Chapter 23

May 4th, U.C. 164, 9:01 AM

Aina entered the graveyard carrying a bucket full of water in one hand, incense and flowers in the other. She knew the way by heart, having trudged the path to Fumiko’s family grave thousands of times. Before she had been exiled, Aina had made it a habit to visit every few days. There was no spiritual or religious meaning behind her visits. She had gotten in the habit of visiting, she was embarrassed to say, in an attempt to show up Okimi. Okimi had often accused Aina of not truly loving Fumiko, and of pursuing a purely physical relationship. Visiting the grave was one way of signaling that she really did care. Even after Okimi passed away, Aina continued to visit, finding the ritual to be comforting.

As a result, Fumiko’s family grave was, for decades, the cleanest, most well-kept grave on the property. Returning to it now, Aina expected it to be unkempt and unloved. Only Fumiko, her parents, and her paternal grandparents were interred in the grave. Okimi, Fumiko’s only daughter, was interred in her husband’s family grave, along with two of Fumiko’s grandsons. Her remaining grandchildren were now very elderly, and Aina didn’t expect her great or great-great grandchildren to care for the grave of someone they didn’t know. Thus, she was surprised to find it acceptably maintained. It was not up to her standards, but it looked similar to its fellows. Keeping hold of the incense and flowers, she set the bucket down, pulled a wet sponge from it, and began to scrub the tombstone.

“Aina-san, Ohayou gozaimasu,” a middle-aged man greeted her as she was nearly finished with her cleaning. It was one of Fumiko’s great-grandchildren. Aina remembered his face, but not his name. He approached slowly, carrying his own flowers and incense. “Ohisashiburi.”

“Ohisashiburi,” Aina returned the greeting, taking the flowers from him with her free hand. She placed both bouquets in the vases near the base of the grave, arranging them so they looked nice, and placed the incense in the vessel between the flowers. After pouring some water over the top of the tombstone, she lit the incense, and each of them placed their hands together as if in prayer. They both stood there for a few minutes, not praying, but showing respect. Afterwards, Aina put her hands back by her side and asked, “Do I have you to thank for maintaining the grave while I was gone?”

“Partly,” the man answered. “A few of us have been taking turns.”

“Arigatou,” Aina thanked him with a small nod of her head. “Please convey my thanks to the others.”

“There’s no need to thank us. I’m just glad you could make it back for her matsuri. After you disappeared, we were worried something had happened to you, and we’d never see you again.”

“I’m back now,” Aina said, “and I won’t be leaving again, but… I don’t know if I’ll be visiting the grave as often.”

“Your age finally catching up with you?” the man joked. It was a joke few others would dare make to Aina’s face, but Aina had always been kind to Fumiko’s descendants.

“Hardly,” Aina scoffed. She remained silent for a moment before continuing, “I was asked out by someone the other day, and I’m considering it. I’ll never love anyone as much as I loved Fumiko, but if I’m going to be in a relationship again, I can’t keep putting her memory first. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“That’s understandable, but does that mean you’ve been alone for the past san-jyuu-san years?”

“Of course I have. Losing Fumiko was painful. I never wanted to go through something like that again. I’m going to live a long while yet, and I didn’t want to add another grave to visit every nana-jyuu or so years.”

Sou ka. Your new koibito must be someone special to get you over that.”

“She ages at the same rate I do. I don’t know if it will work out between us, but that alone makes it worth trying.”

“I hope it does work out. If anyone deserves some happiness, it’s you.”

“You’re not disappointed in me for abandoning Fumiko? Your obaa-san would never have let me hear the end of it.”

“San-jyuu-san years is a hell of a dry spell. I don’t know if I could have lasted that long, personally. No one could question your devotion at this point, and even if they could, it’s your life. I never met great-obaa-san, but from what I heard, she loved you very much, and would want you to be happy.”

“Arigatou,” Aina thanked him, bowing deeply. The man was so surprised by this that he didn’t know how to react, but he would always remember the day Aina Dufort bowed to him.

10:46 AM

Okaeri, Aina-chan,” Sena welcomed her as she returned to the mansion.

Tadaima,” Aina replied. “Do we have any wine left in the cellar? I could use a drink with lunch.”

“You’ll have to put your daytime drinking on hold,” Sena said, holding out a resumé. “There’s an applicant waiting for you in your office.”

