Chapter 1: An Unnecessary Meeting.
The wind began to pick up once morning came around, and off in the distance, the thunderous roar of the waves continued to echo across the land. The area was quite calm yesterday, but today was clearly a different story.
Yesterday, the wind blew just strong enough to gently tousle her long, black hair, and the waves only popped up for a mere second before quickly dispersing back into the ocean. The scenery wasn’t anything special, however… It was just the events that were unforgettable.
“I see…” she had said softly. “Well, there’s no helping it, isn’t there?”
She giggled awkwardly. The wind seemed to pause at that very moment, and the ocean became completely still. Even so, her words were probably as empty as the sky above her.
I continued to recall yesterday’s events while nonchalantly preparing myself for work by taking off my pajamas, putting on the funeral attire they called a uniform, and trying my best to comb down the fuzzy hair that ran in the family. Once I was finished, I left my small but pleasant one bedroom one bath apartment, only to be greeted by the humidity in the air. There was a dark overcast, though it wasn’t raining just yet.
It was just a short walk to the office, and once there, I glanced up at the sky. It looked to be a gloomy day today, and the weather might get a bit rough. It’d be nice if I could go home before it started to rain, but that might be hard to do with the amount of work on my plate. On second thought, ever since I transferred to the manufacturing branch, I couldn’t remember a single time where I had gone home on time. Even worse, the system didn’t record my overtime hours at all…
The mark engraved on the back of my neck served not only as a way to materialize my [World], but also as a personal ID. Because of that, the system could keep track of when I entered and left the office, just like having a timecard on me at all times.
Being in research and development, I was first and foremost occupied with developing new products, but also had to secure new markets for those products, and figure out how to transport them to wherever they were needed. With all this in mind, along with the fact that we had to keep up our growth, it was clear why I had to work late.
Logging overtime hours was quite archaic since it was all done by hand. Managers would go through the paperwork and manually approve the hours. The maximum allowed overtime hours per month was sixty, so any application that logged more than that risked getting rejected.
Because that was the case, every day after normal work hours I would have to write “Going home, NR (Not returning)” on the whiteboard and check out. So, on paper I would be done with work, but of course there were a myriad of other tasks I had to do before I could actually relax. Some days I would have to drop by a few businesses, while other days I would have to work at home with my tablet, or even at a diner while eating dinner.
In the olden days these types of companies that overworked their employees like this would be labelled black, and apparently there were cries to change the entire system for the better. However, the bits of information I could gather from different preserved documents indicated that this black term for describing companies only came to use since the early 2000s.
Before then, it seemed that working long hours under strenuous conditions was actually something to be proud of. The people who did so were called office warriors, constantly pushing themselves in a concrete jail known as an office to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Each year they would take exactly zero vacation days, so they might as well have been working in their sleep, too. Passion, drive… these were words that were constantly thrown around to show that working wasn’t supposed to be done for the money.
Supposedly, it was a citizen’s duty to work. They were forced to accept that just a thanks for the work they’ve done was normal, and that somehow they could get stronger through empty words of praise. This ideology was pushed onto everyone with an emphasis on conformity, and a result, people would be brainwashed to become these office warriors and ultimately be exploited.
With conditions like these, there were many people who questioned this lifestyle. They would go, “Man, I’m completely drained… I only slept for three hours,” but ended with, “but I love to work. Plus, this is work worth doing…” and would just constantly repeat the latter half of that sentence to force themselves to live on. They were looked down upon by society, who very often blamed the new generation for slacking off and being much lazier than the previous.
Despite that, it was people like them who gave birth to the notion of a black company. Change was coming as they struggled to get their voice out. Having no voice in society was equivalent to wielding no weapon in battle, but once they were successful in having a voice, they slowly influenced the part of the society that once shunned them out. Through words like “Karōshi,” meaning death from overworking, they were able to show that their way of life was not normal.
However, in the end, words were just words. It was hard to tell the extent of their impact, because many of the records that detailed these events were lost during the great calamity. No one knows whether or not they managed to change black companies for the better. Though, by looking at my dreadful situation many years later, perhaps they never managed to do it. It seemed that society couldn’t change from just a few words.
That’s why I could wholeheartedly say that words by themselves hold no meaning at all. Just like my time sheet that didn’t accurately reflect my work hours, like the title of the business roadmaps I have yet to write, or even like the many shallow statements I’ve heard, words were meaningless.
In other words, it wasn’t the words of Asagao Tsurube, Megu Natsume, or Renge Tsutsujigaoka that held any real significance, but rather what their positions stood for. Even if any of their empty words actually came true, no one would question their real intentions, since it really didn’t matter to them. It was just unnecessary to do so, and above everything else, nobody really cared. To them, society consisted only of what they could physically see and touch as well as those empty, meaningless words, not ulterior motives that lingered behind them.
Those people never really experienced any significant change so far in their lives. They only know of the battlefield, and had grown accustomed to the status quo. Of course, that includes me as well.
So, as per the status quo, today we go to work. It’s not like we know any other way of living.
The moment I stepped into the office, the system recorded the code imprinted on the back of my neck, and my start time of 8:50 AM popped up in a display. The standard start time was at 9 AM, so I, along with everyone else in the manufacturing branch, always started work at around the same time.
The office was the same as ever. Like always, there were some people who came in early to finish up the work that had piled up from the past few days. Even so, the entire office was deathly quiet. It was so quiet that even a cough would feel disruptive to its overall atmosphere. Furthermore, the place was relatively dim as well, compared to the bright morning sun outside.
Yesterday’s fruit party was chaotic, but the energy from that had long died down. Despite having had a breakthrough presentation, by now everyone was back to normal, working like they’ve done for seemingly all their lives.
The fact that nothing had changed even after what happened yesterday was unnatural, but understandable. Because everyone’s situation became quite stressful, their first instinct was to deny that anything had changed. By not letting their minds wander off, they desperately clung to the everyday life they knew all too well.
As a result, I too acted like nothing had changed.
“Good morning,” I said with a volume loud enough to be heard, yet soft enough as to not disrupt anyone working.
