Chapter 18

June 3rd, U.C. 0065, 5:40 PM

“Is she looking?” Nanami whispered to Aina as they walked past the entrance to Neo Chichibu shrine for the third time in the last ten minutes.

Fumiko was staffing the sales booth. From where she sat, she could clearly see anyone walking past the shrine, but her attention was focused instead on the novel she was reading on her phone. Like most people, Fumiko hadn’t been fond of novels, but she had come to enjoy them through sharing Aina’s life experiences.

In recent years, Nanami had become more obsessed with showing up Fumiko. On this day, she had ordered Aina to walk next to her, shielding her from the sun with a dome parasol. Because Nanami had grown so tall, and Aina hadn’t grown since she was fourteen, Aina was forced to walk closely side-by-side with Nanami to keep the parasol in position. It was an anachronistic gesture. The GINZUISHOU shielded them from intense heat and sunlight, but it was good enough to prove a point: she owned Aina.

“She isn’t,” Aina whispered back. “But she knows we’re here.”

Kuso,” Nanami grunted. “OK, turn around, we’re going to do it again.”

“She’s probably ignoring you on purpose,” Aina told her. “That’s what I’d do.”

Sou ka?” Nanami said, “We’ll see about that.” She changed course, quickly advancing on Fumiko. Aina kept pace, keeping the parasol over Nanami’s head. Nanami literally slammed into the sales booth, her hands slapping the counter to absorb the impact. “Ara, Fumiko-san,” she said breathlessly, “what a guuzen running into you here.”

Ee,” Fumiko replied, doing her best to suppress her laughter, “what a guuzen that you found me koko. Nani are you up to on this fine day, Nanami-sama?”

“I’m just out on a short walk to recover my strength. As soon as the doctor cleared me, I just had to get out of the house.”

“If I recall, it’s been more than go weeks since you gave birth,” Fumiko said. “I didn’t realize you were in such poor shape.”

“It was a difficult one, to be sure,” Nanami bragged, “but the doctor was being overly cautious.”

“You certainly look healthy to me,” Fumiko said. “You’re even almost back down to your normal weight.”

“So tell me, how’s business?” Nanami changed the subject. She had come to put Fumiko in her place, not to be insulted by her.

Arigatou for asking,” Fumiko answered, “but I’m afraid it’s been slow today. We usually get more visitors this time of year.” It hadn’t helped that potential customers had been scared off by the country’s most mercurial goshujin pacing back and forth in front of the entrance. “Perhaps I’ll close up early and join you on your walk.”

“Don’t trouble yourself on my account,” Nanami said. This was her walk with Aina. She was trying to make Fumiko jealous.

“It’s no trouble at all,” Fumiko said. “Besides, wouldn’t you enjoy the company of someone who wakarus what you’re going through?”

“No one understands me better than Aina,” Nanami said bitterly.

Demo, Aina’s never recovered from giving birth,” Fumiko countered.

“Oh that’s right,” Nanami chuckled, “you have a daughter or something, ne?”

Nanami knew full well that Fumiko had a daughter. She had taken it upon herself to hang Fumiko’s family photos, the ones without Aina in them, in the areas of the mansion Aina frequented. She hoped the constant reminders of Fumiko’s other family would create distance between Aina and Fumiko, but Aina was fond of Fumiko’s daughter, and had learned to deal with her husband.

“Still,” Nanami continued, “it’s not often I have the opportunity to talk with someone like myself. Tell me, Fumiko-san, docchi do you like more? Otoko or onna?”

“Surely you’re as sick of being asked that question as I am, Nanami-sama,” Fumiko replied.

“Only because it’s so hard to answer,” Nanami said. “Otoko can be so simple—even boring—but there’s nothing more exciting than when they hold you in their strong arms and thrust in hard with all their lust. Onna, on the other hand, are more complicated. They’re all unique, and when you make love, it’s like coaxing a flower to bloom. When you bloom together, there’s no more satisfying feeling in the sekai. Demo, which I desire—excitement or satisfaction—changes with my mood. I can’t imagine choosing between the ni.” She paused to look Aina directly in the eyes. “Demo, a forceful onna might be the best of both sekai. I’d gladly give up all my other koibito for such an onna.”

