May 2nd, U.C. 0164, 4:55 PM
The lights in the study were off, and the door cracked open, but Aina could tell Mitsuo was inside. She knocked twice and pushed the door open, switching on the lights as she entered. Mitsuo was hunched over at his desk, staring intently at a tablet. Aina walked up behind him, making enough noise to ensure he noticed her.
“He was a buffoon,” Mitsuo mumbled, not looking up from the tablet. Aina leaned over his shoulder to see footage from one of his father’s press conferences. “I used to think he was such a great otoko. A terrible otoko, but a great one. Demo, look at this. He can’t form a coherent argument, and he’s fatigued from the mere effort of speaking. Even the reporters are heckling him. I thought the media was supposed to be the government’s mouthpiece.”
“He was never the most popular politician,” Aina observed, “but he was the defense minister. Perhaps that didn’t mean as much after the sensou ended.”
“Was he always like this?” Mitsuo asked. “I remember him being much more imposing.”
“Aging didn’t do him any favors,” Aina answered, “but that’s more or less the Tsuyoshi-sama I remember. You probably remember him differently because you were scared of him.”
“I was? Naze? I bet I could have kicked his ass.”
“Easily,” Aina concurred, “but I don’t know why either. You were always a timid kodomo.”
“Hmm,” Mitsuo said, after which he fell silent for a few moments. “You know, I hated him. I harbored ambitions of killing him myself, but looking at him now, I can’t help but feel sorry for him.” He reached for the beer bottle on his desk, but Aina placed her hand over his to stop him.
“You’re a goshujin now, so I won’t comment on your underage drinking,” Aina said, “but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to stay sober tonight. I have some urgent business to take care of, and I’ll be leaving you alone.”
“I’m sure the rest of the staff can mamoru me. I’ll assign myself a guard, and it won’t matter if I have a drink or ni.”
“Goshujin-sama, there is no rest of the staff,” Aina informed him. “They all resigned. All of them except Sena-chan.”
“You let the gynoids go too? Matte, stupid question. Of course you did. I suppose we’ll just have to hire some. Don’t give me that look. That’s not a euphemism for enslave. I really mean hire them, as employees. Most of the kazoku are too proud to do it, but I hear that a few of them have managed to hire meido recently.”
“It’s worth trying,” Aina said. “I can put the word out tonight.”
“Speaking of, nani urgent business do you have? Did you learn something from the guys who jumped me?”
“Not much,” Aina admitted. “They are, indeed, Naichou agents, not imposters.”
“Naze would the Naichou want me dead?”
“Officially, part of the treaty that ended the sensou included a stipulation that each country would be responsible for stamping out militancy within its borders by any means necessary. They didn’t want to risk the possibility that you shared your otou-sama’s policy positions.”
“Is that why they killed him and my onii-sama-tachi?”
“That was their admitted plan, but apparently someone else got there first.”
“Sou ka. De, nani’s the real reason I was targeted?”
“My best guess is that it’s simply because they don’t know you, don’t know what you’re capable of, and don’t know what you might do. They’re trying to establish a political order in a chaotic time, and they’re eliminating all the variables they can’t control.”
“Jya, we can either convince them I’m not a threat, or we can embrace our role as uncontrollable and counterattack. I’m more partial to making heiwa. Destroying an organization dedicated to stamping out militarism will only make us more teki.”
“Agreed. I’m going to take your assailants back as a peace offering, and I’ll make it clear that if they don’t bother us, we won’t get in their way. I’m going to make the same offer to the keisatsu and some other organizations.”
“That won’t take all night,” Mitsuo pointed out.
“I’ve been gone for too long. I need to make my presence known in the machi and begin to rebuild my intelligence network. I was barely able to confirm your assailants’ identities. Too many of my contacts have gone dark. It won’t just be tonight, either. I’ll be busy over the next few weeks.”
“We were cooped up together for so long, I suppose we could use a break from each other anyway. Very well. Do what you have to do, but I want you to hire some new meido as soon as possible.”
The Hachikou statue was a popular meetup spot, but when officer Emi Rioux arrived, still unsure whether this date was a good idea, it was completely deserted, save for a single meido reclining against the base of the statue.
“I pegged you as the kind of person who’s habitually early for everything,” Aina greeted her.
“That’s what you’re wearing?” Emi countered, the disappointment evident in her voice. Emi was wearing a simple light blue dress, but Aina was still in her uniform.
