Chapter 24

May 12th, U.C. 0164, 8:06 AM

Omatase,” Aina recited as she opened the door to the dining room, carrying a large platter of food in her right hand. Yuuki followed behind her with a smaller tray.

“Oh, you made breakfast today, Aina?” Mitsuo asked, glancing up from his tablet. “I thought you were letting Yuuki do that.”

“I got tired of omurice every morning,” Aina replied.

“Aww, but I like omurice,” Mitsuo teased, “and Yuuki served it with such energy.”

Placing her tray on the table, Aina brought her hands together, touching her fingertips in the shape of a heart. “Kira kira, kyun kyun,” she said in a deadpan voice, before separating her hands and flipping Mitsuo off. “Don’t flirt with your housestaff.”

“How tsundere,” Mitsuo joked as he carefully lifted a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup from the platter. He reached for a plate of grilled fish and paused. “Ah, just like in the Futarchy,” he commented.

All the food before him was synthetic, made to look and taste like the food humans once farmed and hunted. Although the entire human population was a small fraction of its peak, there was very little land suitable for farming left, and the ocean, at least near the surface, was largely dead. The food synthesizers at their cabin in the Futarchy were lower quality. They could create slabs of artificial plant and animal matter with various flavors and textures, but they all looked like nondescript brown slabs. It was one of these slabs that Mitsuo now found on the plate he was holding.

“I like it this way,” Aina explained. “It’s more honest. I can make one that looks like sakana if you’d like. It will only take a few minutes.”

“No need,” Mitsuo said, setting the plate down in front of him. “I put up with this for go years. I can put up with it for mou ichido day.”

“Arigatou, goshujin-sama,” Aina said with a curtsy. “Gomen if I displeased you. You’ll have your precious omurice back tomorrow.”

“I’m learning new recipes,” Yuuki insisted as he placed a plate full of toast down in front of Mitsuo. “Nani would you like for breakfast tomorrow, goshujin-sama?”

“Anything’s fine, really,” Mitsuo said as his two meido set their own places at the table. His predecessors would only dine with their meido on special occasions, but Mitsuo appreciated the company. After their ordeal together in the Futarchy, he thought it would be a long time before he enjoyed Aina’s company again, but Yuuki had brought a fresh energy and a new dynamic to the mansion, which had made meals enjoyable. Sometimes he even allowed himself to imagine the three of them were a family, in their own way. He knew it was just wishful thinking. They were servants, not equals. Eventually he’d start a real family, and the meido would have to take their meals in the dining hall. There was a time he had hoped to take Aina as his wife, but he had now accepted that was just a childish dream.

Itadakimasu.” all three recited as they picked up their chopsticks.

“Will you not be joining us for breakfast tomorrow, Aina?” Mitsuo asked casually.

“I’ll be getting in late tonight,” Aina answered. “I may not be up in time tomorrow.”

“You know, Aina-sama,” Yuuki ventured, “if you taught me some meidou, I could help mamoru Mitsuo-sama. You wouldn’t have to worry about him while you’re out.”

“I don’t worry about him,” Aina said between bites. “He can take care of himself.”

“I could teach you,” Mitsuo offered. “It’s not like I’ve got much going on right now.”

“You know meidou, goshujin-sama?” Yuuki gasped. “Sugoi!”

“You may know how to defend yourself,” Aina said, pointing her chopsticks at Mitsuo, “but you’re not qualified to teach.” She swung her chopsticks to point at Yuuki and continued, “Soshite, you’re still not getting your work done every day. Sena-chan and I are picking up your slack. You have no time to waste on that foolishness.”

“How can you call meidou foolish?!” Yuuki demanded. He was about to extoll the benefits of the martial art, but his words caught in his throat when Aina glowered at him.

“Because it is,” Aina stated. “It may have been a necessity during the sensou, but the sensou is over. We should devote ourselves to heiwa, harmony, and cleaning. Sore wa shin meidou.”

Both Mitsuo and Yuuki thought that was dorky, but they didn’t dare say so out loud, and so they ate the rest of their breakfast in silence.