“Oh. You’re finally here,” replied Urushibara. He sounded irritated with his low, coarse voice and was restlessly fidgeting with his touchpad. It’s how he always is though, with him wearing his black jacket and his tieless popped collar.
How nice of him to be the only one to answer me…
His voice sounded much lower than usual. Usually he’d say, “You should know that newcomers come thirty minutes before, right? Do you even have any work to do? You should never have nothing to do,” and continue on with his long rants.
This time however, he couldn’t do his usual talk. His eyes, which clearly reflected his bad mood, kept darting at Asagao Tsurube off to the side. She was sitting in a separate desk, so every so often he would quickly look in that direction.
Usually Asagao would have her forehead exposed by tying up her front bangs, but this time she kept her bangs down enough that it was even touching her pink lips. She had dark bags over her eyes, and kept rubbing them as she frantically flipped through some documents, all while glaring at her monitor in front. She clearly hadn’t been getting much sleep. Even her breathing was a bit labored due to her fatigue, but that didn’t stop her from working.
It was painful for me to look at her work like that, but I understood why she did so. As the manager, she was desperately trying to make up the work that had stagnated in the past few days due to yesterday’s event. Surely she had some pride as a manager and as a person aiming to become the city head, but that in itself was a bit childish. Her current drive could also be seen as an escape from yesterday’s events.
The manufacturing branch had grown to where it was today because of what she had accomplished by herself, along with what she had been able to push the branch to do. This time, her desperate push to further reform the branch was not without mistakes, and despite that, she had to pretend everything was fine.
After all, she believed that she wouldn’t have any problems with her subordinates if she successfully performed her duty as a manager. Unfortunately, after announcing her plan to go against the military branch, the fact that it ended up souring her relationship with both Asuha and me must have left a bad taste in her mouth. In her mind, it meant she had failed as a manager.
Well, I couldn’t speak for Asuha, but she really didn’t need to worry so much about me. I really didn’t care, anyway. I didn’t care that Natsume wanted to keep the current system with the military branch holding all the power… I didn’t care that Asagao wanted to knock that system down and reinstate it with one that was fairer to the other branches.
I just went along with Asagao because it seemed to suit my interests more, but honestly what I wanted to do had nothing to do with either of them.
“Umm… Asagao, how about some tea…?” Renge asked nervously. She held up a tray while standing at a distance as to not bother her.
“Thanks. Could you just leave it here?”
Asagao’s voice was weak and fragile. She didn’t even take her eyes off her monitor.
Renge carefully set down the cup, but lingered her arm a bit longer after she set it down— she was probably thinking of what else to say to her. Finding nothing else, perhaps due to the uncomfortable position she was in, she turned away and started to head back.
Her loafers made a sound as it hit the soft floor, while off in the distance, the sound of boiling water could be heard throughout the gloomy office.
“Renge, could you get me some tea too?” asked Urusihbara. He spoke softly, perhaps not wanting to dampen Renge’s mood even further.
“Ah, yes. Of course!”
Watami and some other people wanted tea as well, so Renge hurried back to get some more for them. After doing so, she even stopped by my desk.
“Kasumi, do you want some too?”
“Alright, here you go!”
I couldn’t help but notice her slender hands as she placed the steaming teacup onto my desk. Yesterday, those were the same hands that reached out to me… the same hands that I refused to take.
“You know, this is from herbs that I grew myself,” she continued. “It should have a relaxing effect on the body, I think…”
Renge wasn’t looking at me while she said that. Instead, she was peering at Asagao off in the distance.
“I-I see. Thanks.”
“Tell me what you think about it later,” she whispered with a voice so soft it practically tickled my ear. With that, she was off.
A slight breeze seemed to blow the tea’s steam right into my face, so I began to notice its fresh minty aroma. The tea’s light green color also seemed to go well with the white clay cup it was poured into.
Once I took a sip, I felt the tea slightly burn my tongue, but at the same time, its minty taste felt quite refreshing. It was weird to taste both hot and cold at the same time… I couldn’t say I liked that feeling very much.
However, this was something I’m sure I’d grow to love. The aroma alone was enough to make me feel relaxed and right at home. My whole body loosened up, my thoughts drifted to a nice place, and I couldn’t help but think that this was really quite pleasant.
Well done, Renge.
I looked around to see whether the others liked it as well. Everyone, including Asagao, had the same white cup. I thought maybe later I’d ask what she thought of the tea, but she didn’t even touch it yet.
She continued to ignore the tea as it slowly got cold on her desk.
The awkward atmosphere in the office seemed to slow time down to a crawl— what felt like half a day was actually just one or two hours. After dealing with the mountain of order, commission, request, and all sorts of other forms on my desk, I was notified by my old work computer about an upcoming meeting.
I’m sure everyone in the team got that notification as well, since Urushibara suddenly stood up from his chair.
“Tsurube, it’s about time,” he said.
Asagao frantically grabbed her tablet and a bunch of papers from her desk before standing up. It was easy to guess her current state of mind after seeing that listless response, so I knew that a meeting with her right now would not be beneficial to anyone. However, she called the meeting, so we had no choice but to comply.
Asagao and Urushibara went into the meeting room first, with Renge and I following soon after. Once we took our seats, Asagao anxiously looked through the papers.
“Well, let’s start with the reports…” she uttered out, clasping her hands to her chin. It looked like she was in prayer with her hands like that.
Hearing her, Urushibara pulled out a huge stack of paper. From the looks of it, there were at least twenty or so papers all bundled together. I’m sure he was well prepared for this meeting.
Seeing all those papers reminded me once again that there were people like Urushibara who overprepared for meetings. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry… even just reading all those papers would take a considerable amount of time. Besides, if everything could be written down, then there would be no need for a meeting in the first place. I wanted to point that out, but then he would go on his “Communication is important” rant, so I stayed quiet.
Besides, using PowerPoint was widely regarded as the better choice for that much material. People would even criticize you for not using it. I mean, it was undoubtedly a good tool, but seeing people swear by it was a little weird.
In any case, I’m sure there had been instances where people brought that much material for a meeting, but the meeting today was just a regularly scheduled one… it wasn’t anything special. The agenda consisted of just some trivial reports and other small tasks to be discussed. There was certainly no need to bring a fat stack of paper.