“I’m afraid I don’t see it the same way,” Fumiko said, drawing Nanami’s attention away from Aina. “To me, it’s less about the gender and more about the individual.” She allowed her hand to slide across the counter to where Aina’s was resting. “Demo, I do agree with you that there’s no greater feeling in the sekai, and that there’s no greater koibito than Aina.”

“Come on, Aina, we’re leaving,” Nanami announced, but when she stepped away from the booth, Aina didn’t follow, causing Nanami to step out from under the shade of the parasol. She looked back at Aina, who was staring fondly into Fumiko’s eyes. “Naze won’t you look at me like that?” Nanami screamed at Aina. “I’m much prettier!”

Hai, Nanami-sama,” Aina said, not paying the slightest attention to Nanami.

“Onna!” Nanami exclaimed. “They’re so… inscrutable.” She kicked Aina’s leg in frustration.

“Gee, Nanami-sama,” Fumiko said, “I can’t imagine why Aina would reject your advances when you treat her like that.”

Nanami turned her attention to Fumiko, fury writ large across her face. She raised her hand to slap Fumiko, but was blocked when Aina lowered the parasol between them. Nanami wheeled back on Aina, expecting to see the same threatening expression on Aina’s face she saw whenever she badmouthed Fumiko, but was instead met with an unfamiliar expression. Was it… contempt? Whatever it was, it scared Nanami.

“Y-you don’t know what you’re missing,” Nanami stammered. “I don’t need you. I was foolish to believe you could replace anyone. You know what I’m going to do now? I’m going to call one of my many koibito and spend all night making love to a real otoko.”

“The doctor says you need to take it easy,” Aina reminded her.

“That doctor is a fucking chauvinist!” Nanami screamed. “Now, escort me to my kuruma.”

“Hai, goshujin-sama,” Aina obliged, swinging the parasol over Nanami’s head. As they walked, Nanami avoided looking at either Aina or at Fumiko, who was following behind them. They didn’t have far to walk. The car was parked just outside of the shrine.

“Will you be returning to the mansion tonight?” Aina asked, opening the car door for Nanami, who pretended not to hear the question and closed the door behind her, locking Aina out.

After the car had pulled away, Nanami glanced back at the shrine to find Aina and Fumiko sharing a kiss. Aina was holding the parasol between them and Nanami, obscuring the kiss from Nanami’s view, but Fumiko, placing her hand over Aina’s, gently pushed it until the bottoms of their faces were visible to Nanami.

Furious at this latest insult, Nanami pulled her pistol from her purse and aimed it directly at the lovers. Her finger shook as she inched it towards the trigger, but then, with a sigh, she re-engaged the safety on the gun and slipped it back into her purse.

October 10th, U.C. 0066, 5:50 PM

It wasn’t Hayato’s turn to make dinner, but everyone else was busy. Fumiko was mending Okimi’s clothes, Aina was helping Okimi with her homework, and Ryuunosuke was glaring at Aina, like he always did when she came over. No one wanted to eat Ryuunosuke’s attempts at cooking anyway. In truth, Hayato would prefer to be the one tutoring Okimi, but he had to admit Aina was better at it. Having attended university, he considered himself smarter than Aina, but she was a much better teacher.

Entering the kitchen, he didn’t think anything about the window being open. It was summer, and it wasn’t scheduled to rain any time soon. However, when he opened the cabinet to find all the rice missing, he wondered if they had been robbed, then quickly dismissed the notion. Who would climb through the window just to steal some rice bags? It was more likely that they had simply run out of rice, but he was certain he had brought home two large bags just the other day… His train of thought was interrupted by the doorbell.

“I’ll get it,” he called out, trudging down the hallway. He obviously needed to go buy some more rice, and he could deal with whoever was at the door on the way.