“How am I supposed to get stronger just cooking and cleaning all day?” Yuuki whined as he swallowed the last bite of toast.

“There are many kinds of strength,” Aina told him. “If you can’t even clean the mansion properly, you don’t have any hope of learning to defend yourself.” She stood up from the table and began to gather the plates onto the platter.

“Yuuki, take care of the dishes,” Mitsuo ordered. “Aina, I need your help with something.”

Kashikomarimashita, goshujin-sama,” Aina said before Yuuki could complain. She stood aside and allowed Yuuki to clear the table.

“Is he gone?” Mitsuo asked a short time after Yuuki had left the dining room.

“He can’t hear us,” Aina confirmed. “Nani’s up?”

“Are… Are you a lesbian?” Mitsuo blurted out. “I don’t mean to offend. It’s OK with me either way, I just…”

“You finally read Nanami-sama’s diary?” Aina inferred. “I’m surprised it took you so long. I expected you to bring this up days ago.”

“Well, chichiue’s will said I should read all the diaries, but I put hers off. Minna says she was… disturbed. It was unnerving enough to think about that being in the family history, but to come face to face with it was… chilling.”

“Oh dear,” Aina said. “I fear Nanami-sama’s eccentricities have been exaggerated over the years. She had her share of problems, but dare doesn’t? She was my second-favorite goshujin, after you.”

“You might not say that if you read her diary,” Mitsuo said. “You haven’t, right?”

“I haven’t,” Aina lied, “but I always enjoy seeing the effect it has on those who have. Aside from you, Fuyuko-sama was the only one who even confirmed its existence to me, but he didn’t say much.” She cleared her throat dramatically, and when she next spoke, it was a perfect imitation of Fuyuko’s voice. “Aina, I just finished reading hahaue’s diary, and I’m sorry for what she put you through. You don’t have to worry about that from me.”

“No one else said anything?” Mitsuo asked.

“Not directly,” confirmed Aina. “I could tell when they had read the diary because they’d give me odd looks and act awkwardly around me for a few days. Sometimes they’d drop oblique references to it in my presence. Tsuyoshi-sama, for example, approached me one evening while I was alone in the library.” She cleared her throat again, and spoke with Tsuyoshi’s voice, “Your lifestyle doesn’t bother me, but I don’t want you bringing onna into my mansion. Go do that somewhere else.” Returning to her own voice, she added, “Then he turned on his heels and left, and that’s the last I heard about it.”

“Chichiue did that?” Mitsuo laughed. “I wonder if he couldn’t distinguish the fact from the fiction.”

“Fiction?” Aina feigned ignorance.

“Nanami wrote what I can only describe as fanfiction about her life in her diary,” Mitsuo explained. “A lot of it fixated on you, but not all of it. There were stories about her classmates, her teachers, and even a few of the goshujin of her time. Most of them are sexual in nature, but a few of them are quite violent. In particular, there was an onna named Fumiko—”

“Fumiko was my partner for over hachi-jyuu years,” Aina interrupted him. “Nanami-sama was jealous of her.”

“So it’s true,” Mitsuo said.

“Are you frustrated?” Aina smirked.

“A little,” Mitsuo admitted. “We’ve been close since I was little, but I never suspected a thing, and now I’m left wondering how well I really know you at all.”

“That’s a little overdramatic,” Aina said. “It’s not something that’s talked about openly, but my orientation was hardly a secret. You just weren’t very observant, or perhaps you didn’t see the things you didn’t want to.”

“I still feel bad about it,” Mitsuo said, “especially given the way I treated you when we were first exiled.”

“Goshujin-sama,” Aina said, staring him directly in the eyes, “even if I was straight, I wouldn’t have slept with you. It’s nothing personal, but I don’t sleep with my goshujin. Regardless of what Nanami-sama may have written in her diary, I never gave her the time of day.”

“Of course, gomen.”

Donmai,” Aina waved him off. “Was there anything else you wanted?”

“Do you think you could teach me how to get an onna?” Mitsuo asked sheepishly.

