“A hostess club?” Aina asked flatly. “I’m going home.”
“Maa, maa, don’t be that way,” Karin encouraged, giving Aina a gentle push towards the venue. “It’s the best place in the machi for people like us.”
“It’s a great place to pick up chicks,” Karin clarified. “You’re the first nakama I’ve been able to bring here though.”
“Nakama? Oh, you mean—Matte, isn’t Tsukasa-kun your—our—nakama? I thought she had a crush on Jin-chan.”
“Naw, they’re just good tomodachi, and Tsukasa-kun’s just a bit of a tomboy,” Karin replied. “Sore yori, don’t let the women here intimidate you. They may be older and more experienced, but you’re a tough meido. Soshite, don’t let the age gap bother you. If you keep an open mind about it, older women can teach you a lot of new things.”
“I don’t think I want to learn those things. At least, not with these women. There’s only ichi—“
“I’m not telling you to jump in bed with them. (Though I’m not telling you not to.) Just flirt with them a bit. You’ll learn a lot about life, and maybe you’ll see that there’s more than one sakana in the umi.”
“This is a warui idea. I’m going to get in trouble with Chikako-sama for a second night in a row.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. I come here all the time. If she makes a fuss about it, I’ll smooth everything over with her. Besides, don’t you like learning new things? The hostesses here flirt with other women for a living. Hang around them long enough and you might learn some tricks for winning your kanojo back.”
“I don’t need to win her back. She asked me to wait for her.”
“For how long?”
“A few years.”
“Word of advice: You’re both teenagers. You’ll be growing a lot these next few years, and since you won’t be growing together, you’ll tabun grow apart. Worst case, she’ll have met someone else and you’ll have to win her back.”
Could that really happen? Aina wondered. It might. My feelings for her were so strong last night, but now they feel like an echo. At the very least, I still haven’t figured everything out. This might be a good chance to learn a few things.
“Iku ze!” Karin said, noticing that Aina had begun to waver. She opened the door to the club and waved Aina in.
“I thought I told you never to come back here,” they were greeted by the bar’s manager. She was a tall woman with a dark suit and matching hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“You say that every time, but how are you going to stop me?” Karin asked, gesturing with her head to the broom strapped to her back.
“Whatever,” the manager stepped back slightly. “Demo, your tomodachi can’t come in. We don’t serve minors here.”
“Donmai. She’s ni-jyuu-sai, same as Swhen I first came here,” Karin grinned. “Now listen,” she said, pulling the manager aside. “She just got dumped by her hatsukoi.”
“I was not dumped,” interjected Aina.
“She’s the type of person who tries to stay in control at all times,” Karin continued, whispering. “Because of that, she keeps everything bottled up. If she doesn’t let it out, she’s going to explode sooner or later. Demo, the most she’s ever had is a sip of wine, and I don’t think she’ll drink much on her own.”
“Sounds like a sensible person,” the manager observed.
“She is, but tonight, I need her to get drunk. Don’t serve her any of that watered-down crap you usually serve, but don’t give her anything that tastes strong. Get her some fruity drinks so that she’ll be drunk before she realizes what’s happening. I know that’s more expensive than your usual fare, but you can bill it to my goshujin-sama.” She took out a wad of bills from her skirt pocket. “Make sure to let one of the girls know so she can manage my tomodachi’s drinking. Oh, and is that bookish girl still working here?”
“Hai, she’s managed to hang on, somehow.”
“Ii, send her over too.”
“Wakatta,” the manager replied after a brief hesitation. She took the money from Karin and stuffed it into her pocket. “Demo, it’s up to you to keep your tomodachi under control, got it?”
“It won’t be a mondai,” Karin assured her.
“It’s always a mondai with you.”
Shortly after Karin and Aina sat themselves down, a trio of hostesses approached their table.
“Konbanwa,” they all greeted the two meido.
“Osu,” Karin replied.
“Gokigenyou,” Aina greeted them, causing the three hostesses to giggle amongst themselves. Although it was rare for a customer to greet them so politely, they typically wouldn’t laugh at a customer for that. Still, they found the contrast between Karin’s and Aina’s greetings comical.
