behind her. Jin was sitting up in her bed, wearing a medical gown. When she saw Tsukasa enter the room, a friendly smile spread across her face.
“I’m glad you came,” Jin greeted her.
“Arigatou,” Tsukasa said sheepishly. “Soshite… Anou… Gomen.”
“Iie,” Jin waved away the apology. “I should apologize to you. Were you hurt when the labor fell?”
“Just a couple bruises,” Tsukasa boasted, walking over to the side of the bed. “They’re already gone.”
“Yokatta,” Jin sighed. “Anou, Naomi-sama, could we have some privacy? I promise everything will be daijoubu.”
“No,” Naomi replied curtly. “Don’t mind me. I don’t care about your personal lives anyway.”
“That’s not true,” Jin stated. “You may try to hide it, but you do care about us, maybe even more than you realize.”
“Fine,” Naomi grimaced, “you can have five minutes. In exchange, you won’t repeat that—or anything else you read from my mind—to anyone else. Deal?”
“Deal,” Jin replied.
“Deal, Mme Tsukasa?” Naomi asked.
“Deal,” Tsukasa nodded. Naomi left the room without another word.
“Tsukasa-san,” Jin began, looking Tsukasa straight in the eyes, “will you lend me your strength? I’ve never been strong, so I don’t know what it feels like, but minna says I’m going to need to be strong from now on, and I’m scared of the surgery.” Tsukasa could see Jin’s hands trembling.
“Lend you my strength? How?” Tsukasa asked.
“Just try to focus on it, feel as strong as you can, and I will feel it too.”
Tsukasa tried to remember the times she felt the strongest: the time she had beat up her first bully, the time she had spat blood in another bully’s face after getting beaten up herself, and the time last week when she had shot down all five enemy labors. Except, when she thought about those events, she didn’t feel strength, only the tough facade of strength, behind which hid fear, embarrassment, and self-loathing. She could tell from the look on Jin’s face that she was feeling these things too. Tsukasa tried to focus on other things, but the feelings still lingered.
“Gomen,” Tsukasa blurted out. “I’ve never been strong. Not really.” Tears began to form in her eyes.
“Uun,” Jin wiped away Tsukasa’s tears with a trembling finger as a single tear fell down her own cheek, “you must be strong. You have to deal with those kinds of feelings. I don’t think I could do that. If I had feelings like that…”
“Demo, that doesn’t help you right now.”
“It does. Even though I can’t feel your strength, it’s there. Now I know that I have to find my own strength.”
“Maybe you could try someone else,” Tsukasa offered.
“I did ask some of them,” Jin frowned, “but they all thought it was a bad idea for me to use my powers.”
“What about Aina-senpai? I’m sure she’d let you.”
“I can’t feel anything from her.”
“Naze does that not surprise me?” Tsukasa chuckled. “Don’t get me wrong, senpai’s my tomodachi, but she’s weird, you know?”
“I know what you mean. Sometimes—“ Jin started to say, but she was cut short by a knock at the door.
“It hasn’t been five minutes yet!” Tsukasa shouted.
“The doctor is here,” Naomi said from the other side of the door.
Kazue walked through the maintenance room and down an attached hallway until she came to an unassuming closet door. From the other side, she could hear singing. As she opened the door, the singing spilled out into the hallway momentarily.
“Kazue-sama, youkoso,” Sena said, pausing her singing. “How did the operation go?”
She was standing in the small closet, amidst piles of her paintings. She hadn’t been able to paint a new piece since Naomi had forbade the practice, but she still kept her old paintings around. If Kazue were in Sena’s place, she would have disposed of them, but she knew that Sena was keeping them around precisely because it was the illogical thing to do.
“Without issue,” answered Kazue. “Demo, it will be quite the issue if anyone catches you singing, especially a Soviet anthem.” Sena didn’t have any political leanings, she was just singing The State Anthem of the USSR because doing so was especially forbidden.
“Would you like to sing with me?” Sena asked.
“I will decline. If I were to take up singing—which I would not—I would want to sing properly,” Kazue replied. If Sena were caught, her wildly off-pitch singing might be mistaken as an insult to the Soviet Expedition, which would probably reduce her punishment. “You had something you wanted to discuss?”
“Douzo,” Sena bade, handing a tablet to Kazue, who took it from her. She flicked her finger across the screen, quickly scrolling the contents. It contained a script for a comedy routine for two with crude drawings of meido in the margins. The drawings were crude both in that they were drawn poorly and that their subject matter was crude. The jokes themselves mostly revolved around the fact that the two comedians were identical-looking gynoids.
“If you are asking me to appraise this routine, you would be better off asking a homo sapiens. I don’t understand comedy any better than you do.”
“Iie, I’m asking you to perform this routine with me at dinner tonight,” Sena clarified. New Year’s dinner was a very informal affair at the Wright household. There were no guests, and the staff all ate in the dining room with Akira. If they performed this routine, everyone in the mansion would see it.
“Perhaps you should ask one of the others.”
“If you won’t do it, it’s unlikely that any of the others will,” Sena asserted. Kazue suspected she was right.
“In that case—” Kazue was interrupted by a sharp knock at the door. Before either of the gynoids could answer, Naomi pulled the door open.
“Which one of you is the troublemaker?” Naomi asked.