“I can play matchmaker for you,” Aina sighed. “It wouldn’t be the first time. Soshite, I can teach you proper manners, but as for courting, I can’t help you much. I’ve always been the one who was courted.”

Ii na,” Mitsuo remarked.

“Spare me,” Aina shot back. “You’re a goshujin. Soon enough you’ll be invited to all the high society parties, and plenty of onna will be interested in you. Ima, if you’ll excuse me, I should make sure Yuuki-san isn’t slacking off.”

“Before you go,” Mitsuo called out, “am I supposed to be keeping a journal, now that I’m a goshujin?”

“That’s up to you,” Aina answered. “There’s no requirement, and your predecessors all had their own reasons for doing so. If you found the information in them useful, perhaps your heir might find your insights useful as well. Of course, that all depends on who you picked as your heir, or have you still not decided?” she probed.

“Arigatou, Aina,” Mitsuo replied. “That helps.” Then, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed her.

6:10 PM

“Aina-sama,” Yuuki cried, running after her, “nani am I going to do? I’ve never cooked dinner before.”

“Sena-chan is going to teach you,” Aina told him as she opened the front door, “after you’ve finished the rest of your chores.” She had been hoping to leave before Yuuki saw her, but his unexpected crisis of cooking confidence had ruined that.

“I’m already done,” Yuuki bragged. “I finished early.”

Jya, nani are you doing koko?” Aina asked, not that she believed him. “I thought we agreed that you were going to cut and dye your hair when you had some free jikan.” She was still worried about Yuuki ending up on the wrong side of a blade meant for her, but Yuuki had thus far resisted attempts to differentiate their appearances.

“Is that a picnic basket?” Yuuki asked, changing the subject. “Ne, ne, are you going on a picnic, Aina-sama? It’s awfully late in the day for that. Moshikashite… deeto?” Aina ignored him and turned towards the door. “Atari!” Yuuki exclaimed cheerfully. “That’s a suteki dress, Aina-sama, but it’s spring. You should be showing off more skin. If you’d like, I can alter it for you. It would only take jyuu-go pun.”

Arigatou for the offer,” Aina said, “but I wear long sleeves for a reason.” She removed the glove covering her scar-pocked hand and thrust it in Yuuki’s face.

“Demo, your battle scars are part of your charm,” Yuuki said. “If your date can’t handle—”

“I’m not worried about my date,” Aina snapped. Yuuki had struck a nerve. Emi had already seen Aina’s scarred arm, but she had only glanced at it, looking away quickly. What if her scars were a barrier Emi couldn’t overcome? “I just don’t want to attract attention.”

“In that case, you should probably wear gloves on both hands,” Yuuki said. “You look a little chuuni like that.” Once again, Aina ignored him and walked away towards the front gate. “I get it,” Yuuki called after her. “You want to hold hands. That’s so ecchi, Aina-sama!”

6:45 PM

The last time she waited under the Hachikou statue, everyone had kept their distance from Aina, but this time, only those who gave her a second look rushed off to what they hoped was a safe distance. It was amazing what a difference not wearing her meido uniform could make.

Shimatta,” Emi groaned, walking up to Aina. “I thought I’d get here first this time.”

“You almost did,” Aina smiled.

“Hey, you’re not wearing the uniform,” Emi observed. She took a moment to look Aina over from top to bottom. She was wearing a cream dress with red and violet lilies printed on it. It fell just past her knees, and, as Yuuki had pointed out, had long sleeves. “You look good.”

“You look stunning,” Aina returned the compliment. Emi was wearing a dark purple skater dress which showed off her arms and legs nicely. Even though she was more than a century older than Emi, Aina couldn’t help but feel that Emi looked more adult than she did. “De, doko is this fantastic picnic spot?”

“It’s a bit of a walk,” Emi said. “We can take the densha if you’d prefer.”

“I don’t mind walking,” Aina said.

“Great,” Emi smiled. “We can pick up a bottle of wine on the way.”