“Forgive me,” Aina said. “My nicer clothes were all stolen in my absence. I know it’s not very romantic, unless you have a thing for meido.”
Emi was about to object before she realized she was getting drawn into Aina’s pace again. She took a deep breath, and said, “It won’t be a problem as long as you’re with me, but I want to establish some ground rules before we go. First, this is not romantic. This isn’t even a first date. This is just dinner. Second, at the end of it, you’ll tell me your namae. If you can’t promise me that, I’m calling this dinner off.”
“If that’s what you want, I’ll agree on ichi condition: you have to tell me your namae first.”
“That’s only polite,” Emi agreed. She steeled herself for rejection before adding, “Finally, you have to stop bullying me. I can’t enjoy dinner with someone who doesn’t respect me.”
“I was only teasing you a little,” Aina protested. “You just make it too easy.”
“That’s what minna says, and I’m tired of it. It’s bullying, and you owe me an apology.”
“Of course, you’re right,” Aina sighed. “Gomen.” Although she didn’t let it show, she was embarrassed that it had taken a reprimand from this girl, more than a hundred years her junior, to chasten behavior she wasn’t proud of. At the same time, however, she couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. She had been looking forward to teasing this girl some more.
“Hontou. De, doko are you taking me?”
“We’re eating here?” It was Aina’s turn to be disappointed. “You know this is just a front for a mahjong parlor, right?”
“Was a front for a mahjong parlor,” Emi corrected. “Now it’s one of the hottest restaurants in Shibuya. You should be thankful that I managed to get us a reservation on such short notice.”
“It’s been a long time since someone tried to impress me,” Aina mused aloud as Emi opened the door for her. “Not that I dislike—”
“Oi!” a shout interrupted Aina as she entered the restaurant. “You think you can just walk in here? This is our place.” A tall woman in street clothes, who had been making her way to the door when Aina walked through it, approached Aina and glared down at her. Aina could immediately tell that the woman was mahou, and that she was drunk. “You make me sick. All of you. First you think you can take our jobs, and now you want to take our hangout? Listen here, we’re the ones who protect this machi. You meido spent centuries licking goshujin ass, and you want us to think that you care about the hito all of a sudden?”
“I believe you’re mistaking me for someone else,” Aina told the woman.
“Ain’t no mistake here, meido,” the woman spat. “Get out. Go back to your café.”
“Hey, cut it out,” Emi said, trying to step between this woman and Aina. “She’s with me. Besides, she’s one of us.”
“Eeeee?” The woman drawled. She walked around Emi and leaned down to examine Aina more closely. “Nani are you talkin’ about? I don’t feel anything from her. You got a real disagreeable face, meido.” She tried to shove Aina as she straightened up, but Aina didn’t budge, and the force of the push sent the woman falling backwards. “Temee,” she growled. She attempted to stare daggers at Aina, but when she saw Aina glaring down at her, recognition clicked. “Oh shit, you’re—”
Aina pressed a finger to the woman’s mouth to stop her from speaking and shushed her. She leaned down and whispered in the woman’s ear, “Don’t spill the beans. I’m looking forward to having a nice dinner with someone who has no idea who I am.”
“Of—Of course,” the woman stammered. As Aina stood back up, the woman prostrated herself before Aina in a dogeza. “Moushiwake arimasen,” she apologized loudly. “Please forgive my rudeness and allow me to buy you a drink.”
“Perhaps some other time,” Aina dismissed the woman. “You can go.”
“Nani was that about?” Emi asked as the woman ran out the front door.
“Beats me,” Aina replied. “She was drunk. Let’s not let it ruin our night.”
“Sure,” Emi agreed, but as they were shown to their table, Emi couldn’t help but notice that everyone was watching them.
“There are a lot of mahou shoujo here,” Aina observed, “but there are also a few hito I recognize as celebrities and politicians.”
“Mmmm,” Emi confirmed. “We’ve become… trendy recently. Being seen with a mahou shoujo has become something of a status symbol. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable, but others seem to enjoy the attention. It’s not my place to interfere with their lives, but when I see some of the younger girls dating skeevy old men, it makes me ashamed to live in a shakai that encourages that kind of thing.”
“You don’t approve of dating someone much older?” Aina asked.
“It’s not that,” Emi said, pulling a chair out for Aina. “Many of them are too young to be dating grown otoko. By the time they hit their teens, mahou shoujo are considered adults. It’s understandable. They’re smarter than the other kids, so it’s easy to treat them as adults, but I think that helps to hide that we’re not any more mature than our peers.”