“I come bearing gifts,” Sena announced as Hayato opened the door. She held out a large sack containing bags of rice and a few other food items. Her head was covered with a hokkamuri, which she had tied under her nose.

Hayato’s first instinct was to berate the gynoid, something along the lines of, “You stole these from my kitchen,” but this wasn’t his first time meeting Sena. Instead, he snatched the bag and shouted towards the living room, “Aina-san, your gynoid is here.”

“She’s not my gynoid,” Aina yelled back.

“It was just a jodan, Hayato-san,” Sena said. “Relax.”

‘It wasn’t funny,” Hayato said.

“For that, I am sorry,” Sena replied. “My success rate is increasing, but they are not all winners. I can see that you are still angry. As an apology, I will cook dinner for you.”

“I’m not sure I want to serve my kazoku meals prepared by a gynoid,” Hayato said.

“In that case, I will assist you,” Sena insisted, entering the house and removing her shoes. “That is actually for the best. There is something I need to discuss with you.”

“Nani business could you possibly have with me?” Hayato scoffed, leading the way to the kitchen.

“Are you aware that gynoids are very observant?” Sena asked.

“I’ve heard that,” Hayato admitted.

“I have observed that you are not happy with your life,” Sena said as they entered the kitchen. “Nani are we making?”

“Let’s make curry,” Hayato said. “You handle the vegetables. Soshite, nani do you mean I’m not happy with my life?”

“Your wife has no affection for you, and your otou-san-in-law is upset with you that you couldn’t win his daughter away from her koibito.” Sena said. “I’m sure you suspect it, but Fumiko-chan is planning on divorcing you before her father passes ownership of the shrine to her. Even though you have produced an heir, you’ll have nothing to show for it.”

“Ryuunosuke-sama would never let that happen,” Hayato claimed, “and Fumiko will stay married to me for Okimi’s sake regardless.”

“Ryuunosuke-sama likes Fumiko-chan more than he likes you,” Sena said bluntly. “Now that you are no longer useful to him, he will not stand up for you. Soshite, Okimi-chan is becoming smarter by the day. It won’t be long before she realizes what is really going on.” She grabbed a knife off the metallic strip affixed to the kitchen wall and examined it. “This knife is dull,” she remarked. She was surprised Aina hadn’t taken it upon herself to sharpen the kitchen knives.

“It’s not dull,” Hayato explained as he placed a pot on the stove, “it’s just not as sharp as you’re used to. Around here, not everything needs to double as a buki.”

Accepting this explanation, Sena began to chop the vegetables. She worked with a speed and precision that could not be matched by a normal homo sapiens, but even though Hayato was impressed with—and intimidated by—her skill, Sena only cared that she could have expended less energy had the knife been sharper. When she finished, she carefully cleaned the knife and tossed it in a gentle arc so that it stuck to the magnetic strip.

“Your mirai is not at this shrine,” Sena said, continuing the conversation from earlier, “but you still have a chance at happiness. You have a lot of attractive qualities. You should find someone who appreciates them.”

“I don’t believe you,” Hayato said. “This is another one of Aina-san’s plots to distance me from my kazoku.”

“Whether you believe me is up to you,” Sena admitted, “but I am actually doing this Fumiko-chan no tame ni. An amicable divorce would be easier on everyone. Demo, it is your choice. You can be happy, or you can make everyone miserable.”

“Curry!” Okimi exclaimed as Hayato brought a couple dishes into the room. When Sena appeared behind him, she shrunk back and hid behind Aina.

“Okimi-chan,” Aina said in as gentle a voice as she could manage, “kochira wa my tomodachi, R. Sena.” Sena placed her plates upon the table and then kneeled down to Okimi’s height and extended a hand. Still hiding behind Aina, Okimi extended her own hand towards Sena.

“Eww, gross,” Okimi giggled as they shook hands. Even though Sena was wearing gloves, it felt to Okimi like she was touching something cold and slimy. When she pulled her hand back, however, the feeling immediately vanished.