The two of them walked west from Shibuya station. Aina did her best to stay on Emi’s left, keeping her right hand conspicuously free as she held the basket in her left arm. They walked for over an hour, making pleasant smalltalk along the way, but never once did their hands touch. This shouldn’t have been a big deal to Aina. Officially, Emi had insisted, this was their first date, since she hadn’t known who Aina was last time. Aina understood she shouldn’t expect anything but pleasant conversation from a first date, and yet, she was still hoping that Emi might take her hand, and she was disappointed it wasn’t happening.

Even though he was an infant compared to her, she had allowed Yuuki’s taunting to amplify her insecurities. She knew that how much or how little skin she showed had nothing to do with how mature she was, and how silly it was to get so worked up over something as tame as hand-holding, but this was one of the rare occasions where Aina found herself in a situation she had little experience in. She had clicked immediately with Fumiko, and after they had shared their first night together, they had learned all there was to know about each other. There had been no need for courtship between them. That wasn’t the case with Emi. In many ways, at 127 years of age, Aina was on her first real date.

9:35 PM

“You were right,” Aina said, swirling the wine in her glass, “that was beautiful.”

Yokatta,” Emi sighed. “I was worried sunsets might be old hat for you. “Very few people in the machi have seen them, but in retrospect, I guess you could have seen them easily in the Futarchy.”

“I never got the chance,” Aina said. “We were stuck inside that dome all the time. At least you can see a nice red glow from within the GINZUISHOU, but the domes in the countryside let in very little light.”

She took a sip of her wine and leaned back to look up at the few stars visible in the sky. They had laid down a blanket on the grass just outside the GINZUISHOU. The air was clean, the pollutants held back by a magical barrier which extended a few meters from the GINZUISHOU’s base. Even without the barrier, it was a clear night, and they weren’t in any danger.

Emi took a sip of her own wine and leaned back to match Aina. “Nani about before?” she asked. “You never saw the sunset?”

“I’ve been outside of the GINZUISHOU during the day and during the night,” Aina said, “but never in between. I never even thought about it until now.” The temperature was dropping, making Aina very aware of Emi’s body heat right next to her, but looking up at the sky, she couldn’t help but mutter, “I wonder if Momo ever got to see the hoshi.”

“Nani?” Emi asked, looking over at Aina.

“Nothing,” Aina said. “Just a century-old regret. When you live long enough, you rack up a lot of them. You’d better prepare yourself for that.”

Emi didn’t say anything in response. She leaned forward to finish her wine, and when she shifted back to a reclining position, her fingers brushed over Aina’s, and the two of them allowed their fingertips to intertwine just the slightest bit. Emi had immediately noticed that Aina wanted to hold hands, but also that Aina was leaving the decision up to her. After all, it had been Aina’s efficient, deliberate movements that had caught Emi’s attention to begin with. She had almost taken Aina’s hand back at Shibuya station, but had decided to leave her hanging. It was her private revenge for the way Aina had treated her when they first met.

They stayed like that for a while, watching in silence as more and more stars appeared in the sky. When a small breeze washed over them, Aina shivered involuntarily, but Emi didn’t, and Aina realized she was using magic to keep herself warm, magic that had no effect on Aina.

“It’s getting cold,” Emi observed. “Perhaps we should pack up for the night.”

“I had fun,” Aina told her, sitting back up and finishing the rest of her wine in a single gulp. She took Emi’s wine glass, wrapped them both, and put them inside the basket.

“So did I,” Emi said, standing up. “Perhaps—” She fell silent, and a grave look came over her face. Aina looked around for any sign of danger, but found none.

“Nani’s wrong?” Aina asked.

“The keibu’s in the byouin,” Emi said gravely, referring to Koharu. “She was attacked.”

Naze the byouin?” Aina asked. “She’s capable of healing herself.”

Shirimasen,” Emi answered. “Whatever happened, it must be really warui. They’re calling in minna fit to report for duty.”

“In that case, I won’t keep you,” Aina said. “You can leave the cleanup to me.”

“Iie, you’ve got to come with,” Emi pleaded. “They’re planning to raid Akihabara and Ikebukuro. They’re targeting the free meido.”