Meetings were originally used to agree upon a set of goals. There would be a clearly defined start and end time, and materials that needed to be discussed would be determined by the manager beforehand. However, Asagao was way too out of it. She had lost sight on what to focus on, so in the end, this meeting would be nothing more than some useless chatter. Not like this doesn’t happen all the time though, anyway.
If the meeting was going to pointless, I might as well give my report first, so I raised my hand and spoke.
“As the person in charge of the event, I will give my report.”
I kept my hand raised and waited for Urushibara to do something, but he just gave me a dirty look.
You should really stop doing that look… It really doesn’t look good on you.
Off to my side, Renge looked at me weirdly. I never went first, so this must have been quite the surprise for her.
Asagao, on the other hand, nodded slightly for me to continue, but she wasn’t even looking at me. Instead, her eyes were fixated on her tablet.
This isn’t the time for you to be looking at that, Asagao…
Right now, there were things we had to talk about.
“The event was a huge success financially. No other things to report from me.”
It was brief, concise, and perhaps a little cruel. But it was the truth, and it had to be said.
“Success, huh?” said Asagao. She knew what I meant, but she sighed depressingly.
Urushibara and Renge did the same as well.
In terms of our financial interests, we came out way ahead. Despite that, we had other goals that we wanted to fulfill during the event— our financial interests weren’t even our top priority. We prioritized announcing Asagao Tsurube’s candidacy for city head, and garnering support for her behind the scenes to overthrow Megu Natsume, the current city subhead.
That was our main goal, but due to an unfortunate accident, we failed.
Asagao sighed once again as she played back yesterday’s events in her head. Seeing this, Renge timidly raised her hand.
“A-Asagao, I’m so sorry,” she said softly. “If I could only have stopped her back then…”
“No, it’s not your fault,” said Asagao, shaking her head. “I knew she was in in the vicinity…”
“It’s okay. For real.”
Asagao smiled bleakly, but Renge was still down in the dumps as she hung her head down in shame.
I got the chills looking at them act this way. How could they talk so normally to each other like that? Because of Renge’s costly mistake, Asagao’s dreams and aspirations were pretty much dead in the water. Renge also spouted some empty “let’s change the world” words to me, words that were probably not truthful, but not a complete lie either.
Even so, Asagao and Renge acted like none of that had happened, but perhaps that was just how girls communicated. They avoided confrontation in order to keep their relationships clean and tension-free… or something like that.
As I thought, girls really are scary. I need your help for this, Asuha…
Asagao briefly stared at the ceiling with her eyes closed before hanging her head down towards the desk. She continued to speak, albeit in a whisper.
“We need to decide our future plans.”
She spoke almost as if she was talking to herself, but since I was the first one to speak, I should be the first one to answer her.
“Yeah, we really should,” I said. “What should we do from now on?”
Asagao bit her lip. Her eyes that were usually gleaming with enthusiasm were now dull and listless.
“… If we really want to go against Natsume, she’s just going to take us down by force, and there’s nothing we can do about that.”
Her voice was as depressing as it could get, but she was not wrong. Going up against Natsume meant that things could get very dangerous, especially for her who was powerless in combat. Judging from her anxious expression and her slumped shoulders, it seemed she was well aware of the danger.
Noticing this, Renge lightly tapped her on the shoulder. “Ah, but at the very least me and Kasumi can be your guards…” she said.
“No way that’d work,” I blurted out without thinking.
What are you saying, Renge?
Urushibara piped in as well. “We have to remember that she has all the elites,” he said solemnly.
He was completely right. Making an enemy of Natsume meant making an enemy of the entire military branch. If that somehow happened, there would be no winning with the might of the entire military barreling down on us.
Besides, the whole reason Renge and I transferred out of the military in the first place was because we were both deemed unfit for combat. In other words, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we were probably weaker than anyone currently in the military. Renge wasn’t even a fighter… she was a scout, so she couldn’t properly protect Asagao in combat.
All in all, there was absolutely no way we could take on the military in terms of brute strength. We should avoid any direct confrontations if possible.
“We could also just give this up,” I said.
My words must have been quite a shock to Asagao because she suddenly looked back up and said, “Huh?”
“What are you saying, Chigusa, what the hell?” shouted Urushibara, standing up with his lips shaking in anger.
Did he feel compelled to act like this for Asagao?
“It might honestly be the best course of action,” I said in a more serious tone. “Instead of completely going against Natsume and getting crushed, we could work with her and negotiate things that would benefit both of us. It’ll be much easier to accomplish this goal, and if we do, we’d be at the very least left with some newfound political power…”
My explanation seemed to calm Urushibara down. “I see, that could work,” he said. “They do need our resources and connections.”
He spoke no more, opting to clasp his hands together in thought. In the brief moment of silence that followed, Renge spoke up.
“But…” she said in an almost whisper-like tone. She was still feeling down about the whole situation. “Will that really work?”
In reality, I didn’t think it would work… not well, anyway. Even so, as long as we were still talking about it in this meeting, I had to make it work.
“It depends on how we approach them. I’m sure Natsume is hesitant on giving powers to branches outside the military and everything, because she might be seen as weak, but if we can get past that, we’d be… fine, I think…”
“Indeed,” agreed Urushibara. “Everything can go smoothly if we both negotiate something that maintains the status quo on the outside.”
Urushibara was well aware of the military’s hierarchal system. He knew what would happen if Natsume lost her grip on the military. It made me think about whether a hierarchal system might be necessary for doing business as well…
Renge gently shook her head. “Natsume is kind,” she said slowly, glancing down at the floor. She struggled to get her words out. “Kind enough to even remember me… That’s why I’m not so sure she can just go against her word to all those people more useful than me in the military branch… There’s a lot of them, right?”
Renge probably harbored these feelings because she had looked up to Natsume during her time in the military.
Natsume led by putting the better students in higher ranks. By determining each student’s merit, she could create a hierarchical system with her at the top. To break this system by silently giving us power would no doubt cause unrest within the military. Once that happened, the whole system she had put in place could crumble down. The issue was whether or not she would work with us until that happened.