“Come on, let’s eat,” Ryuunosuke snapped. He didn’t like the sight of his granddaughter consorting with a gynoid. The homo sapiens all knelt by the table, while Sena knelt a few feet away. Ryuunosuke shifted the target of his ire from Aina to Sena, glaring at her as he ate, but Sena mimicked his facial expression and glared back at him. Occasionally, Okimi would glance back at Sena, and she would end her staring match with Ryuunosuke to make silly faces at the young girl. She would contort and stretch her artificial skin in ways that were impossible for homo sapiens. It never failed to get a laugh out of Okimi, and always enraged Ryuunosuke. “I can’t eat like this,” he finally declared, grabbing his plate. “I’m going to go watch anime.”

Zurui,” Okimi whined. “I want to watch anime too.”

“You know you can’t watch ojii-san’s anime,” Fumiko said.

“The tentacle monsters are too scary for a young onna,” Sena interjected.

“I wanna watch PreCure anyway,” Okimi said.

“Did you finish your shukudai?” Hayato asked.

Un,” Okimi said, and Aina nodded her head in agreement.

“Finish your dinner first,” Fumiko said, “then you can watch ni episodes.”

“How about san episodes?” Okimi countered.

“If you do the dishes, you can watch san.” Fumiko allowed.

“Deal,” Okimi exclaimed. “Ne, Aina-san, dare’s your favorite PreCure?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never watched PreCure,” Aina said. “I’m not fond of mahou shoujo.”

“Nani did you watch when you were my age then?” Okimi asked.

Aina racked her mind for an anime she enjoyed that would be appropriate for Okimi. It took her a few seconds to come up with one. “Heidi, Girl of the Alps.”

Tsumanai,” Okimi yawned. “Sena-san, do you have a favorite PreCure?”

“I am partial to Cure Black,” Sena answered immediately.

“Sena-san, you’re so old-fashioned,” Okimi giggled.

This statement confused Sena. PreCure was hundreds of years old. If any of them were old-fashioned, they all should be. “I also like Cure Ange,” Sena added.

“Which one?” Okimi followed up.

“They are both good,” Sena answered.

“Ne, do you want to watch PreCure with me?” Okimi asked Sena.

“You just want someone to help you do the dishes,” Sena observed. “I will make a deal with you. I will help you with the dishes, but you have to let me teach you how to sharpen the kitchen knives.”

Iie,” the other adults in the room shouted simultaneously.

“Fine,” Sena relented, “I will watch PreCure with you.”

November 6th, U.C. 0078, 5:50 AM

Tadaima,” Aina yawned as she walked through the servants’ entrance. It was unusual for Aina to be so tired in the morning, but she had been put in charge of planning for the city’s events commemorating the One-Year War next year. The prime minister had placed Nanami in charge of planning the events, but she had made Aina do all the real work.

“Aina-chan,” Sena said, from the other end of the room, “we have a dai mondai.”

“Nani is it?” Aina asked, forcing herself awake.

“Nanami-sama’s atarashii koibito.”

6:10 AM

“Nanami-sama, breakfast,” Aina called out, knocking on the door to Nanami’s room.

“It’s too early,” Nanami groaned, but then she perked up. “Aina, is that you?” Throwing on a silk robe, she opened the door for Aina. “I don’t think you’ve ever brought me breakfast in bed before. How thoughtful.”

“Sena-chan insisted,” Aina explained, pushing the cart into the room. Inside, Nanami’s lover was hurriedly dressing. She had her face turned away from Aina, so all Aina could see was her long, blonde hair.

“Leaving already dear?” Nanami said, walking over to her lover. “At least stay for breakfast.” She placed her hand on the woman’s cheek and forced a kiss on her. Then she shoved the woman down onto the bed and pointed her pistol at the woman’s head. The woman tried to hide her face, but Nanami grabbed her hair with her free hand and yanked it upwards. To Aina, it was like looking into a mirror and seeing an older version of herself, though Yuriko was actually younger. “Aina, have you met my koibito?”

“We’ve met once before,” Aina said. “How did you meet her?”

