“Old bastard finally wised up,” Karin said, wincing from the pain as she spoke. “Don’t blame yourself. This was my unmei. I’ve been living on borrowed time.”
“Baka,” Chikako whispered in response, withdrawing the sword from Karin’s back. Aina tried to rush to Karin’s side, but Sena held her back.
“This is goshujin-sama’s meirei,” Sena explained, her eyes no longer glowing.
“Naze?” Aina asked.
“Been… blackmailing him,” Karin groaned.
“Don’t talk,” Aina cautioned her. “This is bad, but mahou healing can still—”
“Iie,” interrupted Chikako. “She dies here. Give me the gun.” Releasing her hold on Aina, Sena reached into her pocket for the gun and handed it to Chikako. “Any last requests?” She asked Karin.
“Don’t blame—” Karin was cut short as Chikako pulled the trigger.
“Don’t tell me who to blame,” Chikako complained to Karin’s corpse. “Assigning blame is the privilege of the living.”
“You—You shouldn’t blame yourself,” Aina stammered, still in shock over what had happened.
“Dare should I blame then, you?” Chikako snapped, pointing the gun at Aina. “Goshujin-sama was taking it all in stride until I told him that she brought you along, then he hit the roof, ranting about how she had become a bad influence on you. If it weren’t for you…”
“I didn’t mean…” Aina trailed off, unsure of how to respond. Perhaps staying quiet was the best course of action, considering how upset Chikako seemed. She didn’t want to say something that would set her off.
“I know you didn’t,” Chikako sighed, lowering the gun. “Do you remember when we first met, how you asked if you could make tomodachi if you became a meido?” Aina nodded her head. “She told you that we were just nakama, but I always considered Karen-san my tomodachi. We came to the Wright mansion at the same time, and even though I rocketed ahead of her in skill and stature, she never let that bother her. She even saved my life a few times. I didn’t know she was blackmailing goshujin-sama. It vexed me when she started going to those bars, and I didn’t understand why goshujin-sama allowed it, but I was too distracted by my work to get to the bottom of that mystery. Maybe if I had… This is as much my fault as it is yours.”
“Gomen,” Aina said quietly.
“I can’t,” Chikako said, letting the words hang in the air for a moment. “I can’t forgive you. I can’t forgive myself either. I know I shouldn’t hold this against you, but I just don’t want to see you right now, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever forgive you.”
“I know how you feel,” Aina commiserated, thinking about her own feelings towards Mari. “Not that I mean I feel that way about you,” she rushed to correct herself. “That was poorly-worded. I just—”
“I get it,” Chikako cut her off. “Go home. Get out of my sight. I’ll take care of things from here.”
Aina didn’t move immediately. Sena tugged on her arm, and the two of them backed out of the house.
“There is only one hito responsible for issuing the meirei,” Sena told Chikako as they reached the front door.
“I didn’t hear that,” Chikako replied. “And you would be wise never to repeat it.”
“Repeat what?” Sena asked.
“Go,” Chikako ordered, and they obeyed, leaving Chikako alone in the house with three corpses.
Aina flopped down onto her bed, still shaken by what had happened earlier. The events of the last few days had left her a lot to think about, but they had also left her tired. She knew that Chikako probably still blamed her for Karin’s death, and if she fell asleep, she risked Chikako assassinating her in the night. But even if she was awake, she wasn’t sure she could hold off Chikako. They had sparred so many times in Naomi’s advanced classes that she knew that Chikako had her beat in both skill and maximum strength. If Chikako had any weakness, it was that it took her a few seconds to gather her spiritual energy, and it eventually ran out. Aina always had her spiritual energy on hand, whether she wanted it or not. It flowed from her in a steady rate like water from a stream, and she could neither increase the flow nor stop it. If she wanted to beat Chikako, she could either try to catch her by surprise, killing her before she had a chance to gather her spiritual energy, or attempt to draw a fight out long enough to exhaust her. Chikako’s considerable skill and physical strength were barriers to both of those plans. Even without her spiritual energy, she might win.
In any case, if Aina wanted any chance of winning, she’d need to keep her mind sharp, and to do that, she would need to get a good night’s sleep. She would just have to trust that Chikako was smart enough to not make a move against her without Akira’s approval, and she believed she still had Akira’s protection. If she didn’t, she was sure Chikako would have killed her along with Karin. It was disturbing to think about, but on reflection, the entire thing had probably been Akira sending her a message: don’t follow in Karin’s footsteps. Chikako had even said it herself. He called Karin a bad influence.
Aina’s phone buzzed in her pocket, and she checked it to find a mail from Mari.
Mari: Gomen for losing today. You even came to cheer for me, and I let you down.
Aina: I don’t really care.
Mari: You were right about my face. It’s swelling up. I probably won’t be bothering you for a while, since I don’t want you to see me like this. Demo, I was happy that you were concerned for me. Arigatou.
