So, hiya again. This one-shot is a sequel to another work of mine: 'The Great Snowball Battle'. If you haven't read that yet, go do so now or most of the stuff in this story won't make the slightest bit of sense to you; just a friendly warning.
If you have read it, however, please enjoy the coming shenanigans of a bespectacled madwoman.
My name is Mari Illustrious Makinami, and today is a good day.
The sky is blue, the birds are chirping and the people are happy. The surroundings are covered in enough snow to set the winter mood but not enough to be annoying, and the small decorations in the streets and businesses for this special day make everything almost perfect.
I raise my mug of hot chocolate to my lips and take a big drink, finishing what was left of the sweet liquid in one, big gulp. I then leave the empty mug on the table, next to my thermos, as I feel the hot cocoa travel all the way down my throat and heat up my body from within.
Damn, it's cold.
Sure, the temperature is not as cold as it was four days ago, but it's still not a good idea to go out without proper warm clothing; the hot chocolate is an added precaution, since I don't plan on moving from this spot for some time.
I've got one hell of a sight from up here, after all. I can see most of the shopping district's main street unimpeded!
And I'm going to need this kind of vantage point.
Yes, all things considered, today is a good day; the powers that be have surely blessed this occasion but, with this, their part in what's to come is over.
Now, it is our turn to make sure things go smoothly from here on out.
I pick up a pair of military-grade binoculars and a radio, and speak into the latter as I use the former to scan the shopping district up and down, looking for the two stars of the day.
"Mama-cat to Kitten-3, report!"
I can hear some noise on the line, of someone fumbling with their ear-piece, before a serious and somewhat nervous voice answers from the other end.
"T-This is Kitten-3! Ready!"
"Good," I acknowledge, satisfied. "Continue your watch. Kitten-4, what's your status?"
This time, no immediate answer comes, and I can hear some low-voiced arguing in the background, too. Just as I'm about to repeat my request, though, an answer comes through.
This time, the voice responding from the other end of the comms is male, and much more resigned.
"Yeah, yeah. Ready." Kitten-4 then mutters under his voice. "This is such a stupid idea..."
"What? It's true!"
I leave those two to their own devices and turn to the sandy haired boy that is fiddling with some equipment a few paces away from me. The machine is full of all kinds of cables, dials and switches, and I'd be lying if I said that it made the slightest bit of sense to me, but my partner doesn't seem to have any trouble understanding the beeps and boops that the contraption lets out.
"Kitten-2, how's everything on our end?"
"Everything's working all right," he responds, not taking his eyes from his work for one second. "I'll need to know beforehand when you plan to relocate, though. This thing takes a while to pack up."
I wasn't sure on whether he would do it, but it seems that Two is actually giving it his all, at least as far as the technical side of his orders are concerned. We'll see if he keeps this level of involvement later or not.
However, I blissfully realize that there is a small detail he is missing.
"Aren't you forgetting about something, Ota-kun~?"
Aida's hands stop working for a moment and he looks at me from the corner of his eye, before sighing in annoyance and offering a half-hearted military salute.
Better, but there's still room for improvement. We'll work on that throughout the day, Ota-kun.
With a satisfied smile, I raise the binoculars to my eyes once again and continue scanning the main street, where our quarries are sure to show up shortly.
"Perfect, everything's going according to schedule, then! Now, the only things we are missing are..."
I centre the lenses of my binoculars on the main access to the shopping district, a fairly wide plaza with a quaint stone fountain in the middle. There is no one I recognize there yet, but if my expectations are correct...
"Oh, Puppy-kun is here." I say to myself as a familiar mop of black hair turns the corner I'm watching and heads towards the fountain with an unsteady gait, looking frantically all around him while trying to keep himself from looking like a paranoid madman. I separate my eyes from the binoculars long enough to check my wristwatch. "And fifteen minutes before the appointed time, too! Atta boy!"
I drop the binoculars and allow them to hang freely from the strap secured to my neck, before grabbing hold of the radio once again. "Mama-cat to all Kittens, the anchor is in the water. I repeat: the anchor is in the water. I'm raising all active units to alert status Orange, pending the arrival of the second force! Let it be said that I expect nothing but the best from you, dear Kittens, and that I know you won't let me down! Now, it's high time we started..."