We had to keep in mind that she was already ready for a fight. If that happened, we would lose everything.
“We don’t want to set a bad example for others, huh…”
I don’t want to hear that from you, Urushibara…
In any case, going against Natsume or working with her both had their advantages and disadvantages. Neither was the absolute right answer to all this, so all that was left was to wait for Asagao to decide what to do.
“Well, the fact that nothing’s happened yet could mean that Natsume’s overlooked our actions so far,” I said to Asagao. “It seems she’s yet to get serious about the whole thing.”
“Yeah, that’s right!” nodded Renge. “That’s why Asagao, you should be friends with Natsume! She’s truly a nice person.”
Asagao looked down at the ground. “Yeah, Natsume’s nice…” she whispered, but I’m sure she didn’t mean it. However, when she looked back up, she had a faint smile on her face. “Sorry for wasting your time,” she continued, “but I’m going to have to think about this some more…”
She rose from her chair, and Urushibara quickly did the same. Before walking out, she turned to us and said, “You two can go home now, actually. Well, only if your work is finished.”
“Uhh, isn’t that how it always is…”
Asagao didn’t pay any attention to my ramblings as she walked out with Urushibara right behind her.
If you’re going to say something, say anything other than that…
“What’s going to happen from now on?” Renge said to me after Asagao and Urushibara left the room. “Maybe Natsume’s actually mad right now… What do you think, Kasumi?”
Perhaps it was because she said that so unnaturally, but I was taken aback by her words.
“Umm… What are you trying to do?”
“Well, remember when you said something about changing the world the other day?”
“What? Oh!! About that…” she said, slightly turning her head away from me and laughing awkwardly. “I did say there’s no helping it, right? So don’t worry about that…”
I listened to her silently, but once she seemed to be done talking, I came out with a question of my own.
Renge smiled and timidly played with her hair a little bit.
“Uhh… It’s a little hard to say, but after meeting with Asagao just now I really am worried about her… I want her to be like she usually is! I-It really was my fault wasn’t it? I can’t help but think that she’s like this for my sake… I feel even worse now just saying all this! What should I say to her? I really need to get my shit together!”
Renge flailed her hand around wildly before slapping them onto her head in frustration. She then mumbled something incoherently in disarray.
I didn’t think there was much to get from her words. However, they did seem truthful and reflective of her current state of mind, so I was satisfied.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said. “For Renge’s sake… for the manufacturing branch’s sake… It’d be nice if we could get her back.”
“Yeah…” Renge closed her eyes and sighed deeply.
“That’s why we have to work hard too!” she continued. Her lips slowly formed into a smile. “Alright! In the meantime, I’m gonna go all out on work! Let’s do this!”
With her eyes now filled with determination, she fist pumped the air.
The day had dragged on, but I was finally done with my work without going into overtime.
Actually, not exactly. Here in the manufacturing branch, there was no concept of work being “done.” The work just kept piling up, so there wasn’t really a way to finish everything. Looking at all the work was like looking out into the vast ocean… it was just endless.
That’s what work is, after all. If I had to say something more accurately, it would be that today I finished enough work to not piss off Urushibara. The extra work I could have done in overtime would probably be piled onto Asagao’s monstrous backlog on her desk, but I still went home anyway. For some reason I was just exhausted… I certainly didn’t feel like working anymore.
I just wanted to take a bath and go to sleep. I’ll deal with everything tomorrow… maybe I’ll work even harder then!
I’m sure I’ll do something productive tomorrow. I mean, even zombies could get stuff done, right?
I staggered back home, and when I went through my front door, a familiar voice called out to me.
“Woah, you’re back home early,” said Asuha. Like always, she was sprawled out on the sofa.
“In a normal work day it’d be considered late…” I muttered back. Well, she wasn’t wrong, I guess. It’s been a while since I had gone home before sundown.
Asuha didn’t live with me, but she sure acted like she did.
“Why are you here today?” I asked. “You got something you need?”
I asked knowing she wasn’t here for anything important, and sure enough, her answer confirmed my thoughts. I didn’t know what she really meant with that, but whatever.
She always answered with something vague like a bath or reading manga. In any case, our conversation always ended with that. I’m fine with it, though.
“You sure like baths don’t you…”
“What? You don’t?” she said with a slight chuckle. “That’s pretty disgusting, honestly.”
I didn’t mind her attitude too much, but sometimes I wish she was just a bit more humble.
Also, stop with that chuckling…
“Don’t worry, I love baths…” I said jokingly, taking off my jacket and making my way to the bathroom. “It’s what I looked forward to today too…”
“Huh? H-Hold on a sec…” Asuha’s face blushed a little as she bolted straight up from the sofa. “You’re not taking a bath now, are you?”
“Huh? What do you mean? It’s disgusting if I don’t take a bath, right?”
“Wait, wait, wait…” said Asuha. “I haven’t even taken a bath yet… so you can’t.”
Huh? I can’t? And why’s that?
How could she say that with a straight face? Unlike her, I actually own the apartment, so she sure had some guts to say that.
“The bath water after you take a bath is a no go,” she said. “You never know what’s floating in it.”
“How about you just don’t come anymore…”
Of course, her dorm also had a bath. Unfortunately, I had never seen it in person, but from the pamphlets I saw, her bath was beautiful and spacious. Even though it was shared with other people, it was miles beyond what I had here.
“Your bathroom is so grand, so luxurious, so there’s no reason to come all the way here for a bath, right? I said. “If you like baths so much, take one back at your place…”
Asuha scratched her head. “Ah, well, you don’t get much privacy there,” she muttered.
Our desire to do things alone must run in the family. I guess I could sympathize with her on that point.
“Well, since you’re living in a dorm, you might as well get used to a lack of privacy… Besides, it just means you have more chances to get along with others, right? Seeing that you’re not doing too hot on that.”
“I guess so…” She frowned. “But I really don’t know…”
She would usually snap back with a snarky comment like “Ewwww,” “Speak for yourself,” or even a “Are you serious?” but the fact that she didn’t was proof that she knew I was right.
“Besides,” she continued. “If you think about it, isn’t it weird to be naked around others?”