“I don’t get it,” Akira stated, his brow furrowed in confusion. “This tegami doesn’t make much sense. They seem to be upset with the birth control provided to Momo. Does she need a special nekomimi blend or something?”
Normally, Aina would have found the joke funny, but she didn’t think Akira would be in such a good mood once things were explained to him. Chikako took the letter and skimmed it.
“Yes, the writing is quite erratic,” Chikako agreed with Akira, “but I believe the Nekomimi Preservation Council is actually concerned that Momo is taking birth control medication at all.”
“That makes more sense,” Akira nodded. “After all, it’s their job to encourage nekomimi reproduction. Demo, I’m sure Momo knows her ninmu. She’s probably just taking the pills to clear up some acne or something. Write them back and let them know that she’ll stop taking them when the time comes.”
“I’m afraid there’s more to it than that,” Chikako informed him. “They’ve scheduled a hearing on this matter, and they list Aina-chan and R. Sena as co-defendants.”
“Why me?” Aina acted genuinely surprised. Even Chikako was almost fooled.
“Goshujin-sama, this is all related to an incident from a few weeks ago,” Chikako started to explain.
“And why am I just hearing about it now?” Akira questioned.
“I thought I could handle it myself, and it didn’t seem important enough to burden you with. Obviously, I was wrong.”
“Did you know that Momo was receiving birth control medication?” Naomi asked.
“I did not,” Chikako admitted.
“Neither did I,” said Naomi. “The gynoid was supplying her without my permission.” Everyone turned to look at Aina.
“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” Aina shrugged. She hadn’t forgotten asking Sena to supply the pills, but Sena said she was going to ask Naomi for permission, which she clearly hadn’t, and for some reason, she hadn’t implicated Aina either. Until she knew what was going on, Aina was going to play along with Sena.
“We’ll see about that,” Naomi said, narrowing her eyes. “Come with me, young lady.” She grabbed Aina by the wrist and pulled her down the hallway, leaving the rest of the group to deal with the letter.
“You’re a good liar, Mme Aina,” Naomi complemented once they were alone. “I hope you will continue to improve in this area, but you need to learn when to lie and when to come clean.”
“I already know that,” Aina bragged. “You take the benefit of lying and multiply it by the chance of getting away with it, and then you take the cost of getting found out and multiply it by the risk of the same. If the cost is greater than the benefit, you tell the truth. Otherwise, you lie.”
“Close enough,” Naomi smirked, opening a door and ushering Aina into her office. “Then perhaps you need to learn how to calculate those risks, because if you think you can fool me—”
“Never!” Aina feigned astonishment. “You have more than a hundred years on me, Naomi-sama. I know I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting something past you. Soshite, that’s how you can be sure I’m not lying this time: No matter what the benefit of lying is, the chance of getting away with it is zero percent, or in other words, the risk of getting caught is hyaku percent, and the cost is corporal punishment. Since I obviously want to avoid a guaranteed punishment, I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“You do understand when to lie,” remarked a surprised Naomi. “But if you think this will increase your chances of getting away unpunished, you’re mistaken.”
“There’s nothing to get away with,” insisted Aina. In response, Naomi put her hand on the top of Aina’s head threateningly.
“Enough,” Naomi said. “The gynoid still swears fealty to me, but this is the second time she has misappropriated funds behind my back, and she doesn’t see the contradiction of those two actions. Worse yet, neither do the other gynoids, and they all swear that you had nothing to do with this. But I heard you order the gynoid to acquire the pills that night.”
“If you had really heard me say that, which you didn’t, because I didn’t say it, then it wouldn’t have been done without your knowledge, and you wouldn’t be trying to get a confession from me,” Aina pointed out. Naomi, displeased with this answer, sent a short jolt of pain down Aina’s body.
“Don’t be clever with me, child,” Naomi warned.
“If you’re going to torture me when I tell you the truth, Naomi-sama, what incentive do I have not to lie to you?”
Naomi sent another jolt through Aina’s body, longer this time.
“There is one more reason to lie not accounted for in your formula: when you still benefit even if you’re caught, and that benefit is worth the cost. But let me make myself very clear, I will either find out how you are controlling the gynoids or I will kill you. You will gain no benefit from lying to me.”
“In that case,” sighed Aina, “I had better tell you the truth. Hai, the gynoids are acting in my benefit, but not because I have done anything to them. In fact, I’ve never given any of them a single order. Every time they’ve done something for me, it’s because I’ve asked nicely, and they’ve done it out of friendship.”
“Nice try, but they don’t have emotions.”
“There’s no emotion involved. Like us, gynoids are social because cooperation leads to greater survival rates. Being friends with a gynoid is difficult, because they remember everything. I have to write it down, see?” Aina pulled out her phone and pulled up a spreadsheet. The first column listed the gynoids’ names, and the second column listed net favors owed. Some of the numbers were fractional. She handed the phone to Naomi.
“I don’t see R. Sena on this list,” Naomi observed, handing Aina back the phone.
“That’s because we’re better tomodachi. I trust her to help me when I need it, and vice-versa, because the survival of one of us benefits the survival of the other. So we don’t need to keep track.”
“That still sounds like a lot of quid pro quo favors.”
“Hai,” Aina agreed. “Like I said: friendship.”
“Well if that’s all it is,” Naomi said, removing her hand from Aina’s head, “I look forward to seeing that friendship on display at the hearing.”