“Have a seat, ladies,” Karin ordered, standing up to allow one of them to sit in the booth between Karin and Aina. The remaining hostesses flanked their guests, the shortest sitting next to Aina. “Let’s have some drinks.”
“Nothing for me,” announced Aina, as the waiter approached the table. “I’m on duty.” It was a lie, but a socially-acceptable way to get out of drinking.
“Oh, but you must have something,” the hostess in the middle insisted. “Bring her a virgin strawberry daquiri,” she informed the waiter, who had just appeared at the table.
“On duty?” The short hostess asked Aina.
“I’m keeping her in line,” Aina gestured to Karin.
“Ara, how admirable,” the hostess on the opposite side of Karin lauded her.
“Are you really a meido?” the short hostess next to Aina asked.
“Are you really a hostess?” Aina mimicked her. “That wasn’t very polite.”
“Gomen,” the hostess quickly apologized. “It’s just you’re not like any of the meido I’ve met.”
“In what way?” inquired Aina. “How many have you met?”
“Not many,” the hostess admitted. “I’ve never met one outside of work, but the few I’ve met have all been rough, crude, and—please don’t take this the wrong way—muscular.”
“You mean like this?” Karin interjected, flexing her bicep out over the table. Her large muscles were clearly visible under her tight-fitting sleeve. The two hostesses closest to Karin reached out to feel them, complimenting her on her physique.
“There are quite a few meido like that,” Aina admitted, relaxing into the booth. “Demo, we’re all normal hito. Some of us are more polite than others. You’re just working from a bad sample. It’s too small and self-selected. Most meido wouldn’t visit a hostess bar.”
“Sounds like you know a thing or two about statistics,” the hostess complimented her as their drinks arrived. “You wouldn’t be a fellow mathematician by any chance?”
“Iie, iie,” Aina waved her hand. “I just know enough to be useful for my job. I can balance the budget, calculate compound interest, and other things like that.” She reached for her mug and took a tentative sip. The frozen daiquiri was very sweet, and Aina immediately took another gulp.
“You don’t need statistics for that,” the hostess pointed out.
“Ah, well,” said Aina, delaying her response by taking another drink. “My job sometimes requires me to do some less savory things.” It was the best excuse she could come up with on the spot. It would have been dangerous to admit in public that she was studying advanced math without proper supervision. “What about you, you said you were a mathematician?”
“Ah, gomen,” the hostess replied. “I didn’t mean to make the discussion about me.”
“Mattaku,” one of the other hostesses complained, “you’re so bad at your job.”
“Oi, oi,” Karin interrupted, “don’t ruin the kuuki. We’re here to have fun.” She raised her half-drunk rusty nail into the air. “Kanpai!”
“Kanpai!”, the others echoed, though Aina was less enthusiastic than the hostesses.
As the night crawled on, Aina made slow progress on her drink, despite admonitions from the hostesses to drink up. Although she liked the taste of the drink, it was very filling, and the mug was large. As soon as she finished with her mug, the waiter replaced it with a second, which she downed even more slowly. However, since she was unaccustomed to drinking, the alcohol was still having an effect.
The conversation, on the other hand, was not living up to Aina’s expectations. Karin would brag about something, and then the hostesses would all coo and compliment her masculine features. It was plainly obvious to Aina that they weren’t sincere, but Karin ate it up regardless. Something like this couldn’t work on Fumiko, could it?
“Hey,” Aina slurred slightly, leaning towards the short hostess sitting next to her. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “You have a license, don’t you? That’s why you didn’t answer my question from earlier.”
The hostess froze. There was no doubt what kind of license she meant: a license to study physics. But surely the meido knew that there was no point in asking that question. License holders weren’t allowed to identify themselves to others.
“I know you can’t talk about it,” continued Aina, as if she could read the hostess’s mind. Aina’s parents had both been licensed, and she had seen firsthand the restrictions that were placed on their lives. “Are you reporting your movements properly? I can’t imagine the bureaucrats are happy with you working in a place like this.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the hostess stammered. “I’m just a—”
“Just a math major,” Aina finished for her. It was the standard excuse licensees were trained to give.