What is she saying? This isn’t how she normally speaks… Is this person really Asuha? Or maybe she’s somehow learned to think more intelligently?
“Is it though? Is it really that embarrassing?” I continued.
“Yeah, it is…” her voice trailed off. Her face turned red, so she folded her arms together in an attempt to hide it. Once she did, her already wrinkled white blouse got even more wrinkled.
She kind of reminded me of Renge Tsutsujigaoka when she did that… I think it was the way she was acting. Somehow I struck a nerve with her.
“Asuha, it’s all good,” I said as I reached her shoulder. Seeing her reaction actually made me kind of happy. “Come take a bath here anytime.”
Despite my good intentions, she moved her shoulder away awkwardly. “Y-Yeah,” she said, scratching her face. “You don’t have to tell me that…”
“Just once in a while, okay?”
I needed some privacy too, after all. It could get troublesome if she was here all day, seeing that my place is pretty small.
“Well,” I continued. “Once you get into high school, you’ll have a room with a bath, anyway.”
When I was still in the military branch, I was given my own apartment. This privilege was given to all members of the military, and even if I had been kicked out, I still kept my place. Now, unlike me, Asuha was part of the military elite and was widely regarded as the next ace. There was no doubt in my mind that she would receive everything she had ever wanted.
That being said, she seemed to not have realized this yet.
Asuha’s eyes widened. “R-Really?” she said.
“Yeah, of course. I mean, maybe the system could change, who knows…”
Saying that was pretty useless in itself, but I wanted to throw in something about the election so maybe she could get more interested in it.
Asuha was pretty clueless. “System?” she said with a blank look on her face.
“You know, the city head could change, and so would everything else with it,” I said seriously. It may not look good for Asagao at the moment, but I’m sure she’d still have a go at it no matter what.
“Uh huh…” she said. Unfortunately, she didn’t sound interested at all. “So the city head could decide where we live, huh…”
“Well yeah, in all defense cities, everything is governed by the students, including housing and all that. You’re considered a future candidate for the city head, so you should at least know this kind of stuff…”
“Uhh… That’s not something I ever said I wanted to do, only something that Natsume and Asagao and whoever keeps saying… I don’t ever want to be the head.”
You should at least still know what the city head does, even if you aren’t interested in becoming one…
Asuha slapped the couch cushion a few times before hugging it tightly and slumping down on the couch once again.
“But still, if I’m the head, I can live in a big place, huh?”
“That’s not the point…” I mumbled. “How’d you even come to that?”
Well, she wasn’t wrong. If she somehow did become the city head, then I’m sure she would get the biggest house in the city. I didn’t want to tell her that, so I paused, unsure of what to say. In response, she looked at me suspiciously. Perhaps she had already figured it out, perhaps she didn’t. It was hard to tell.
“Well whatever,” she said, stretching both her arms out and getting up from the couch. “I’m gonna take a bath before the water gets all dirty.”
She quickly left for the bathroom, but soon peeked back out a moment later. “I’m hungry too,” she added on before disappearing into the bathroom once again.
“Alright hungry,” I grumbled, though I chuckled a bit at my own joke. My smile soon faded away however as I begrudgingly made myself to the kitchen.
It wasn’t long before I could hear some pleasant humming coming from the bathroom. It was nice to indulge in her selfishness every once in a while, but I knew this wouldn’t last forever. She was on track to become one of the highest ranking members in the military, so it was no surprise that she would eventually head inland and be thrusted into the center of this country.
On the other hand, I had been kicked from the front lines and was generally pretty useless, so there was no way I was on track to be by her side in the future. That’s why I’d keep enjoying her company no matter how she acted, until the time came where we could no longer be together.
I wouldn’t dare tell her that, however.
“Hey, you used my shampoo, didn’t you!” Asuha shouted. “Why’d you do that, are you serious? I need a new one ASAP!”
I did wish she would ask for things a bit more nicely… Hopefully, one day she would stop yelling from the bath.
There were a lot of things I disliked in life. Maybe it’s just because of how I was, but there’s really not a whole lot I could do to change it. Surprisingly, making food wasn’t one of them. I found myself rather making food than going through the trouble of going out or even just buying something to eat.
It probably came from a habit I picked up when I was much younger. When I felt hungry, I would put on my homemade apron and just head straight to the fridge. It would only take a few seconds before I came up with a way to whip up a meal from just the ingredients I had. It was said that cooking was the embodiment of imagination, and I could definitely see why.
In my case, it’s more like I was making things from experience. Back in the day, I learned quite a bit just by watching my mom cook, and the cooking knowledge she passed down to me was still with me to this day.
I turned on the stove and started cutting up some carrots. Asuha soon walked in wearing her underwear.
“Stew again?” she said, wiping her damp hair with a towel.
Yes, stew again…
“If you got a problem with that,” I said, still cutting the carrots, “You can cook yourself.”
Also please put on some clothes…
“Huh? I’m not complaining man.”
As always, she spoke indifferently, but it’s true that she didn’t sound disappointed or anything. If anything, her eyes that were usually droopy were wide open for a change.
“I like your stew quite a bit, you know.”
“Oh wow, really?”
“Yeah, your stew. Just your stew.”
“Hey wait a minute,” I said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You don’t know?”
“It’s whatever. I’m just saying, I like your stew,” she replied. “Enough that I’d even pay for it. Well, I won’t, actually, but you get the point.”
She picked up a spoon and quickly grabbed a scoop of the stew still in the pot. Luckily, it only took her one spoonful before she was completely satisfied.
I was instantly hit with a wave of nostalgia. Looking at her like this really brought out some of my childhood memories.
“You won’t pay, huh?” I said with a chuckle. “But you know, what you just said… the person who came up with this recipe would say that pretty often. You know, stuff like, ‘this stew is restaurant quality!’ or ‘if it was in stores it’d fly off the shelves!’ and of course, ‘It’s good enough that I wouldn’t mind paying for it, but I won’t…” stuff like that.”
“Huh…” replied Asuha. Once she was done using the towel, she lit a faint blue flame on her finger and started to dry her hair more by wrapping parts of her hair around it.
She seemed uninterested with usual her cold response. She started to leave, but suddenly turned around after a few steps.