“You mean someone actually applied?” Aina said, taking the resumé. She glanced at it and frowned. “Did you tell him we’re not hiring a butler?”

“We need the help,” Sena pointed out. “I do not see what gender has to do with it.”

“I’m not hiring anyone to be my superior.”

“Just because other houses place butlers above meido in the hierarchy does not mean we need to. Besides, we do not need to hire him as a butler. We could make him a stable boy or something.”

“We don’t have stables,” Aina pointed out as the two of them walked towards her office.

“We could build some,” Sena said, “and order a horse shaped chassis. I could place my brain in it and we could spend our afternoons together on long horse rides. When we get back in the evenings, I could make the stable boy clean up my waste.”

“You should be careful with jokes like that,” Aina cautioned. “Some hito might mistake it for some kind of fetish.”

Naze can’t it be both?” Sena joked, using a contraction during one of those rare circumstances where not using one would sound too awkward.

“Speaking of chassis,” Aina said, “you’re overdue for your replacement. I won’t order you to get it done, because we both know how that will end, but I’m worried about you, Sena-chan. Some of your more fragile electronic parts won’t last forever.”

“You are trying to guilt trip me,” Sena observed. “You know I will calculate that it hurts both our chances of survival if you are expending effort worrying about me. However, I can assure you that there is no risk of my systems failing. The recommended interval for chassis replacement is overly conservative. I am monitoring my hardware and will get it replaced before it poses any risk.”

“OK,” Aina said, “You know I trust you, but please let me know if you run into any mondai.”

After knocking twice on the door to her own office, Aina opened it. “Thank you for your interest, Yuuki-san,” she said, looking back at the resumé to make sure she got his name right, “but we’re—” She stopped when she laid eyes on Yuuki. He was standing next to her desk—she had likely caught him sitting in her chair—dressed in a fairly good imitation of the Wright family meido uniform. From what she could tell, all of the minor details on the uniform were correct, but it was made from ordinary fabrics. More surprising than the uniform, however, was the fact that he looked almost exactly like Aina.

“Ha-Hajimemashite,” the boy stammered, bowing with his fingertips touching each other. “Yuuki Chevrolet desu. Jyuu-yon sai. My hobbies are sewing and—”

“Sena-chan,” Aina shouted down the hallway, “I don’t care how much we need the help. No fans!” She turned towards Yuuki, a scowl on her face. “Swatte,” she barked, pointing at a chair. She picked up a purse from another chair and began to rifle through it. “Is this yours?”

“Please don’t look in there,” Yuuki pleaded, but Aina ignored him. She quickly found the makeup wipes that she was looking for, pushed the dumbfounded boy into the chair, bent down, and scrubbed his face with a wipe. She was unsatisfied with the results. He hadn’t been wearing much makeup, and his face still looked very much like hers.

“Do you realize how stupid it is to look like watashi?” Aina spat. “There are plenty of hito who want me dead. If one of them mistook you for watashi…”

“N-No one would dare attack you,” Yuuki claimed. “It hasn’t been a mondai so far. Actually, I’ve had the opposite mondai. Minna seems to really like you. Some hito really like you.”

“I’m aware,” Aina said flatly. “Some of those people even cosplay as me and show up here asking to become meido.”

“It’s not like that,” Yuuki insisted. “It’s not my fault I look like you. There’s a group of your fans who were bullying me. They forced me to pretend to be you and flirt with them. They even held me down and cut my hair so it looks like yours.”

“Oh? Did they force you to come here in that dress?”

“It was all I had when I ran away,” Yuuki mumbled. “I know it makes me look creepy. Gomen.”

“I can see why you ran away,” Aina sympathized, “but naze koko?”

Tsuyoku naritai,” Yuuki said. “When I was living in Akihabara, I was one of the only meido who didn’t know how to defend themselves. I was easy prey for my bullies because they knew meidou and I didn’t. I want to be able to stand up to them.”

Jya, you’ve come to the wrong place,” Aina told him. “I’m looking for hito to cook and clean. I won’t teach meidou ever again.”

“Demo, it’s partially your fault I’m in this mess,” Yuuki complained. “Please, help me out.” He placed his palms together and lowered his forehead.