“Look, I need this job,” the hostess hissed. “I can’t afford my tuition without it.”
Aina cocked an eyebrow. At least, she thought she was cocking an eyebrow. In her inebriated state, it looked more like she was trying to wink at the hostess.
“You French?” Asked Aina.
“American,” the hostess answered quietly.
“Oh,” a burp escaped from Aina’s throat as she spoke the word. “Gomen, I just assumed. I mean, If you need to work a job like this for your tuition…”
“Not all Americans are wealthy,” the hostess informed her, sounding slightly offended. “In fact, a lot of us were—” she cut herself off as she noticed one of the other hostesses giving her the stink-eye, and the conversation lapsed back into empty compliments.
The boredom soon became too much for Aina, and she crossed her forearms on top of the table and laid her head down on them. Blocking the others out, she had nothing to distract her from her sadness, which had been at the back of her mind ever since she had read Fumiko’s letter. Oblivious to her surroundings, she began to cry.
“Don’t,” Karin cautioned, grabbing the wrist of the hostess between them, who was moving to place a reassuring hand on Aina’s shoulder. “If she pushes you away, she might accidentally shatter the bones in your arm.” The hostess retracted her arm, horrified.
“Naze?” She asked.
“She just got dumped,” Karin explained.
“I was not dumped!” Aina growled for the second time that night. She pounded the table with her fist, the force from the impact shattering their glasses and breaking the table apart. The hostesses shrieked in fear, and Aina sat up straight, looking at her fist in disbelief.
“G—gomen,” Aina stuttered. “I didn’t mean to…”
“You’re a little drunk,” Karin told her. “You tabun won’t be able to control your strength for a while.”
“I’m drunk?” Aina asked, dumbfounded. “That explains things.”
“What the fuck are you doing?” the manager shouted as she stormed over towards them. She grabbed Karin’s collar, but Karin smacked her hand away.
“It was an accident,” Karin said calmly. “We’ll pay for the damage.”
“Whatever, It’s nearly closing time anyway,” the manager muttered. “Alright, last call,” she shouted so the entire bar could hear. “Make ‘em quick.”
“Why did you spike my drink?” Aina asked Karin as the manager walked away.
“You’re too disciplined these days. I was worried you wouldn’t cry about it.”
“Of course I would have cried about it,” Aina huffed. “I just wouldn’t have done it in front of you.”
“How do you feel now?” asked Karin.
“Still sad,” Aina admitted.
“Demo, not as bad as you’d feel sober, ne?” Karin grinned. “That’s the chikara of alcohol.”
Aina thought about this for a few seconds.
“Mou ippai!” Aina called out.
Aina staggered out of the bar a few minutes later, Karin behind her.
“Can you make it back on your own?” Karin asked her.
“Doko are you going?” Aina turned to face Karin, who had her arms around two women—not hostesses—who in turn were clinging to Karin.
“I’ve got plans with these ladies,” Karin said with a wink. “I’ll be back in the morning.”
Without saying a word, Aina turned away from them and started walking unsteadily back towards the mansion. She had barely made it a block when she spotted the short hostess, the one with the physics license, heading in the same direction. Aina slowed down. She was drunk, and she didn’t want to engage in awkward conversation if she managed to catch up to her. As she was debating taking a different route back home, she noticed a large, heavyset man lurking in the shadows just in front of her, his eyes darting around, but his attention centered on the hostess. As the hostess moved further down the street, the man followed her, taking care to stay out of sight. Under normal circumstances, Aina might have thought this man a stalker, but if that girl really did have a license, it was more likely that the man was an enemy agent. Either way, her life was in danger.
She continued to follow the man as he tailed the hostess. Normally, she would have grabbed him and interrogated him on the street, but lacking control, she was afraid that she might snap him in two before she got any answers. In her current state, it was better to intervene only if necessary.
The hostess stopped in front of a run-down apartment complex and reached into her purse, rummaging for her keys. As she did so, the man stepped out of the shadows and approached her.