“Who was that person?” she asked.
Oh, right. Speaking of which, I haven’t talked much to Asuha about her, huh. It is a depressing topic, though…
Even though our ages were just one year apart, she lost all memories of our parents the moment she awoke from the cold sleep. Cases like hers were far from rare— the Administration Bureau had explained that it was actually quite common to have negative side effects upon waking up.
At that time, I thought that was rough for her. Not remembering your parents was almost the same as never having them at all. Besides, it shouldn’t have been possible to have your childhood memories forcibly ripped away from you in the first place.
However, Asuha was no longer a child. Perhaps it was time to fill her in on her childhood. Perhaps she was mature enough to handle it.
I slowly set the knife down onto the table. “It was mom,” I said as I dumped the carrots into the pot. “This stew… yesterday’s curry… pretty much all my food came from recipes that she taught me.”
“Your mom, huh?” said Asuha. She extinguished the flame on her finger and started to fix up her hair.
She spoke coldly, almost as if she had nothing to do with the matter.
I looked at her straight in the face before answering. “Yeah,” I said, nodding, “Yours too.”
“I see…” she said blankly. Without thinking, she continued to fix up her hair.
“Well, maybe taught wasn’t the right word. It was more like she was drilling those recipes into me, you know? Maybe she was trying to teach me some discipline, maybe some life lessons, or maybe even helping me prepare for the real world… In any case, I sure did a ton of chores back then…”
It’s been too long since then… I’m not sure I remember most of it. I don’t consider myself to be good at remembering things, and this was one of the reasons why. Despite that, I cherished those very memories now, even though I thought nothing of them back then.
This time, I started cutting the potatoes until I noticed Asuha walking up to me.
“Did she… teach you anything else?” she asked.
“Yeah, she did. Laundry, cleaning, sewing, and lots of accounting… And for each chore, she would give me some money if I learned how to do it. She sure had a very capitalistic way of teaching things.”
Wait a second… Thinking about it now, wasn’t she way too harsh? I’m sure I thought that too back in the day… Was she even trying to raise a child? Now I think about it, why did I even do any accounting in the first place? I remember just powering through all those piles of paperwork, but were they really chores?
I must have made a weird face because Asuha genuinely looked worried at my reaction, but soon her lips slightly formed into a grin.
Damn, that’s actually so cute…
“Then,” she said. “She must have been a scary… no, strict person, huh? Or was she nice?”
It was difficult to answer that because I felt like there wasn’t a correct answer. I still vividly remembered my mom’s cheerful smile and her black hair that seemed to mimic the night sky. I did feel nostalgic thinking back to my childhood, but at the same time, I also got the chills.
“Well… hard to say. She was like an angel and a demon…” I replied. I didn’t know what to say, so I just said what had been on my mind ever since I was a child.
“Okay… What does that even mean— that’s hilarious,” said Asuha as she chuckled to herself. Her laugh was surprisingly open and pure.
“Yeah, it’s hilarious alright. Thanks to that I can do most things pretty well now…” I pointed at the stew. “Well, this is pretty different compared to hers, though.”
“Yeah, even though the ingredients are exactly the same. Maybe I’m just not good enough.”
I continued to cut the potatoes, until I realized that it could just be that my tastes had changed over the years, and that’s why the stew tasted a lot different than how I remembered it to be.
Asuha gently poked me from the side. “Hey, teach me how to make it too,” she said.
“Err, don’t worry about it. I’ll make it so it’s fine.”
Also, please don’t poke me when I’m handling the knife…
“That’s not the point…”
“You don’t need to worry about cooking or anything like that,” I said. “It’s not like you’re gonna be a housewife anytime soon.”
“Eww… what are you even saying,” she scowled. “Seriously, why would you even say that? Fine, whatever. It’s not like I wanted to learn from you anyway, you creep me out way too much.”
“Don’t say that… It hurts me a little inside… But fine, I’ll teach you everything you need to know. Everything. Everything.”
“Just the basics are fine!” shouted Asuha, tightening her shoulders. She angrily stormed out of the kitchen.
However, she stopped before completely leaving.
“I would have wanted to learn from mom too…” she whispered softly.
Her voice had turned really soft, but I was still able to hear her. It must have been hard for her to say that, seeing that her face, and even her ears, had turned red.
“Alright, you got it,” I said, but Asuha didn’t stick around to hear my reply. She had already gone back to the sofa.
I tossed up the onion I was holding in my hand while briefly thinking about my mother’s teaching methods.
I instinctively caught the onion and started to dice it like all the other ingredients.
It was always nice to eat dinner as a family. Asuha seemed to be enjoying my cooking—she was smacking her lips after every bite and just feeling happy in general.
I smiled. If only this could continue on forever…
Of course, I knew it could not. That’s why I continued to cherish the limited time I had left with my sister. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I held her back from doing greater things in life.
It wasn’t long before our blissful dinner came to an end. Once it did, I went to the kitchen to clean up, while Asuha lied down on the sofa once again.
“Hey, you know, if you got a bigger kitchen,” she muttered. “We could cook at the same time.”
“Huh? Yeah, I guess,” I replied. Luckily, I was still able to hear her while scrubbing the dishes under the running sink.
“Hmm, maybe I’ll go ask for it.”
“Natsume,” Asuha replied nonchalantly. “The other day she did ask me if I wanted anything.”
Her words put me at a full stop.
That was probably no big deal to Asuha, but it was something that I couldn’t overlook. The fact that Natsume asked her that led me to believe that she was willing to give special privileges to the top fighters. Perhaps she had already made a move in solidifying that kind of system, a system where the military elite had even more power and influence. By doing so, she would expand her already enormous sphere of influence within the city.
I’m sure Asuha wasn’t the only one she asked that to. If that was the case, then it looked pretty bad for our plan to negotiate with her, since it meant that she still considered us a threat. I’m sure she even kept a close eye on me, since I was a close associate of Asagao. Our whole branch was probably tightly under her radar.
So, I figured my work was going to get a lot more troublesome, even though I for sure wasn’t getting rewarded for it. I wasn’t even sure if I could manage it.