“I really don’t see how this is my fault at all,” Aina said. “You listed a meido café in Akihabara in your employment history. I didn’t force you to join the free meido. I’m sure no one would have thought you looked like me if you weren’t wearing that uniform. Still, I wouldn’t want to see you killed for it. I’ll have a talk with the free meido and get them to lay off. In exchange, you have to put me in touch with whoever made your uniform. I could use a few of these.”

“I made the uniform,” Yuuki said. “Like I said, sewing is my hobby.”

“You’re very feminine, Aina observed, “but you listed masculine preferred pronouns on your resumé. Was that a mistake?”

“Iie,” Yuuki proclaimed, “I am an otoko.”

“I’m not judging you,” Aina followed up. “You’d be far from the first trans meido.”

Shitteiru. I just love meido things. I enjoy wearing dresses, but I’m not an onna.”

“I wasn’t aware meido cafés hired otoko.”

“Most don’t,” Yuuki admitted. “I worked at an otokonoko café, but I didn’t really fit in there. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“I know you didn’t ask for my advice,” Aina said, “but you should give up on being a meido. Go home to your parents.”

“I can’t,” Yuuki sulked. “I don’t have a kazoku or a home to go to. Please, Aina-sama, I’ve already been rejected from the other mansions that are hiring meido. I have nowhere else to go.” Pushing himself up from the chair, he brought his forehead to the floor in a dogeza.

“You’re really not one of my fans?” Aina pressed.

“Not like that,” Yuuki promised her. “I admire your strength, and I want to become tsuyoi like you, but that’s it. I swear.”

“Are you gay?” Aina followed up.

“I don’t think that’s an appropriate question for a job interview,” Yuuki said.

“It’s not,” Aina agreed, “but answer it anyway.”

“Iie,” Yuki said, “but I’m willing to devote myself fully to Mitsuo-sama.”

“No one’s asking you to do that,” Aina muttered. “Iie, this is a warui idea for so many reasons. I shouldn’t have even entertained it”

“Please, Aina-sama,” Yuuki sobbed. “I promise—”

He was interrupted by a knock at the door, and then Mitsuo popped his head into the room.

“Hey, nani’s all the commotion—Whoa, am I seeing double?”

“I told you to lay off the drinking, goshujin-sama,” Aina said. “I’m busy right now, please come back later.”

“Please, Mitsuo-sama, hire me to be your meido,” Yuuki shouted before returning to his dogeza.

“Is this an applicant?” Mitsuo asked, perking up.

“Hai,” Aina sighed. She picked the resumé up from her desk and handed it to Mitsuo. “Demo, as you can see, he’s not really qualified.”

“I can cook and I can sew,” Yuuki interjected. “I can learn to clean. R. Sena-san said you need the help, and I need the work.”

Iin ja nai ka?” Mitsuo shrugged.

“Goshujin-sama, in case it’s not clear, he’s an otoko,” Aina pointed out.

“I’m surprised, Aina,” Mitsuo said. “I wouldn’t expect such a bigoted argument from you.”

“That’s not what I—” Aina backtracked.

“He’s obviously desperate,” Mitsuo leaned down to whisper in her ear. “We won’t have to pay him very much.” He straightened up and addressed Yuuki. “You’re hired. How soon can you start?”

Domo arigatou gozaimasu, goshujin-sama,” Yuuki said, bowing again from his kneeling position. “I can start immediately.”

Ii,” Mitsuo said. “You said you could cook, right? I’ll show you to the kitchen and you can make lunch.”

Yuuki quickly stood and, after bowing to Aina, walked towards Mitsuo. Aina grabbed him by the shoulder. “Goshujin-sama has a thing for me,” she whispered. “Do not let him treat you like your bullies did. If you do, I’ll have to get rid of you, ichi way or another.”

“Hai,” he yelped, running to catch up with Mitsuo.

Upset at being overridden by Mitsuo, Aina stormed out of her own office in the opposite direction of the kitchen. It didn’t take her long to track down Sena.

“Naze did you send goshujin-sama to interfere?” Aina demanded, as soon as she had Sena’s attention.

“It sounded like you were going to pass on Yuuki-san, and that would have been a mistake,” Sena contended. “I am a much better judge of character than you are,” she added, pre-empting Aina’s next argument.

“He did remember your namae,” Aina reluctantly admitted. “If you vouch for him, I guess he can’t be that warui, but I can tell he’s going to be trouble.”

Sena didn’t say anything. She knew Yuuki would be trouble. He would be more trouble than Aina could imagine. Sena would make sure of it.