“You might be right,” Aina said. “I’ve met quite a few immature mahou shoujo. Demo, that’s just anecdotal, and it’s not a very pleasant conversation topic.” She picked the menu off the table and glanced at it. “This all looks good,” she observed. “Is there anything you would recommend?”
“Would you do me a favor and cast a cleansing spell on our food?” Aina asked Emi as the waiter set it down. “I’d hate for you to get poisoned just because you’re dining with me.”
“They wouldn’t do that here,” Emi assured her.
“Please, humor me,” Aina bade her. Emi placed her hands over the dishes and they were enveloped in a warm glow. “You control your mahou well,” Aina complimented as the spell finished. She extended her own energy over the food to protect it from any other spells and then retrieved a device from her pocket and waved it above the table. “Very well. There’s not even a trace of anything dangerous left.”
“There never was anything to worry about in the first place,” Emi said.
“Perhaps,” Aina allowed, picking up her silverware. “Itadakimasu.”
“If you were so worried, you could have done it yourself,” Emi said, picking up her own fork.
“You probably won’t believe this, but I couldn’t have. I’m completely incapable of casting even the simplest of spells.”
“You’re right, I don’t believe it. You’ve got mahou energy in spades. Nani’s the problem? Need someone to teach you?”
“Iie, I know more about spellcasting than most,” Aina said.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” Emi assured her. “I was having a hard time with it too. That’s why I joined the keisatsu. They have training programs that helped me. Oh, but I guess that’s not an option for you…”
“It wouldn’t help me anyway,” Aina told her. “I’ll be honest with you. My spiritual energy does have a mahou component to it, but the overall makeup prevents spells from coalescing.”
“So, you’re a mahou shoujo who can’t use mahou?” Emi summarized.
“That’s why I never registered, and why I don’t want to register,” Aina told her. “It’s embarrassing. You’re the only hito who has ever detected the mahou in my energy. I’d appreciate it if you’d keep it to yourself.”
“That must be rough. How do you manage to fool the detectors?”
“They don’t pick up on me,” Aina explained. “Like I said, you’re the only one who’s ever noticed it. If the technology gets better, I plan to just blame it on the mahou scars covering my left arm, like I did when we first met.”
“I wouldn’t rely on that excuse,” Emi warned her. “I could tell the mahou energy in those scars was different than the mahou energy I detected.”
“I’ll be careful if the technology ever improves to that point, but I’m not too worried about it. Detector technology hasn’t improved much since it was first invented, since it already works perfectly well, as far as catching legitimate mahou shoujo. I won’t get caught unless you persist on reporting me.”
“I don’t think you’re lying. If you really can’t cast spells, I suppose there’s no reason you need to register,” Emi grudgingly agreed. “Demo, a deal’s a deal. You still have to tell me your namae.”
“Hajimemashite. I’m Emi,” she said, offering her hand for Aina to shake over the table. “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
“Hajimemaishite, Emi-san,” Aina said, taking her hand, “I’m Aina Dufort.”
A brief expression of horror flashed over Emi’s face, only to be replaced with a blank stare. “Gomen, I didn’t catch that. Nani did you say?” Emi asked.
“Omoshiroi,” Aina said. “Someone’s cast a saimin-jutsu spell on you. Here, lean forward, I can undo it for you.”
Without asking exactly how Aina might do that, Emi leaned forward and Aina placed the tips of her fingers on Emi’s temples. The spell was strong, but Aina easily shattered it. A moment later, there was a bright flash, and Koharu appeared beside their table. Like Aina, she had barely aged in the last 111 years.
“Of all the places for you to slip your bonds, Emi—” Koharu started, but she stopped when she saw Aina. “Yo,” Aina greeted her. “Ohisashiburi.”
“It certainly has,” Koharu said, managing to keep her composure despite her surprise at seeing Aina. “I heard you were back in town, but I didn’t expect to find you at a watering hole for mahou shoujo.”
“You know the keibu?” Emi asked, turning her attention from Koharu back to Aina. For the first time, she saw Aina without the perception-altering spell Koharu had placed on her. “Holy shit,” she screamed, “you’re Aina Dufort!”
The entire restaurant erupted with laughter. Ever since word had gotten around that Emi didn’t know who Aina was, everyone in the room had been watching her to see how she would react when she found out. Koharu was not amused by the scene she found herself in, and with a snap of her fingers, froze time throughout the entire restaurant.