In the current system, there was a high chance I was just going to keep my current rank forever. In this city, trying to get points for anything non-military related was extremely difficult. If I were to speak truthfully, then someone like me who was pretty much demoted from the military would end up nowhere near Asuha, who was expected to become the city head one day.
I knew that my time with Asuha would become even more limited if Natsume continued on with her agenda. There was only one way left to counteract it— I was going to have to completely break the current system. The only way I could see that happening was if Asagao won the election. I would ride in her coattails after she successfully won the election.
If I wanted to continue being near Asuha’s side, that was the only path I could take.
I turned off the sink and took off my apron.
“I’m gonna do a little work,” I said, grabbing my jacket.
“Huh? But it’s nighttime…”
“I’m going because it’s nighttime.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“It’s just work as usual.”
“What’s usual about that?” said Asuha. She was still laid out on the sofa, but she did eye me suspiciously.
In return, I gave her a smile and waved her goodbye. “Just be sure to lock the door when you go home, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Err actually, I’m just gonna head back now…” she said as she got up from the sofa. She was probably feeling a bit of a food coma.
Together, the two of us left the room and headed out. We walked a good distance from my apartment before I finally spoke up.
“Umm,” I said. “Asuha… why are you coming with me?”
“I’m just taking a bit of a walk,” she replied with her eyes darting all over the place.
She spoke the most obvious of lies… Perhaps talking about our mother made her yearn for home.
“Oh, okay…” I replied calmly. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, so I didn’t bother saying anything else. Besides, she was acting really cute.
Normally I’d be completely down to indulge in her selfishness, but at this point I couldn’t delay my work any longer. If I were to continue to be with Asuha, then I had to do everything I could to help Asagao win the election. I couldn’t even let one minute go to waste.
Because if I didn’t try my hardest now, I knew I would regret it until the day I died.
The sky continued to be cloudy well into the night, so it was hard to see anything at all. However, the wind soon picked up and pushed the clouds away, revealing the starry sky above.
The world might have changed over the years, but the night sky certainly hadn’t. I honestly didn’t realize this until now, because normally on my way home, I’d be too exhausted to do anything but walk with my eyes glued to the ground. With so much work in my hands, there just wasn’t any time to look up.
It had been a while since I was able to just leisurely walk to the office. Normally, I’d try to get there as fast as I could, but this time I was able to enjoy the moment because Asuha was by my side. Surprisingly, it was her who kept on eagerly walking ahead and looking back at me. I had never walked a dog before, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been too different than this.
Eventually we reached my office, a large building within the city.
“Alright, I’m off to do work,” I said. “Take care on your way home.”
“Okay,” nodded Asuha.
I waved her goodbye and made my way into the building. Because the front entrance was completely locked, I had to enter the code in the back to get in. As I did, I noticed someone else behind me, so I turned around instinctively.
It was Asuha.
“Wow…” she said in amazement, curiously peering at the keypad.
“You aren’t heading back?” I said, opening the door.
“Uhh…. Yeah, err…” she replied. “I’m still a bit free…”
It looked like she wanted to see more of my workplace… Sure, I was completely okay with that. I’d be nice if she actually came to visit me in the office once in a while, though…
If it wasn’t for the emergency exit sign, the hallway would have been completely dark. Both Asuha and I made our way through the office, but she was close… too close.
“Umm, Asuha, it’s hard to walk like this,” I said.
Asuha was pulling on the back of my shirt, making it awkward for me to walk.
“Like what?” she replied as if she wasn’t doing anything.
“Hey, where are the lights?” she whispered into my ear.
“Well, to save money we have to turn off all the lights after hours. When I do overtime, I can only use the lights near me.”
“What the hell is that rule?” she muttered, closing in on me. She got so close to the point where there wasn’t any space between us and inched me forward a little. It was as if I was the horse, and she was the rider.
“Hey… you’re walking too fast,” she said. “You walk so fast it’s almost disgusting.”
“I’m just walking at a normal pace… And I’m not disgusting, okay?”
“Can you walk slower then…?” she said softly as she gripped my shirt tighter.
She was pulling hard, so I had no choice but to slow down. Even though the whole office was completely dark, I was able to move around freely because my [World] allowed me to see through sound alone. It also helped that I was familiar with the layout of the office. As a result, I could even get around with my eyes closed.
I got to my research and development area without much trouble and went to turn on the light switch, but was suddenly interrupted by Asuha.
Asuha suddenly jolted forward and wrapped her arms around me. She caught me by surprise— I didn’t know whether to feel happy or embarrassed. Well, I’m sure I was feeling more happy, but it was not the time to let her know that.
With us being so close together, I could feel Asuha’s body shaking a little bit. As I turned to see what was wrong, I saw that she was on the verge of tears, so I instinctively patted her on the head.
Asuha pointed to something in front of us. “W-What’s that…” she whispered.
There was a girl in front of us who was dimly lit by her monitor. Her hair was a complete mess— it was disheveled and uncombed. With her unusually pale skin and her red, puffy eyes, she looked quite sickly. She was angrily biting her lip, but her expression was actually quite sad. There’s no doubt about it… She was Asagao.
“Holy! You scared me!” she said after finally noticing me. “Oh, Kasumi, huh?”
Asagao lightly rubbed her eyes and took another good look at me. She probably never stopped working even after everyone had been long gone, and was so preoccupied that she didn’t bother turning on the light.
“It’s okay, Asuha,” I said, “It’s just Asagao.”
I pulled Asuha away from me and reached for the light switch. The room instantly got bright, and I was able to see Asagao, her desk, and her computer all at once.
Asuha breathed a sigh a relief. “F-Forehead girl…”
“What’s going on? Why’re you two here?” snapped Asagao. She gave us a cold stare.
I went to my desk with Asuha right behind me, and pulled out my chair for her while getting Urushibara’s chair for myself.
Once we got settled in, the three of us were completely silent, and the atmosphere turned pretty awkward in the room. The only noises came from my computer booting up and Asuha’s chair as she spun around in it.
What are you doing, Asuha? Are you bored already?