Aina paused for a moment, thinking about how to respond. If Naomi had really been motivated by matching her with Mari, she had no reason to censor herself in her messages any longer. However, she expected that Naomi hadn’t been completely truthful, and she was still using Mari’s presence to annoy her, for reasons Aina didn’t comprehend.
Before she could respond, another mail from Mari popped up on her phone. It was a selfie. The right side of Mari’s face was covered in digital heart stickers of various colors, hiding her injuries, but her tongue stuck out from the left corner of her mouth. She was wearing her uniform, but, Aina noticed, her right hand was lifting the hem of her skirt, revealing a patch of her absolute territory. Her thighhighs were certainly not part of the standard meido uniform, which included a full-body jumpsuit under the dress.
The sight of Mari’s bare thigh brought feelings, not twelve hours old, bubbling back to the surface. In light of what had just happened, they seemed very insignificant, and yet, they were a welcome distraction. Aina turned them over in her mind, analyzing them, their relative unimportance affording her a degree of detachment.
To begin with, it still felt strange to think of herself as a sexual being. Logically, she knew that she was a teenager, and that it wasn’t unusual for teenagers to develop romantic feelings, or at least feelings they perceived as romantic. But until a few days ago, that had still seemed far off for Aina. She had naively thought such feelings would only emerge after growing up, and she still felt like a child. In hindsight, she had used that self-perception as a shield to ignore the telltale signs of the beginning of her sexual awakening. She couldn’t be attracted to Fumiko—or to Mari—because she wasn’t mature enough for that kind of thing. When Momo had confessed, she had cemented in her mind that she was too young, and she had never challenged that assumption. It wasn’t the only shield she had used. She had also used the knowledge that she wasn’t attracted to boys as evidence that her spring had not yet come. After all, liking boys was the norm, and Aina conceptualized herself as normal. She had been deluding herself, but subconsciously. She didn’t even realize she was doing it. Perhaps it had been obvious to those around her. Sena certainly went out of her way to give Aina time alone with Fumiko.
When Fumiko had kissed her, it was like a switch had flipped in her body. She could no longer deny her own feelings or to pretend not to see what kind of being she really was. It had been scary how quickly and easily she had changed her behaviors. She knew she wanted to be with Fumiko, and she was completely comfortable lying, of living a double life, to achieve it. But other than that, not much had changed. She still considered herself to be normal, and to be too immature for a relationship. Too immature for a relationship, yet pursuing one with Fumiko. She could see the inconsistency in that, but she couldn’t change it.
If she had never met Fumiko, Aina knew that she would have awakened on her own, though more gradually. If that had happened, how would she view Mari? Without her love for Fumiko to hold her back, she would probably be tempted to use Mari to experiment with her new-found sexuality. Aina wasn’t quite sure how two girls made love, but she could imagine a few things that might feel nice, and she hadn’t had any trouble doing what felt natural with Fumiko.
How she felt about Fumiko and how she felt about Mari were completely different, though she categorized both feelings as “lust”, and this was the most confusing part of the whole thing. With Fumiko, her lust was physical, yes, but it was mostly emotional. It was pure. With Mari, it was all physical, and a little… dirty. There were things she wanted to do with Mari—to Mari—that she would never dream of doing with Fumiko. Things that were degrading, not only to Mari, but to herself. She wasn’t even sure how she got the ideas for some of the things she was imagining, but she couldn’t deny that they excited some part of her.
She had even briefly fantasized about completely obliterating Mari’s mind, perhaps through hypnotism, and turning her into a being of pure lust before having her way with her. It would make being with Mari a lot easier if the person she hated was gone, and… it would be completely monstrous. Aina wanted to believe she would never do anything that terrible, and a few days ago she would have been confident in that belief, but too many things had happened since then. Her behavior had completely changed after kissing Fumiko…
And she had done something terrible. She had killed Kumi to spare her unnecessary pain, but she had done so with the full knowledge of how that would shatter Noa’s life, and then she had taken that shattered life as well. It was easy to imagine how devastated she would be if she had been in Noa’s place, and Chikako had forced her to watch Fumiko being executed. Just the image of it was enough to make her feel a momentary hatred towards Chikako. It also brought to mind what Mari had told her two nights prior.
“That miko will never understand what it’s like to be a meido. She will never understand the pain that comes with being forced to kill…”
So that’s what she was talking about, Aina realized, unable to get the images of Noa and Kumi’s deaths out of her head. She was jarred from that thought only when her phone vibrated again.
Mari: If I can’t have you to myself, I don’t mind being your side dish.
The pain and self-loathing, and the desire for acknowledgement, no matter the cost, were evident in that message. Aina’s first impulse was to tell Mari that she should value herself more, but Mari wasn’t her friend, and she didn’t feel like treating her like one. She began to respond with a simple “Iie,” but stopped. It was just too surreal. Dealing with Mari couldn’t even be a consideration when she had bigger problems to deal with. She was probably a murderer now, and nothing could ever change that.
Aina deleted the photo of Mari from her phone and settled into a restless sleep.