"...Did you have to scream it into our ears, Makinami?"
...Okay. I might have gotten a bit too overzealous there, I'll give Suzuhara that. But hey, the situation calls for it!
"Of course I had to! We are the sailors of this ship, and it is our duty to keep it safe through hell and high water! Where's your fighting spirit, Ball-kun?"
"I left it back at home, right next to my dignity," he responds drily. "And what's this about ships? What nonsense are you spouting?"
I roll my eyes at that.
"How can you kittens be so ignorant of the glorious art of shipping?" it boggles the mind, to be sure. "And you call yourselves Japanese..."
Momentary silence invades the line for a few seconds, my underlings no doubt considering the error of their ways and the wisdom of my words.
"What does being Japanese have to do with anything...?"
Then again, Ball-kun was never the brightest one of the lot to begin with, so I guess he doesn't really count for the metric.
"Whatever, I don't care," he continues. "Let's just get this thing over and done with already, I want to have a long shower in order to clean away the feeling of helping to force the Devil on Shin-man."
I instantly turn down the volume of my radio the moment Piggy-chan's indignant cry makes it through, as it's painfully clear that there will be no need for me to offer a rebuttal. You'd think that Suzuhara would have learned not to badmouth the Princess while either Hikari-chan or me are around by now. I mean, it's not like our Class Rep doesn't make her disapproval clear or audible enough, and the lecture that Ball-kun is no doubt receiving right now is far from being the first one.
Me, I try to be more creative in the methods I use to express my dissatisfaction, but I'm sure that they are also more than clear enough for him to understand.
But, as I said earlier, he's kind of a slow learner. Ota-kun got to that point some time ago, and I'm sure that Ball-kun will get there in a couple of years, himself.
In any case, and considering that Piggy-chan has Suzuhara-kun's lack of discipline covered, I just use one of the lulls in Hikari-chan's lecture and order them both to rendezvous with our 'logistics support battalion', so that they may change into the lookout clothing I have provided. It wouldn't do for them to try and fulfil their objectives in their easy-to-recognize clothing, after all.
That should keep them busy for some time, and the brave assistants in my logistics support battalion will make sure that they're suited and ready to go for the time when their services are needed.
And speaking of clothes, I set my binoculars back on Shinji-kun's waiting form and give the apparel he chose for this important day a critical and thorough once-over.
He's... actually not looking that much different from four days ago, much to my slight chagrin: with the exception of some brand-new jeans, Shinji-kun is wearing the same khaki coat, the same blue-white scarf, and the same warm boots he did back during the big event. They all visibly underwent some thorough cleaning at some point, of course (especially the coat, that one really needed it), and whatever parts of his outfit that could be ironed, have been.
I never expected for Puppy-kun to break out a never-before-seen get-up or anything like that, as he's just not that much into fashion to begin with, but I suppose I was hoping for a little bit more than this.
He's definitely not looking bad, or anything like that. He looks smart, without overdoing it. All in all, a pretty good fit for him, really, and I'm halfway sure that these are his best clothes to boot.
Let's just hope the Princess doesn't take it the wrong way.
So! Clothing: check. What about everything else?
Well... to say that he's jittery would be the understatement of the century, as I can identify most of Puppy-kun's nervous habits with a short glance, muttering and hand-clenching included, but I can't really fault the guy on that one. He's about to have one of the most memorable days of his life, after all, and a small dose of tension will hopefully keep him from doing anything silly.
I'm 95% sure that the Princess will be feeling the same way when she finally makes her appearance, anyway, if not worse.
There's barely anything to fear, though. The highly motivated and exceptionally skilled members of my squad will ensure that the day goes swimmingly for them!
"You know, Toji has a point," a slightly grumpy voice from my right suddenly intrudes on my thoughts. "When you told me to meet you today of all days, I didn't expect it to be for this."
I slowly turn towards the source of the voice in a way that would no doubt be classified as dramatic by anyone watching, and narrow my eyes at him. In spite of the threat of my fury, Kensuke Aida barely acknowledges my stare and keeps on working with a serious face and a slight pout.
Maybe scratch highly motivated off the list.
