May 4th, U.C. 131, 4:36 AM
Aina slid open the door to Fumiko’s bedroom without knocking. Even though she had, for many years, slept in this room most nights, she still treated the room as Fumiko’s. Normally, she would have knocked, but there was no time to waste. Inside, Fumiko lay on a futon, surrounded by her daughter and grandchildren.
“Of course,” Okimi sighed. “Heaven forbid we have a single family moment without you intruding.”
“Okaa-san, now is not the jikan,” her eldest son admonished. He moved over to give Aina room to kneel besides Fumiko.
“Even my own kodomo love you more than they love their own kazoku,” Okimi huffed. Aina ignored Okimi’s complaining and took Fumiko’s hands in hers. They were cold and wrinkly, and Fumiko was so weak that Aina could barely tell that Fumiko was squeezing her hand. Fumiko had been frail for years, but her strength had fallen precipitously in the last week and a half.
“Leave us for a minute,” Fumiko croaked. Okimi looked like she wanted to protest, but she stood as quickly as her body would allow her and hobbled to the door. Her children followed.
“This is it,” Fumiko told Aina.
“You can’t know that,” Aina said, fighting back tears.
“I can feel it,” Fumiko said.
“Jya, won’t you reconsider?” Aina asked. “I’d willingly abandon my karada at this point if we could be together forever. I’d have no regrets.”
“Demo, I would,” Fumiko insisted, her voice raspy. “You still have too many years left. I couldn’t steal them from you. Perhaps if you had aged normally…” She paused to catch her breath.
“Don’t push yourself,” Aina said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. “I know your feelings on this. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just wanted to give you ichi last chance to change your mind.” Fumiko smiled in response, but she didn’t say anything. They both closed their eyes and allowed their spiritual energies to intermingle for the last time. A warm and pleasant feeling enveloped them, and they could feel the echoes of reality lap at them, but they didn’t lose themselves to it. After a few minutes had passed, Fumiko’s energy began to fade. Aina leaned forward and planted a tender kiss on Fumiko’s lips. “I love you, Fumiko,” Aina said, choking back tears. She felt foolish for saying it. They had just spent the past few minutes communicating their love through their spiritual energy. Words, in comparison, were imprecise, but she knew this was the last chance she would have to say them. “I always will.”
“Do you remember Mari-san’s curse?” Fumiko whispered. “Live a long life, a happy life, in my stead.”
“Hai,” Aina said, “I will.”
With a smile on her face, Fumiko closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, exhausted from the last few minutes. Quietly, Aina slipped from the room.
“Aina-san,” Okimi greeted her outside the room, “gomen for snapping on you. We’re both losing someone we love.”
“Donmai,” Aina reassured her. “I’m sure you’ll stop blaming me for your parents’ divorce some day.”
“I don’t blame you,” Okimi said. “It’s just that I felt if I didn’t take chichiue’s side, no one would. Demo, that doesn’t matter anymore. You can stay with us until the end, if you’d like.”
“I appreciate that,” Aina said. “She doesn’t have much time left. She should have her kazoku, all of us, by her side.”
May 1st, U.C. 0164, 9:00 AM
Omedetou tanjoubi to me, Aina thought bitterly to herself as she donned her environmental suit. Minutes earlier, the alarm system monitoring the dome protecting the house had informed her that the hermetic seal was about to fail. It was the fourth time in the last week that this had happened, and it had happened three times the week before that. The dome was old—though not quite as old as she was—and it was nearing the end of its useful life. To be safe, they should have purchased a new dome a year ago. They had more than enough money, but Aina feared that the Futarchy would tamper with the dome during its construction or delivery. Most likely, they would install surveillance devices, but Aina wouldn’t put it past them to sabotage the dome. In fact, she suspected Futarchy agents might be behind the recent deterioration of the dome’s seals.
If they were, they were doing a good job making the damage look natural. They were also making it a major pain to repair. More often than not, the damage was unreachable from the ground, so she would have to scale the dome, remove the damaged panels, dig out the old sealing foam, spray in new sealing foam, replace the panel, and wait an hour for it to expand. If the foam didn’t create a perfect seal, she would have to pull off the panels and replace the foam again. The environmental suit made everything more unpleasant. It was hot inside the suit, and sitting on the dome’s reflective panels made it worse. Although the suit and the dome were sturdy, with Aina’s strength, she had to be careful not to damage either one.
Before she began, she set up a portable weather station and inspected the dome. Luckily, the damage was limited to a single panel near the ground. No climbing would be required. Even better, the weather station reported that the air was clean and breathable, and would remain so until the evening. There had been more and more good days recently—proof the international geoengineering program was working—but this was the first day in months where the air was clean while Aina had to do repairs. After pulling the panel and replacing the foam, Aina removed the environmental suit to cool off. She was wearing only athletic underwear underneath, but aside from Mitsuo, who was sheltering in the house, there should be no one else within miles. Even if someone did see her, she was no blushing maiden embarrassed by her body. Not that she had anything to be embarrassed about. Her body was lean and muscular, though not as muscular as was typical for strong meido, and her skin was smooth and healthy. Although she had just turned 127 years old, she looked like she was in her late teens.
