“Get down!” Aina shouted, reaching into her pocket for coasters. Still uncoordinated from the night’s drinking, she was too slow to ready her projectiles, and the man turned, quickly scanning the area for threats before training his gun on Aina. In a panic, Aina dove to the ground, the blast from his gun missing her by centimeters.
The world seemed to spin for Aina as she hit the ground. That had been a mistake, she thought. Why was she scared of a single gunshot? She had once survived a barrage of gunfire without a scratch. But that had been years ago, when she was still with her parents. Things were different now, and since healing spells no longer worked on her, it was probably better not to get hit. Though, sprawled on the ground, she was now vulnerable to a followup shot.
That shot never came. What Aina had thought had been a split second after hitting the ground had actually been a few seconds, her perception of time affected by her slowed cognitive processes. Just as she had resolved to scramble for cover, she heard a woman’s voice, sharp and cold.
“Ugoku na yo.”
Blinking, Aina looked up to see a meido standing between her and the man. His gun was lying at his feet, and a clothesline was wrapped around his neck. The meido held the other end of the line, with just enough slack to pull him off his feet in an instant. Aina heaved a sigh of relief, believing that Karin had come back for her. But as the world came into focus, Aina could see that the meido was shorter, with long blond hair.
“Nani the fuck are you doing here?” Aina exclaimed as she slowly got back on her feet, wobbling as she stood up.
“Save it for later.” Mari responded, without taking her eyes off the man in front of her. “He may have backup.”
Of course. Why hadn’t she thought of that? Aina silently admonished herself as she slipped into a defensive stance, fending off the nausea she felt from standing too quickly. She lost that fight and doubled over, depositing her sweet, strawberry-flavored stomach contents into the gutter. Concerned, Mari cast a glance over her shoulder to make sure Aina was OK. When she turned back to the man, she could see he was also distracted by Aina’s spectacle.
“Anou,” the hostess took advantage of the distraction to speak up, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“This yatsu was coming at you with a gun,” Mari charged.
“To mamoru her,” the man insisted.
“He’s a bouncer at my club,” the hostess explained. “He was making sure I got home safely. There has been some trouble lately…” It was an obvious lie. Aina had noticed that there was not a single man in the bar, let alone a male bouncer. Even Mari was skeptical.
“Of course, he’s your bouncer,” Aina said, covering for the woman. The man was likely a bodyguard assigned to her by the government, but Mari didn’t need to know about her physics license.
“Sou ka?” Mari asked hesitantly. She relaxed her grip on the clothesline, and the man reached up and unwound it from around his neck. Grabbing the small weight at the end, he tossed it to Mari, who caught it and wound the clothesline tightly, placing it in her pocket. “Iie,” she commanded, as the man bent down to pick up his gun. “Not until we’re gone.”
“Gomen nasai,” Aina apologized, bowing to the man and the hostess. “I caused you too much trouble. We’ll be going now.”
Mari kept her eyes on the man to make sure he didn’t go for his gun as they walked past them in the direction Akira’s mansion. When they were far enough away, Mari grabbed Aina and pulled her into a dark alleyway.
“You caused me a lot of trouble too, you know,” Mari told Aina, pinning her shoulders against the wall.
“Nani the fuck are you doing here?” Aina repeated her question from earlier. “Are you stalking me?”
“Maybe,” admitted Mari. “Demo, I never thought I’d find you like this. Dare’s the drunkard now?”
“Urusai,” snapped Aina. “You don’t know anything. It’s not like I wanted this.”
“Heeeee?” Mari smiled leaning closer to Aina. “You mean the incredibly tsuyoi Aina-san isn’t muteki after all? That you’ll do anything your senpai tells you to do?”
“Iie, it’s not like that,” Aina protested, panic starting to creep into her voice. Her vision was beginning to blur again, but she could tell Mari’s face was getting closer. “Nani are you doing?”
“I saved you,” Mari answered quietly. “I think I deserve a little reward, and I think that, right now, I’m strong enough to force you to give it to me.”
Aina didn’t immediately understand what Mari was getting at, but Mari’s face suddenly came into focus as she moved even closer to kiss Aina, which meant Aina could see the brief expression of disgust and revulsion on Mari’s face as she smelled the vomit on Aina’s breath. She quickly pulled back to escape the smell, leaving Aina embarrassed and angry.
She was all over me last night, and now she acts like I’m gomi? The thought burned through Aina’s mind. It’s not like I wanted her to kiss me, but if she thinks she can treat me like that, she’s got another thing coming.
“That’s not how it works, baka,” Aina asserted, forcefully pushing Mari away. Mari spread her arms out for balance, and Aina grabbed one of them, tugging it hard across Mari’s body, spinning her 180 degrees, and pushed her against the opposite wall, holding her in a hammerlock. “It doesn’t matter how tsuyoi you are. That doesn’t make it right to force others to do things they don’t want to.”