I wish that I had a bunch of disposable mooks at hand to... well, dispose of in order to remedy this particular lack of drive, but that is sadly not the case.
I'll have to settle for the boring, verbal, way instead.
"And what were you expecting? I mean, what else could I want all of your toys for, Ota-kun?"
Aida stops his tinkering for a moment and throws a deadpan stare my way.
Which I shrug off, obviously, focusing back on looking at the plaza through my binoculars. Two can play that game.
"'Spying on the date of my two friends' doesn't really make the top of my list as far as applications for the proper use of this gear go, you know?"
I can't help but roll my eyes at that.
'Proper' this and 'Proper' that. Bah. Most important events in history were never considered proper back in their day, I tell you.
That fact doesn't stop the boring man by my side from continuing to whine about his part in my grand designs, however.
"And that's ignoring the fact that this is probably a crime we are commi-"
"Yeah, yeah," I cut his complaint off with a raise of my hand as my eyes finally take notice of something. "Hold that thought, will you?"
Something far more important than Ota-kun's misplaced worries has just made her appearance, after all. Walking forward proudly and decisively, Asuka Langley-Sohryu has just made it to the main plaza where the meeting is set to take place, intently scanning the small crowds peppering the area with her eyes.
I can't physically contain the grin coming to my lips, nor am I trying to.
Wait for it...
There, she saw him. It's obvious from the way in which she suddenly paused mid-stride.
"Indeed, Princess; Puppy-kun did beat you to the meeting." I check my watch for a second time. "Still, ten minutes before schedule. Not bad. You two would be a secretary's worst nightmare, but I'm glad that I'm not one to leave anything up to chance. Coming here an hour early sure was worth it."
Asuka recovers quickly and proceeds onward, her lips pressed together in slight irritation, before Shinji-kun can notice her little faux-pas. As she does, I take the time to check out Asuka's choice of clothing for today.
And what a get-up it is: a patterned pearl-white blouse covered by an emerald green jacket with brown buttons and accessories, complemented by a matching skirt and ending in long, black stockings and a pair of brown ankle boots.
Her hair is, of course, done in her usual, distinct, way, and she has a plaid red and orange scarf tied around her neck (the same one that she was wearing four days ago, actually). Her model for today is finalized with a pair of pale brown gloves covering her hands.
Let it be said that Asuka has the gift of looking good in almost any kind of clothing she puts on, but it looks like today, she decided to go all out for a certain young man, anyway.
And I dearly hope that Shinji-kun is ready to withstand a hundred envious glares when the Princess reaches him; I can see that she is turning a few heads among the younger folk already, and that's probably not going to stop anytime today.
Still, those legs of hers must be bloody cold.
"Looking good, Princess," my grin widens even more at seeing how seriously the Princess is taking this. "And is that a bit of make-up I spy there?"
That's not something you see on Asuka every day, especially with how strict her mother can be sometimes. I wonder how she managed to give her the slip?
Shame that this didn't happen during the summer, too, I know the Princess would have loved to wear that sundress of hers for this occasion. Blow Puppy-kun away from the get-go, and all that.
Oh well, there is always the future for that. And I get the feeling that Shinji-kun is going to be blown away, anyway.
When he actually sees Asuka, that is. She has pretty much marched all the way to his back by now and the dolt hasn't even noticed yet! I get that she didn't come from what would have been the most common route to take, but still!
You've really got to work on that awareness of yours, Ikari. It was completely normal for you not to notice me during the great event (I'm as stealthy as the finest of ninjas, after all), but that redhead that is unwillingly sneaking up on you isn't even trying!
I can see her eyebrow twitching slightly in annoyance already.
Which means that there is a slight chance that we will have to influence events sooner than I would like, but a part of me is confident that doing so would be too premature.
Let's give Ikari some time, first. He'll notice the Princess soon enough. The amount of chatter that seems to be following her should be a dead giveaway, anyway.
Asuka Langley-Sohryu finally reaches her destination and waits, glaring at the back of Shinji Ikari.
And then waits some more.
On second thought, I might actually have to tell the part of me that believes in Shinji Ikari to get the hell out of here. What in blazes is so interesting about that particular floor tile, boy?! Gorgeous redhead behind you, TURN AROUND!