“Keibu?” Aina asked, unaffected by the spell. “That’s quite a demotion from rikushou.”
“Shikata ga nai,” Koharu replied. “There’s less of a need for the 01st in peacetime. Of course, young mahou shoujo still need order and discipline, so I settled for the next best organization.”
“Really? Élisabeth-san was OK with mahou shoujo in the keisatsu?”
“I’m sure she would be upset,” Koharu said, “but no one’s seen her since before the sensou ended. She’s been gone almost as long as you have, though there are rumors she helped negotiate the final treaty behind the scenes. Demo, that’s not important right now. Nani are you doing here?”
“Having dinner with a beautiful onna,” Aina said with a smile. “Nani are you doing here?”
“Let’s skip the games,” Koharu said. “I have my hands full right now. Naze are you with her, and naze did you free her from my spell?”
“I really am just on a date with her,” Aina insisted. “We met by chance when I re-entered the city. She was working at the border checkpoint and… one thing lead to another. Demo, when I tried to introduce myself to her just now, your spell erased her memory. Nani’s the point of that?”
“I was trying to keep her away from you, among others,” Koharu explained. “She’s the real deal, and you’re a bad influence.”
“I’m not that bad,” Aina retorted. “It took a while, but Élisabeth-san turned out alright.”
“She was a mess for over go-jyuu years until you forgave her. Emi-san is the first honmono no mahou shoujo in a century. I want to make sure I get this one right.”
“You mean you want to be sure she’s on our side,” Aina said. “Iie, if that were the case, there’d be no need to keep her away from me. You want to make sure she’s on your side. Demo, nani? We’re on the same side.”
“For now,” Koharu said. “Dare knows how long we’ll live?”
“At the rate we’re aging, you might live to be sen-sai,” Aina answered. “I’ll live a few hyaku years longer, and Élisabeth-san claims she can live indefinitely. Of course, this all assumes the planet remains habitable, and that we survive into old age.”
“My point is, hito change,” Koharu said. “Look at you. Go years ago, I never would have expected you to be dating again.”
“I haven’t changed that much,” Aina sighed. “I’m not serious about her. After being locked up for so long, talking with someone new felt nice, and I figured she might be able to give me an inside perspective on what’s going on within the keisatsu right now. Demo, I guess I don’t need her for that, now that you’re a keibu.”
“I don’t mind sharing some info,” Koharu said, “if you don’t mind doing me some favors.”
“Of course,” Aina agreed.
“Great. I hate to cut your dinner short, but there’s a situation unfolding as we speak. Could you meet me at the Manseibashi Police Station?”
“Sure, just give me a few minutes to—” Before Aina could finish, Koharu teleported away, and time resumed. The laughter in the building continued until Aina raised a hand, causing everyone to fall silent. She waited until everyone had returned to their own conversations before turning back to Emi and asking, “Did you get all that?”
“I think so,” Emi answered. “That was a strange experience, not being able to move, or even breathe, but still being able to see and hear. Demo, it probably won’t do any good. She’ll just erase my memories.”
“She might, but I don’t think it’s likely. What she’s done up to now has arguably been in your best interests, but she doesn’t want to give you any reason to resent her.”
“Just call me Aina.”
“I couldn’t. I don’t deserve that. I want to apologize. Even though it wasn’t entirely my fault, I bothered you so much, and made you agree to those rules.”
“You didn’t make me do anything,” Aina told her. “I agreed because I found it amusing.” She took one more bite of her food before standing up. “I suppose I should go see what Koharu-san wants. Arigatou for dinner.”
“Matte,” Emi said, reaching out for, but stopping short of touching, Aina. “Gomen, I know I’m not worthy, but I… could we do this again sometime, properly?”
“You’re asking me out, even knowing who I am?”
“I like looking at you,” Emi admitted. “The way you move is very entrancing.”
“I like looking at you too, Emi-san. You’re very pretty. But you can’t base a relationship just on that.”
“Mutual attraction can be the start of a relationship,” Emi pleaded. “Maybe it won’t work out, but I’d like to try.”
“It takes a lot of guts to ask me out. Maybe I should reward you for that,” Aina mused. She could see that Emi was doing her best to hide her fear. “I doubt I’ll ever love again, but a single date couldn’t hurt anything. If you still remember who I am in a week, come ask me again. You know where to find me.”