“Tell that to our goshujin-samas,” Mari smirked, and Aina, not in the mood for her irrelevant commentary, twisted Mari’s arm further. “ITAI!” Mari yelped. “Gomen! Gomen, gomen gomen!” There was pain in Mari’s voice, but there was also excitement, and Aina realized Mari was deriving some kind of perverse pleasure from the pain. She quickly released Mari and stepped back, losing her balance in the process and falling on her rear.
“Get out of my sight,” Aina demanded, feeling even more embarrassed than when Mari had pulled back from the smell of her breath. “I don’t ever want to see you again.”
“I really am sorry. I won’t do it again, but I can’t just leave you like this. Stand up, I’ll take you home, Aina-s—Aina.” Though Aina couldn’t see it in the dark, Mari was blushing, embarrassed by her own boldness for chancing to address Aina without an honorific.
“Don’t you dare call me so familiarly,” Aina growled.
“Jya, is Aina-chan OK?”
“Iie, it’s Aina-san to you.”
“Alright, Aina-san,” Mari sighed, blinking away a tear, “let me take you home.” She offered Aina a hand.
“My home,” Aina clarified, “not yours.”
“Hai, your home.”
“Arigatou,” Aina finally allowed, grabbing Mari’s hand. Mari pulled her up, and Aina had to place her hands on Mari’s shoulders to stay balanced. Her hands slipped, and she fell forward, resting her chin atop Mari’s shoulder. When she didn’t push herself back up, Mari initially thought that Aina was hugging her, and she wrapped her arms across Aina’s upper-back, causing Aina’s arms to fall limply to her sides. Aina wasn’t hugging Mari. With her adrenaline wearing off, and exhausted from trying to stay balanced, Aina had finally succumbed to the effects of the alcohol and had passed out on Mari’s shoulder.
July 20th, U.C. 0051, 6:25 AM
When Aina awoke, she was lying on her side in an unfamiliar bed, still in her uniform. The light from the rising sun illuminated Mari, who was dozing in a chair next to the bed. As the light caught in Mari’s hair, casting a small glow around her face, Aina had to admit that, as much as she hated Mari, she had always admired her looks.
“Doko are we?” Aina asked sleepily, rousing Mari from her slumber.
“Ohayou, sleepyhead,” Mari yawned, stretching her arms outward. “We’re in a hotel.”
“Naze a hotel? Did you… do anything to me?” Aina asked, pulling the covers over herself self-consciously.
“I’m not a bakemono,” Mari assured her. “After you passed out, I couldn’t take you back to your place. I didn’t have an excuse for why you were unconscious that wouldn’t get one of us in trouble.”
“Arigatou,” Aina thanked Mari quietly, relaxing her grip on the bed sheets, “for the second time in ni days.” She sat up and swung her legs over the other side of the bed, but then stopped, reflexively bringing her hand up to her forehead as her hangover made itself known.
“Yukkuri,” Mari advised. “Wait there. I’ll get you some mizu.” She jumped out of her chair and walked to the bathroom, returning with a glass of water. Aina accepted it silently and drank it slowly. “Was that your first time drinking?” Mari asked, sitting next to Aina on the bed.
“Un,” Aina confirmed between sips.
“Your hangover will tabun last for a few hours,” Mari explained. “There’s not really anything you can do except wait it out.”
“Sou ka?” mused Aina. “It makes you feel better, but you pay for it the next day.”
In the harsh reality of the morning, Aina felt just as distraught as she had the previous day, but with the added effects of the hangover. It didn’t take Aina long to conclude that the tradeoff wasn’t worth it.
“De,” ventured Mari, “nani happened to drive you to drink like that?”
“Come on, your eyes were all puffed up. You were obviously crying last night. If that miko did anything to hurt you, I—”
“She didn’t,” Aina cut her off. “Soshite, it’s none of your business.”
“Don’t say that,” Mari whined. “I care about you. I just want to help.”
“While we’re on that subject,” Aina sighed placing her empty glass on the nightstand next to her, “I never got a chance to properly reply to your confession.”
“You don’t have to,” Mari laughed nervously. “I think we both know how you feel about me. Let’s just drop it.”
“Iie, I want to make sure there are no misunderstandings. I know it must have taken a lot of courage to confess, and you deserve an answer.” Aina turned her head to look Mari in the eyes. Mari met her gaze, gulping. “I daikirai you,” Aina told her. “I’m not even sorry about it. I just daikirai you.”
“Shitteru,” Mari whispered, holding back tears. She took a moment to regain her composure. “You have always made that clear. Demo, that’s why I suki you.”
“I’ve never been good at making tomodachi,” Mari admitted. “When I started school, it wasn’t that the other kids disliked me, they just didn’t really care about me one way or the other. That’s why I started acting like an ojou-sama, to get attention. I never expected everyone would just go along with it. At first I was happy, since everyone seemed to like me, but I quickly realized that it was all an act. They hated me. They thought I was annoying, but they wouldn’t say it to my face.”