I didn’t know what Asagao was doing either, staying this late alone to work. Normally I wouldn’t care, but this time was different. She was my leader, the one who was going to grant my one and only wish, so I had to figure out what was going through her mind.
It would be troublesome for me if she was at a loss of what to do. I wouldn’t mind even if she gave up, because then there’s just not a whole lot I can do about it. I do mind, however, if she couldn’t give me a definite answer.
That’s why I had to make the first move and speak first. In a purposefully joking manner, almost to the point of sarcasm, I spoke my first words to her.
“Speaking of which, why are you still here, Asagao?” I said, flashing a smile. “Overtime work is usually highly inefficient. Plus, what was that saying again? Leaders that are left to do the work of their subordinates are no leaders at all? Something like that?”
As I said that, Asuha silently gave me a gloomy look.
“Yeah, there’s no denying that…” said Asagao softly. “There really isn’t…”
I didn’t think she took my words at face value. I’m sure she understood what I was trying to get at, and more importantly, what I wanted her to do.
Asagao bowed apologetically. “I’m sorry. Not just Kasumi, but yours as well… It’s only natural that you would feel disgusted at the thought of being used…”
Asuha, perhaps not expecting such a sudden apology, instinctively shook her head. “Umm… It’s okay, it’s really no big deal for me… Don’t worry about it,” she said, turning to me for some guidance.
I understood Asuha’s feelings. It was weird to have someone apologize to you, especially if that person wasn’t someone you were particularly close with.
“Yeah,” I said in a hurry. “It’s really no big deal for me either.”
Asagao took a good look at the both of us and smiled. “I didn’t think you two would be alike in any way,” she said, “but you two are actually quite similar in the weirdest of ways.”
Upon hearing that, Asuha and I looked at each other, but Asuha looked disgusted.
“You sure about that…?” she said.
“What? You don’t like that?”
“I really don’t…” she said, shaking her head furiously.
What’s so bad about us being alike? We are brother and sister after all…
Asagao sighed. “Natsume was also the same with her sister… Similar in weird ways…” she said as she stared out past us.
I didn’t think she was looking out at anything in particular, but her voice had a hint of loneliness within it.
“Her sister?” said Asuha with a blank look on her face.
“Oh, you haven’t met her yet? Kayako Natsume. The previous head was Natsume’s sister, you know.”
“Well, I know that…” said Asuha. She shot me a look.
She probably wanted me to speak up and say something, but I stayed silent. Instead, she pouted at me and turned to Asagao instead.
Asagao took a sip from the cup on her table. It was likely the same cup of tea that Renge had poured during the day, and she just didn’t have the time to drink it until now.
Asagao sighed. “Natsume and me… we were like family.”
“Family…?” said Asuha.
Asagao smiled faintly. “We were in the same shelter, and we were awoken around the same time,” she said, taking another sip of her tea. “Originally, I was the younger one though, I think. That’s why we were often together back then.”
I suddenly remembered Asagao’s conversation with Natsume a while back when we had to get our performance reviews signed. At that time, Renge did say something along the lines of Asagao sounding like Natsume’s mother.
In fact, now that I think about it, Asagao didn’t idolize Natsume or anything like that. She didn’t admire Natsume like Renge did, she wasn’t obedient to her like black-eyes, nor did she respect her like Asuha. In my eyes, the two were on equal footing.
“She was even weaker than me when we were just elementary schoolers.” continued Asagao. “She would always cry when she lost to Kayako, you know? That’s why in my mind, she’ll always be a weak little girl.”
Asagao looked down at her cup on the table. For some reason, I couldn’t help but notice the green little tea ripples in her cup.
“But, she… I can’t believe she would say those things! Even though she’s so weak!” With tears in her eyes, Asagao angrily clenched her fist. “And I hate that! It pisses me off seeing her look down on me! I can’t believe I was actually scared… I can’t let her get away with this!”
Asagao’s usual cold and calculating front was torn away by her inner feelings, and she was suddenly left crying, unable to look us in the eye. She tried to stop her tears with a few deep breaths, but that proved futile as she continued to bawl her eyes out.
Just the sight of Asagao in this state was enough to shake up Asuha. She was at a loss of what to do— she looked like to she was about to speak up, but ended up just moving her hands out awkwardly.
I once again completely understood how she felt. Right now, Asagao wasn’t really talking to us personally. She was first and foremost aiming her words at Natsume, but at the same time, she was talking to herself. This was neither the time nor the place for us to interfere.
I didn’t know, or even cared about what happened between Asagao and Natsume. Asagao could have the most touching story and I still wouldn’t have anything to say to her. Right now, Asagao was just one more troublesome thing I had to deal with.
That’s why I was going to leave this for Asuha to take care of.
She turned back to me with a confused look. “Huh? For what?”
“Once Asagao calms down could you accompany her back?” I asked. “I have some work I have to do.”
“Work…” she muttered, shooting me a dirty look.
Her reaction was completely justified, but I didn’t feel I could explain my thoughts. I could have said that I was working off of nostalgia, or maybe I had someone I was dedicating all my effort to, but I didn’t think I could say any of those things to her right now.
That’s why I apologized one more time with a fake smile.
Asuha had a feeling there was more to the story, but she didn’t object anymore. Instead, she nodded silently and said, “Okay.”
She probably knew what was going on, anyway.
“Thanks,” I said.
“It’s whatever… Don’t worry about it.”
Once she said that, I had to pat her on the head. She gave me a look of displeasure before turning her head away and standing up to distance herself from my hand. She then walked all the way to where Asagao was and pulled another chair to sit down next to her.
Asagao was still slumped onto her desk, crying. Asuha leaned in on Asagao until her head was comfortably resting on her. She then took out her cell phone to pass the time. It seemed this was her way of comforting Asagao until she calmed down.
From my perspective, Asuha looked like a cat comforting her owner. What she did was no doubt awkward, but at the same time, it was a display of her overwhelming kindness. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as kind as Asuha… The only thing I could do was work.
I had already made up my mind on what to do, so there wasn’t a point in staying here any longer. So, I took the laptop I would usually leave in the office and quickly left the building.
On my way out, I couldn’t help but think of some words of wisdom I once came across:
Only through failure will one get strong enough to succeed.