The muscles were a recent development. It had taken her more than a hundred years to gain enough control over her spiritual energy to hold it back enough to allow her to exercise her muscles. Having been exiled to this house in the Western Futarchy, she hadn’t had much to do in the last five years except train. She had focused on trying to learn true meidou. Multiple times the past, she had asked Jin to teach her, but she had never managed to fully master it. Away from the GINZUISHOU’s influence, she’d had more success.
Knowing that meidou techniques were originally developed from the movements meido carried out while performing their household duties, Aina had devoted herself to cooking and cleaning. It wasn’t like she had anything better to do in the isolated countryside anyway. It had been mindless and repetitive, and she found herself wondering how meido had dealt with the workload before gynoids were invented. It was extremely boring. The city-state of Paris had a vibrant economy, and the technology to create cleaning robots. There was no reason humans had to be the ones performing these tasks. And yet, from what she had read, and from what Naomi had told her, they had. This puzzle had gnawed at Aina for more than a year before she came up with a reasonable answer. True meidou was created for self-defense, not assassination, and Aina had always assumed that started and ended with personal-self defense, but if it was a collective effort, the chores made more sense. No matter how pointless the endeavor, struggling together was a good way to build trust and camaraderie.
It was this trust, so central to meidou, that Naomi had betrayed when she defected to the Federation. She had told Aina that her pride wouldn’t allow her to disobey her master, but Aina now wondered if Naomi just wanted to return to the house she had cleaned and maintained for decades. Perhaps she hadn’t been able to accept that her labor had been meaningless.
It was pure speculation on Aina’s part. She had learned very little about Naomi as a person after her death. Now, she was close to the age Naomi had been when she had died, but she still felt like a child in comparison. Despite a century of training, her meidou had barely improved, and she had never learned to be crafty. Still, if Naomi had been unable to give up the mansion, Aina saw that as a weakness, one which she was determined not to share. She had put all her energy into her chores, promising herself that when the time came to leave, she would destroy the house without hesitation.
That time came as she was waiting for the sealing foam to expand. From within her discarded environmental suit, Aina heard her emergency pager ring. This device was her only connection to the outside world, but it could only display short messages. She received a message at least once every week, but they almost always read “NOTHING TO REPORT.” On that day, however, when Aina fished it from the suit’s pocket, it read “RETURN IMMEDIATELY.” No reason was given for the command, which to Aina, could only mean one thing: Tsuyoshi, her current goshujin, was dead, and Mitsuo, his son, was now goshujin. As his name implied, Mitsuo was Tsuyoshi’s third son, and one of his two older brothers should have inherited the title. In all likelihood, they were dead too. As happy as Aina was about that, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed that she hadn’t been the one to kill them. She hadn’t always enjoyed killing her goshujin, but she would have relished killing Tsuyoshi.
“Mitsuo-sama,” Aina shouted as she reentered the house, “we’re leaving!”
“Nani?” came a muffled reply. Mitsuo was standing near the entryway, wearing his own environmental suit.
“We’ve been called back,” Aina explained as Mitsuo began the process of shucking his environmental suit. She didn’t want to explain the situation any further than that. Mitsuo hated his father and brothers even more than Aina did, but even so, he was a sensitive young man, and Aina couldn’t be sure how the news would affect him. It could wait until they were back within the safety of Neo Crystal Tokyo.
“That’s fantastic,” Mitsuo exclaimed. “I’ll start packing right away.” But despite saying that, he lingered in the entryway, ogling Aina. This made Aina uncomfortable, but it was nothing new. His mother had died when Mitsuo was young, and Aina had been charged with his upbringing. He had always been affectionate towards Aina, but during his early teens, that affection had turned to desire. They had been exiled together to the Futarchy when he was fourteen, and he had first propositioned her a few months after that.
She had initially tried to brush him off, telling him, “Don’t tease an old woman like me. You should be pursuing onna your own age.”
“How am I supposed to do that out here?” he had countered. “There’s no one except us. Besides, an otoko and an onna living alone in the same house for dare knows how long… minna expects us to do it.”
“I don’t care what minna expects,” she had told him, “and I don’t see you as an otoko. Don’t take it personally. Compared to me, nearly minna is a kodomo. I would be the sekai’s biggest pedophile if I laid hands on you.”
“I am not a kodomo,” he had protested. “Let me show you how much of an otoko I am.” It was a hilariously pathetic line, but one Aina had heard all too often before. It had stopped being funny to her long ago.
“Absolutely not,” she had responded firmly. “Not only do I have no interest in you, but nani do you think goshujin-sama would do if I got pregnant? He would never let us come home.”
