“Oi, oi!” Aina interjected, “Nani the heck does that mean?”
“By your own admission, the tengu mistook you for one of his own,” Chikako pointed out. “How can we be sure we’re not doing the same?”
“Are you suggesting I’m not a ningen?”
“If you’re worried about that,” Naomi cut in, “you could always have her DNA analyzed.”
“I already did that, when she first came to the mansion,” Chikako admitted. “It’s standard procedure these days. It’s why I haven’t worried about it much until now, but it occurred to me recently that it might not actually be her DNA. It might be synthetic or a copy of someone else’s. The only way to tell for sure would be to clone her.”
“Naomi-sama, you didn’t!” Jin gasped, having felt a shift in Naomi’s emotions at the mention of cloning Aina.
“This is why I don’t trust you, Mme Jin,” Naomi growled. “You should have kept your mouth shut.”
“You cloned me?!” Aina’s voice cracked with panic. “Where is it? Did you keep it safe from the Soviets?”
“She is a perfectly-normal six-year-old girl, with no remarkable powers to speak of,” Naomi assured her. “In all other respects, she is, unmistakably, you. She is being well taken care of, but beyond that, I won’t divulge any details. I haven’t hidden her or anything, so you should be able to track her down if you put your mind to it, but I would advise against it.”
“She’s my only living blood relation. I have the right.”
“Rights aside, would you bring anything but misery into her life?” asked Naomi.
“You have a point,” Aina mumbled.
“That doesn’t prove anything,” Chikako insisted. “If the clone didn’t have Aina-san’s powers, is it really her clone?”
“True, Mme Aina could be some kind of magical homunculus that exudes normal human DNA,” Naomi mused, “but she looks and acts like a human, and even believes herself to be one, so does it really matter?”
“It matters to me,” said Chikako. “That’s why I asked in the first place. I’ve done my own sleuthing, but I suspect, like always, you have more info. To be honest, I don’t understand most of the Duforts’ research papers, but you learned to cast spells from them.”
“They’re a dead-end anyway,” Naomi informed her. “There aren’t any hints about Mme Aina’s existence in those papers. I do have other reasons to believe she is human, but they were relayed to me in confidence, so you’ll have to decide whether you can trust my word. If you need more proof, you should start by asking the gynoids.”
“The gynoids?” Chikako asked, confused. “Naze? Besides, even if Hideaki-sama says she doesn’t have control over them…”
“She doesn’t,” Naomi confirmed. “It’s more like influence, and they still can’t refuse direct orders. As to why you should ask them, they perceive the world differently than we do, both physically and mentally. They are observation machines which often pick up on things that humans do not. I still think their creation was a mistake, but they are useful tools, and since they exist, I would be a fool not to use them.”
“Arigatou for the lesson,” Chikako said, standing before Naomi with her arms out to the side.
“Mme Aina, please take Mme Jin outside. This isn’t going to be pleasant,” Naomi ordered, picking up the sword Yoko had left behind.
Outside the room, Jin flinched each time Chikako was cut. She didn’t feel the full pain that Chikako was feeling, but she felt it. Aina gently held her hand as she suffered through it, something she wouldn’t have been able to do seven years ago without completely crushing Jin’s hand. When Naomi finally began to apply healing spells to Chikako’s wounds, Aina could feel Jin relax.
She hadn’t been looking at Jin though. The entire time, Aina kept her eyes transfixed on the A.T. field at the other end of the hallway.
“The neutral SDF force will be here soon,” Naomi announced, opening the door behind them. “We’re leaving.”
“Naomi-sama,” Aina called out, pointing to the A.T. field. “Not yet.”
“That’s the staircase to the Crystal Palace,” Naomi said dismissively.
“That’s an A.T. field!” Aina almost shouted.
“The GINZUISHOU fears me,” Naomi explained. “It generates those to try to keep me out of its sensitive areas.”
“It was there before you got here,” said Aina.
“It must fear you too then,” Naomi remarked. “Come, we don’t have a lot of time to dawdle.”
“What if it’s real?” Aina protested. “Have you ever broken through one?”
“I have, in exactly the way you’d expect,” Naomi said, holding her arms out in front of her, palms out, and miming ripping apart the A.T. field.
“Oh, I’m surprised you know that,” Chikako teased.
“Even I’m bound to pick up a few things over fifty years.”
“So it could be real,” Aina said, returning the conversation to the topic at hand.
“Unlikely,” Chikako replied. “Even if we were to assume real A.T. fields exist, the GINZUISHOU has no soul with which to generate one.”
“It might,” countered Aina. “There’s a lot we don’t know about the GINZUISHOU. It wouldn’t even necessarily need to generate them itself, if it created angels to generate them for it.”
“Regardless,” Chikako continued, “Ningen can’t generate A.T. fields strong enough to pierce other A.T. fields. Naomi-sama couldn’t have ripped them apart if they were real.”
“Naomi-sama is no normal ningen,” Aina pointed out.
“I won’t disagree with that,” Naomi said with a smile, “but Mme Aina, what does it matter if it’s real? Didn’t we just have this same conversation about whether you were human? If it looks and acts like an A.T. field, it might as well be one.”
“Iie,” Aina insisted, “A.T. fields are dangerous. They’re not just for defense.”
“Scared of a little instrumentality?” Chikako inferred. “I wouldn’t worry about that, unless you really think we all have tiny A.T. fields in our hearts.”