“Un,” Aina agreed, “they did. I thought you weren’t aware.”
“Oh, I was aware. It made me feel worse than when they ignored me. Why couldn’t anyone just be honest with me? But I couldn’t stop. I tried a few times to go back to normal, but every time I violated their expectations, they just kept treating me like an ojou until I played along. They wanted someone to hate, and I couldn’t escape it. Then you enrolled. You still hated me, but you hated me to my face, and you called me out on the hypocrisy of my ojou act. You have no idea how refreshing that was, how refreshing that still is.”
“You have tomodachi now though, nee?” Aina offered. She wasn’t sure if Mari was telling the truth, but if she was, Aina couldn’t help but sympathize.
“Not really. When I became a meido, I resolved to become as tsuyoi as you. I thought that, if I was tsuyoi, I could be honest with people like you are, and maybe, if I met another girl like me, I could save her from her pain the same way you saved me. Funny thing, when you dedicate yourself so fully to your training, you don’t really have time to make tomodachi, and when that training pays off, and you are tsuyoi, people either become jealous of you or they suck up to you. I never had a chance to make real tomodachi.”
That didn’t jibe with Aina’s experience. It was possible, Aina considered, that she had been lucky to be placed in a household with people who cared about her for more than her strength, but she suspected there was something about Mari’s personality that was preventing her from forming positive connections with others.
“You’re the only one who has ever been honest with me. Even Naomi-sama flatters me, I think to annoy you, but it’s obvious she thinks I’m a waste of oxygen.”
“I wouldn’t take that personally,” Aina interjected. “That’s how she treats everyone.”
“That’s not how she treats you,” Mari huffed. “At least, not recently. She used to treat you like that, but I’ve seen her look at you with warmth on her face when you’re not paying attention. You’ve grown on her.”
“That’s… disturbing,” was all Aina could say in response.
“I don’t mind if she hates me,” bragged Mari. “I daikirai her too. After all, I know she’s censoring your emails. I know she’s preventing you from being completely honest with me. Every time you get that pained expression on your face because you’re holding back what you really think, I curse Naomi-sama under my breath.”
“Look, gomen for what I said earlier,” said Aina, bringing the discussion back to the pertinent subject. “I still daikirai you, but I am sorry about it.”
“Don’t be,” Mari said, standing up. “Just, please, I know you don’t want to see me anymore, but even if you daikirai me, you’re the only person who is honest with me, and if I lost that… Look, I took a big risk telling you all this. You could start pretending to like me like everyone else, or you could start ignoring me. Please, always be honest with me.”
“Even though I daikirai you?”
“Hai, though, I’m hoping that maybe, someday… I don’t expect you’ll ever love me the way I love you, but we might eventually become tomodachi.”
“You should give up on me,” Aina told her. “I’ve already rejected you. My feelings aren’t going to change. Find someone you can be happy with.”
“That’s not how it works. You’re free to reject me, but I’m free to love you regardless. If your miko rejected you, could you just give up on her?”
That stung, but Aina could appreciate the logic.
“Wakatta,” Aina allowed. “Soshite, arigatou for everything. I know it won’t make up for it, but I’ll at least pay for the hotel.”
“Donmai, the hotel’s already paid for. Demo, there is something you could do to make it up to me.”
“Of course not.”
“I’m not doing that either.”
“That’s not what I was going to request. Remember when we killed Hiroko-sama?” Mari asked. Aina nodded. “After that, her second in command became the new housekeeper. She’s tsuyoi, and a good sensei, but she had been sold to my goshujin-sama by the justice minister some years earlier. I think she really admired the justice minister, and getting sold was a dai shokku for her. Whatever the reason, her kokoro is not in her work, and she doesn’t push or inspire us like Naomi-sama does for your group. We deserve a better leader, so I challenged her for her position. Our shobu is in a few hours, and it would mean a lot to me if you would come to cheer me on. I want you to see how tsuyoi I’ve become.”
“I doubt I’ll be able to make it,” Aina informed her, standing up. A small wave of nausea washed over her with the sudden movement, but it wasn’t as bad as the previous night’s. “I’m on duty today, and it will be difficult to get someone to cover for me, but I do owe you, so I will try.”
“Arigatou,” Mari smiled. “I’ll meet you at the front of my place at 9:45.”
“Did you hear me? I just—”
“It will be daijoubu,” Mari said in a singsong voice, pulling out her phone as she made her way to the door. “I may resent Naomi-sama for how she makes you act, but she is useful at times like this. Mata ne!”
Before Aina could respond, Mari opened the door, stepped out, and spun in place. The last thing Aina saw before the door shut was Mari’s face, beaming with joy.