“Found her on a dating site,” Nanami explained. “I figured if I couldn’t have you, then I’d have to settle for someone who looks like you. Demo, I never imagined, even in my wildest dreams, that I’d get to sleep with your clone. Unfortunately, she’s terrible in bed.”

Somehow, Aina was able to infer from Nanami’s smile that Nanami was accusing Aina of being an equally poor lover, but she wasn’t going to let Nanami set the pace of the conversation. “Don’t you think you’re being harsh, goshujin-sama? That’s something that improves with practice. I’m sure you were just as clumsy your first time.”

“You’re right,” Nanami sighed. “I can’t blame her. Kawaii sou, trapped in a loveless marriage with a husband who won’t touch her anymore. Trapped…” She pushed the barrel of her gun down Yuriko’s blouse, wrapped Yuriko’s crucifix around it, and pulled it out for Aina to see. “…by this. Did you think she was going to live a happy, pure MariaMite life if you left her with a Catholic family?”

“I didn’t leave her anywhere,” Aina defended herself. “I was as surprised to learn of her existence as you were.”

“And yet you kept her from me,” Nanami chided. “Did you never consider how much happier she could have been if I had met her jyuu-go years ago? How much happier I could have been?”

“Nanami-sama,” Yuriko spoke up, “could you please release me?”

“You think you can just leave?” Nanami teased. “You think you can just go back to your kazoku and pretend this didn’t happen? All it would take is ichi word from me and minna in the machi will know you’re a member of the tribe. You’ll be ostracized by your kazoku, your church, and everyone you know and love.”

“Not everyone she loves,” Aina said, more to Yuriko than Nanami.

“Your life is over,” Nanami continued. “That is, unless Aina wants to take your place.”

“Naze would I want to do that?” Aina scoffed.

“I’ll kill her,” Nanami threatened, pointing the gun back at Yuriko. “Don’t you care what happens to your clone? You know I’m capable of it.”

“I don’t care, and you’re not actually capable of it,” Aina told her.

“Nani are you saying?” Nanami shouted, “That I didn’t really pull the trigger? After all these years?”

“You pulled the trigger,” Aina confirmed.

Jya, you think I value her life over my own okaa-san’s?”

“I’m just saying you’re incapable of killing her,” Aina stated. “Feel free to prove me wrong. Either way, you can’t blackmail me using her.”

Enraged, Nanami looked from Aina to Yuriko, from confidence to fear and powerlessness. Yuriko looked so much like Aina, but not the Aina she wanted. This Aina disgusted her. That expression of fear was like an affront to her ideal of Aina.

Nanami pulled the trigger, and nothing happened. She pulled it again, and again.

“Nani?” Nanami shouted, exasperated. “Naze have you betrayed me?” She let out another howl of frustration and turned the gun on Aina, but even knowing the gun would not fire, she could not bring herself to pull the trigger.

Seizing her chance, Yuriko bolted for the door, but only a few steps out of the room, she stopped.

“Even without the gun, you still hold my life in your hands.” She told Nanami.

“Go,” Aina told her. “She won’t do anything to you.” She walked calmly over to Nanami and pulled out a small, ornate pressure plate and held it in front of Nanami’s eyes. “The gun won’t fire without this,” she explained.

“When did you—” Nanami started to ask.

“I didn’t,” Aina lied. “One of your old mistresses did, as you slept. I can’t blame her. For all she knew, you’d pull the trigger on her one day. Instead, you dumped her, and she flung this at my face on her way out of the mansion.”

Nanami reached out for the part, but Aina pulled it away. It was at that moment that Nanami finally cracked completely. It wasn’t just the feeling of betrayal that caused what was left of her sanity to crumble. It was also the realization that she would never fulfill her desire to possess Aina, that she was unable to get over it, and that she was powerless to destroy the object of that desire.

After that, Nanami’s mental and physical health quickly deteriorated, rushed along by heirs who were more interested in keeping her under control than helping her regain her health. By anyone else’s standards, Aina hadn’t murdered Nanami, but Aina would always remember it as her most cold-hearted kill.