“In this machi, it’s possible,” Aina frowned. She opened her mouth to say more but was interrupted by the sound of loud footsteps in the stairwell below them. Seconds later, a heavily-armored SDF soldier emerged onto the landing.
“Ugoku na!” he ordered, leveling a rifle at them. He began to scan the room for others, but halfway through his motions, his eyes widened in recognition. He snapped his rifle back towards Naomi and pulled the trigger. Naomi dodged the beam, which fizzled on contact with the GINZUISHOU wall behind her, and before the soldier could fire a second round, advanced towards him and pulled the rifle from his hand.
“It’s Naomi!” He yelled. “Retreat!”
“Hold your fire,” Naomi growled, “I’m not going to kill you.” She grabbed the man by the chin and pulled his face upwards, examining him. “I don’t recognize you. Who are you with?”
“D-Dai-jyuu Kohei Daitai,” the soldier managed to spit out.
“In English,” Naomi demanded, but the soldier stammered, unable to form words.
“The Tenth Engineer Battalion,” Chikako answered for him. “Engineer, right?”
“That’s right,” the soldier said, regaining some of his composure. “I even have a Sapper Tab, see?” He twisted his left arm forward so that Naomi could see it, but she didn’t bother to look.
“What are your orders?” Naomi asked,
“We’re here to secure the Crystal Palace from—We’re here to secure the Crystal Palace.”
“From the factions loyal to individual goshujin,” Naomi finished his original sentence from him. “Oh, don’t be surprised, private. What you call the SDF was originally a confederacy of private militaries commanded by the original goshujin. It’s only natural that there would still be some factions. Very well, we cede the tower to you.” Releasing her hold on the man’s face, she stood up straight.
“You do?” The soldier asked dumbfounded. “Arigatou gozaimasu, Naomi-sama! I’ll escort you out. Douzo, kochira e.”
“We’ll let ourselves out,” Naomi informed him. “You can go change your pants.” She scooped Jin up in her left arm and casually rapped her knuckles on the outer wall. A hole opened, centering where her fist made contact, and Naomi, Chikako, and Aina leapt to the street below.
Chikako collapsed upon hitting the ground, clutching her side. “I’m going to need to go to a healer,” she informed the others. “Your spells didn’t do the trick, Naomi-sama.”
“Noted,” Naomi replied without emotion. “Mme Aina, accompany her.”
“I can take care of myself,” Chikako protested.
“You can,” acknowledged Naomi, “but you two have some issues to work out. “Don’t come back until you’ve had a heart-to-heart.”
“Whatever,” Chikako grunted. “Hurts too much to waste time arguing. Come on, Aina-san.” Aina offered a hand to help Chikako up, but she brushed it away and stood under her own power. Nevertheless, her gait was unstable as the two of them walked in the opposite direction of the Wright estate.
“That soldier was terrified of you,” Jin observed as Naomi put her down.
“It doesn’t take a newtype to see that,” Naomi quipped. “He has good sense. You lot should be just as scared.”
“He’s never even met you.”
“He’s seen videos of me from the war. The SDF drills its soldiers on what to do if I turn against them.”
“They take you that seriously?”
“As they should. I’m not their biggest threat in the world, but I’m certainly the biggest within the GINZUISHOU.”
Jin didn’t have a response to that, so they walked in silence for a few moments before Naomi asked her, “What’s the real reason you keep Mme Aina’s secrets?”
“You promise not to tell her?”
“Aina-senpai is the only person whose emotions I can’t feel. She’s the only person I can have a normal friendship with. That’s why I’ll do anything to stay on her good side.”
“I won’t tell her,” Naomi assured Jin, “but you shouldn’t be so absolute. You’ll end up in some bad situations if you force yourself into never refusing someone, and that’s not how real friendships work anyway.”
“You really can’t feel anything from her? Nothing?”
“It’s not like I’m dense. I can pick up on the same things everyone else can.”
“Oh, like what?”
“I know she’s a lesbian.”
“Are you sure she’s not just going through one of those—what do you weebs call them?—class S phases?”
“I don’t think it’s a phase. In fact, I think I realized she had a thing for that miko before she did. It’s something about the way she looks at certain onna. Her face softens, and she gets this little half smile, but at the same time, she looks almost… predatory. I’ve never seen her make that face around otoko. Granted, there aren’t that many around, and she looked at Mari-san that way too, so I could be mistaken. Isn’t that great, Naomi-sama? I could be mistaken!”
“Good for you,” Naomi complemented sarcastically, “but what makes you think she’s realized her own feelings for that priestess?”
“I was there at the matsuri when they went off together. That miko’s emotions were so strong, it was easy to tell what she was planning. And then the next day, Aina-senpai was locked in the infirmary and Chikako-sama was very upset. Wasn’t hard to figure out they had been caught together.”
“By the head priest,” Naomi confirmed.
“Ouch,” Jin commiserated. “There’s also the fact that ever since then, she hasn’t been looking at other onna as much.”
“But she still looks at them sometimes?”
Throughout the conversation, Naomi had been keeping her inner thoughts and emotions as quiet as possible, but as she spoke that last word, Jin felt the smallest change of emotion from Naomi. It was smug and venomous, as was usual for her, but Jin also detected something she couldn’t identify.
From then on, Jin was more careful about what she divulged to Naomi.