That's still kind of amazing, though, even if I'm not sure on what it is that I'm more surprised by: whether it is Puppy-kun's incredible abstraction capability, or the complete lack of answer from his survival instincts at the ball of doom that's gathering a scarce few centimetres from him.
What is painfully clear, is that the Princess has had enough of waiting around. She raises a pair of gloved fingers and mercilessly stabs them into the back of Shinji's shoulder, hard, while saying something that clearly has the word 'Stupid' in it.
The blindsided Puppy yelps audibly at the sudden contact and quickly turns around to face the offending redhead. As he does, I can just catch his lips moving in the beginning of a sentence.
But the words die out in his mouth as he takes in the look of her.
Let's see: frozen in place, eyes wide, and mouth flapping like a fish... his brain connections probably just fried and central command is asking for permission to reboot.
Oh well. At least his reactions are appropriate.
But you should perhaps tell the maintenance guys over at your head to hurry it up anyway, Puppy-kun. Asuka-chan is already impatient enough as it is, so you should get on with your complimenting soon, if you know what's good for you.
Thankfully for everyone involved, Shinji-kun manages to kick his brain into gear and says something, amidst heavy blushing and light spluttering.
What it is he said, I cannot tell. But it must have been the right thing to say, considering the sudden way in which Asuka's expression does a 180º turn following his words; it's hard to say from here, but I bet that she is also blushing a bit, herself.
I let out a sigh of relief (that I didn't know I was holding) at the sight.
You can recover your jaw from the floor now, Puppy-kun. It did its job.
I watch the greetings intently for a few more seconds until the two protagonists of the day fall into a more-or-less relaxed conversation; sure, there is some awkwardness here and there, and Shinji is looking very self-conscious at all the sudden attention that's on him, but it looks like everything is going to be all right for the moment.
Guess this is as good a time as any to allow the two of them some privacy while I finalize some details on Operation Unsinkable.
...Which reminds me:
"Sorry, Ota-kun," I take my eyes off of my binoculars and throw a sideways glance his way. "What were you saying earlier about scandalous misdeeds or what-not?"
No answer. He's decided that now is a good time to be a kid and go back to ignoring me again, apparently.
But we can't have that. Not today.
"Oh, don't be like that," I continue, hands on hips and trying to channel as much of Piggy-chan as I can. "What are you so angry over, anyway? I thought that you, of all people, would have been jumping for joy at the chance to use all this stuff with anyone other than by your lonesome."
Aida stops his tinkering once again and throws another stare at me, in a one-for-one recreation of the actions he did barely two minutes ago.
"You do realize that calling someone a stalker is not the best way to get back into their good graces, right?"
Maybe. But it did get you to snark at me, so I'll call that a partial success.
"You know I don't mean it like that, Ota-kun. And you did sound really excited over the line, anyway, when I said that I needed your talents for today."
And then Kensuke Aida suddenly slams his hands on the rooftop railing and rounds fiercely in my direction.
"That was before you told me that we would be spying on my friend's privacy! You think I'm going to be happy about that?!"
Okay, that was some anger, right there; I actually take an involuntary step back in surprise and that's not something you'll hear me say every day.
Kensuke is actually livid right now, and in a way that might have been passed as righteous and deserving by many.
...But for me, such a reaction doesn't make much sense, all things considered, as I happen to know about a small detail pertaining to this young man:
"Right," I allow my voice to discard its usual playful tone. "Because someone that actively worked on an illegal photo distribution circle back at school is going to have any qualms about the privacy of others."
Much as I expected from that little bombshell, Aida's rage turns to white-faced panic in record time.
"H-How do you know about that?!"
Hah! As if I'm going to tell you.
"I have my ways. But that's not what's important right now, really," I deflect flippantly, using the opening I created to close the distance between the two of us. "So, if our work today is not the cause, care to tell me what's really eating at you, boy?"
"...None of your business."
Most of the time, I would have agreed with you, Ota-kun, especially given how adamant you are being about it.
But, once again, today is not one of those times.