She had hoped that would have put an end to the conversation, but Mitsuo had responded, “You can still get pregnant at your age?” The rudeness of the question didn’t bother Aina as much as the hopeful look on Mitsuo’s face. As she had done to so many who had approached her in the past, she glared at Mitsuo with an expression that communicated just how little she thought of him. Ever since she had been assigned as his surrogate mother, she had never given him any reason to suspect she didn’t care for him. The realization that she did not had hurt Mitsuo, and he had retreated to his room.
Since then, living alone together had been awkward for both of them. They both knew that they needed to interact with each other to maintain their sanity, but they kept their interactions to a minimum. Despite that, Mitsuo had maintained his romantic feelings for Aina. This was not the first time Aina had caught him leering at her, but it was the first time he had seen her baring so much skin.
“Hayaku,” Aina urged him. “I’m going to pack my things and get the kuruma ready. If you’re not done by then, I’ll leave you behind.”
Mitsuo had been cleared by the decontamination workers a full half hour before Aina. She met him in the waiting area as he was finishing their re-entry forms. As they walked together to the desk to turn in the forms, they were approached by a police officer. She held out her hand, and Mitsuo handed over the papers.
“We’ve already been through your belongings, but do you have anything else you’d like to declare?” the officer asked. She was dark-skinned and unquestionably beautiful, and both Aina and Mitsuo were immediately taken with her.
“Iie,” they both rushed to answer, after realizing they had been staring at her.
“Sou ka,” the officer sighed. “Meido-san, is there perhaps something you would like to declare in private?” she asked, glancing from Aina to Mitsuo.
“I have nothing to hide,” said Aina.
The officer sighed once again, steeled herself, and said, “Mahou individuals need to present proof of registration to enter the machi. If you’re not registered, we can take care of that in my office.”
“I am not mahou,” Aina said, “so I don’t have to register.”
“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” the officer assured her. “I’m mahou too. That’s how I could tell.”
“Ah, perhaps you’re sensing my old injury,” Aina said, pulling off her left glove to reveal her scarred arm. Ryoko’s magical energy was still embedded within it.
“Maybe,” the officer said, but Aina could tell she was skeptical. “To be safe, I should get your details. If you’ll come with me—”
“I will not,” Aina said, raising her voice. “You’ve wasted enough of our time over nothing. Even if I was mahou—which I’m not—goshujin are entitled to immunity from the registration requirements. There are plenty of reasons a goshujin might want to keep an unregistered mahou shoujo on staff, and you should show a little more discretion when questioning a goshujin or his meido.”
“You must have been gone for a long time,” the officer said through gritted teeth. “The goshujin aren’t that powerful any more.”
“It’s only been go years,” Aina scoffed. “Things can’t have changed that quickly.”
“Is there a mondai here?” Another officer asked, walking over to the group. From her uniform, Aina could tell that this officer outranked the one who was questioning them.
“She’s refusing to register,” the junior officer explained. “Soshite, she’s claiming goshujin immunity.”
“I’ll take it from here,” the senior officer informed the junior officer, grabbing the re-entry forms. She flicked through them, glanced briefly at Aina’s scarred arm, and then let out an exasperated sigh. “Gomen nasai, Mitsuo-sama,” she apologized. “You’re both free to go. I’ll take care of the rest of the formalities.” She waved to the border guards to let them through.
“Junsa-buchou—” the junior officer began to complain as they walked off, but the senior officer held up a hand to silence her.
“Do you have any idea dare she was? Of the danger you just put us in?” The chief inspector demanded.
“Iie,” the junior officer admitted. “Her namae wasn’t listed on the form.”
“Perhaps that’s for the best,” the chief inspector said. “I’m going to forget this ever happened, and if you’re smart, so will you.”
“You’re not actually mahou, are you?” Mitsuo asked as they rode to the mansion in a limo.
“Of course not,” Aina scoffed. “She was just too inexperienced to tell the difference between the mahou energy in this old injury and the mahou energy of a living hito.” But Aina didn’t believe that. Aina had been suppressing her energy as much as she could, and that officer still saw through her in a way that no one—except Fumiko—ever had.
“Maybe you just don’t know it,” Mitsuo joked as they pulled through the front gate.
The limo stopped in front of the mansion, and Aina got out first. When she was satisfied that it was safe, she opened the door for Mitsuo. The path to the mansion was flanked on both sides by meido.
“Okaerinasaimase, goshujin-sama,” they greeted Mitsuo as he stepped out of the vehicle.
“Goshujin-sama?” Mitsuo asked, confused. As far as he was aware, his father was still goshujin.
“Ee, goshujin-sama,” Aina confirmed, “though that appears to not mean very much these days.” She gestured to the meido lining the walkway. There were only ten total, seven homo sapiens, and three gynoids. And, to Aina’s consternation, Sena was not among them.