"I'm sorry to say, but it is my business. For as long as your moping threatens the integrity of this operation, anyway. I brought you here for a job; forcibly, I'll admit, but I'd rather we all have as much of a good time as we can while trying to do a good deed this day." I pause, before dropping my voice to a dramatic whisper. "And I definitely would rather not have to use some of my blackmail material in order to get you... motivated."
He actually gulps at that, eyes wide as saucers.
"I told you that I knew about your little thing, didn't I? I also happen to know who your biggest sellers were. I mean, I'm honoured to know I'm so highly regarded by the school's male half of the population, but I don't know if those other girls in the Top Five will be just as happy. Especially you-know-who."
That gets him breaking into a cold sweat; he knows that the Princess would beat him silly if she learned about this.
But physical punishment non-withstanding, such news coming out could very well turn him into a social pariah back at school, which is actually the reason I never reported this when I found out.
For all his faults, Aida doesn't really deserve that.
The photo circle stopped its activities a few weeks after I discovered it anyway, so it didn't seem like such a big deal to bring out. I mean, I've been willingly photographed in more revealing outfits than a school swimsuit in the first place, and those pictures are readily available for anyone interested in helping me out economically with my hobby, after all.
That really doesn't excuse what Aida did, of course, but, if the one who found out doesn't really care and all the other girls are blissfully unaware of the fact...
Let's just let bygones be bygones, and all that.
Until I actually brought the topic back up, that is.
Now I actually feel bad for the guy but, 'All's fair in love and war'. And this situation has a little bit of both to justify such moves, right?
"Fine, I get it, shut up already," he grumbles, disengaging from the argument and going back to his work. "I'll do my part in your stupid plan to the best of my ability whether I'm pissed or not, so get off my case."
Well, that seemed to do the trick, even if I'm definitely not proud of needing to resort to the blackmail card. So much for talking things over.
As I go back to my post and allow the sound of the sandy-haired boy's precise tinkering to fill the stagnant silence in the Command Centre, though, I cannot help but think that that was one perfect example of a hollow victory.
It is very strange to see Aida this cranky, however, and even more so to see him use such harsh language on anyone. He does tend to use some colourful adjectives when he talks about the Princess, sure, but those are terms that Suzuhara coined and Kensuke ended up adopting as well, and he would only end up using them when struck first, anyway.
Other than that, I've never seen the guy actively badmouth or argue with anyone before, so it's kind of baffling to see him acting like this now, of all times.
Oh well. He said he wouldn't let it get in the way of his job, and I don't have any actual reason to dispute that. Better to leave things be for now, but I hope he won't hold a grudge over my less-than-exemplary actions.
Maybe I can come up with some way to reward his efforts if he does well today, considering that Aida is kind of the odd one out in this whole thing. It would be a small price to pay, especially if he ends the day feeling bitter about the whole thing.
Maybe the maid costume that Puppy-kun didn't use? I've been meaning to do a photo-shoot with it and, while very much amateurish, Ota-kun does know a thing or two about angles.
Hmm... I'll think about that later. My Command-senses are tingling, and I get the feeling that Puppy-kun and the Princess are about to get moving.
Quick check and... yes, they are! They are starting to move deeper into the shopping district, probably heading to Suzu's, one of the popular cafés in this area.
No hand-holding yet, much to my disappointment. And they are keeping a small distance between them, too, artificially so.
Come on! I've seen you two walk closer than that plenty of times before! Take the initiative, Puppy-kun!
Oh well. The day is young, and we still have plenty of time until the Princess' curfew, no need to rush things.
We got this.
...We don't got this.
This is bad, really bad. Astonishingly bad.
So bad that it makes Misato-sensei's chances of pulling Kaji-san into marriage look good, in comparison.
Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. But the situation's critical, anyway!
I mean, from an outsider's perspective, I suppose that the scene I'm looking at isn't all that strange, considering the backgrounds of our two love-birds. Just two young people, testing the waters of their first date with some slightly awkward conversation. Something that I'm sure hundreds of thousands of people do everyday all over the world for about ten minutes, until the foundations for richer exchanges are properly laid.
...But the problem is that these two have been sitting at Suzu's, doing that for the past hour! And, against all odds, it's not even Shinji who's at fault here!
Yes, you heard me right: it's not the sociably-inept-but-lovable idiot that's not doing the talking, it's the one that I expected to lead the charge who's suddenly acting like the typical shy bookworm that's never interacted with a male in her life.
I shouldn't have to tell you just how unnerving it is to watch Asuka Langley-Sohryu spend fifteen minutes speaking in monosyllables. The situation is so unreal that I've cleaned the lenses of the binoculars twice, and pinched myself at least half a dozen times in order to make sure that my eyes are not deceiving me.
And no, they are not. Asuka's 'dere' side has decided to come out with all of its pent-up force at the worst possible time, by the looks of it.
"This is such bullshit."
And I mean it. Out of all the events and situations that I've devised contingencies for (and I've done a lot on that front, trust me), this possibility didn't even cross my mind.
"That's the third time you've said that."
And that's Ota-kun, multi-tasking the click-clack of his work with being a royal pain in the ass.
So not the time for that. Even if he's right.
Asuka excuses herself and goes into the café, no doubt intending to use the bathroom to buy both herself and Shinji a bit of breathing time, in order to arrange their thoughts a little bit.
A sound idea, that would surely boost the odds of success of this operation.
...If 'arranging one's thoughts' didn't mean 'beat yourself over your perceived failures' for one particular redhead.
This is bad.
Sorrowful Asuka is one step away from angry Asuka, and an angry Asuka blowing up at this time is the very last thing we need.
I'm baffled as to how these two are managing to mess things up this horribly at this point, but it looks like I may need to step in and set everything right, anyway.
And I'm not entirely sure on how I'm going to achieve that, to be honest, but that doesn't stop me from tossing my radio to a surprised Kensuke without a second thought (shouting a half-thought order to keep watch on Shinji as I do), and walking away to the other end of the roof, grabbing hold of my phone on the way.
Good thing that I'm great at improvisation.
I resolutely punch in the Princess' cell number, not even bothering with looking for it on the contact list. There is a ship that needs saving and precious little time to make a difference, after all.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Come on Princess, pick up. I know you're there.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
And you know I'm as persistent as they come, too. I'm not going to leave you alone until you pick up the phone.
Succinct, to the point, and oozing enmity towards the other end of the line in almost palpable fashion. An unmistakable way of greeting a call, at least when it's from me.
'Tis the Princess, alright. Not that I expected anyone else, really.
"Princess!" I cheerfully call out, ignoring Asuka's rude salute and putting my acting mask on. "I need an update! How's the big day going? Are you at Suzu's, per chance?"
I seem to have caught the Princess off-guard, because a deep silence fills the line for a few seconds.
"...It's going fine."
Yeah, right. Even if I could get around the fact that your tone of voice is telling me the exact opposite, that answer would have sounded more believable five seconds ago, darling.
It's not a good idea to call Asuka out on that, though.
"Really? Does the Great Asuka Langley-Sohryu have her romantic interest wrapped around her little finger already?"
"...You don't have to say it like that."
I ignore her slight indignation and continue talking, my voice chock-full of as much tease as I can inject.
"I bet that you dressed in your best clothes just for him! What did you wear, what did you wear?"
"And why would I do that?! As if Baka-Shinji would appreciate it! I could have showed up in my school uniform and he wouldn't have said a thing!"
You big, fat, liar. A little bit more honesty in your life wouldn't be amiss, Princess.
Let's fluster her a little bit more and force her to spill the beans. Then, I can work my magic.
"So you did dress up for him!" I coo. " And he didn't say anything?"
"...Well no... I mean, yes! I mean-" tripping over your own words there, Princess. "He kinda did say something, all right?!"
"He said something, uh? If you went through the effort, he better have said that you looked gorgeous at the least." I hum a small thinking noise, a well-known tactical manoeuvre honed from years of aggravating Asuka. "Well, knowing Puppy-kun, I wouldn't put it beyond him to faint in the spot. In any case, I bet you are blushing like crazy right now!"
"Shut up!" I cringe at the volume, and distance the phone from my ear. "If you called just to be annoying, I'm hanging up right now!"
Ouch. A polite 'Stop it' would have sufficed, Princess; there was no need to leave my ears ringing!
I guess that, if anything, that has proven that this is as much as she's willing to tolerate, though. Anymore than this and she'll surely make true on her threat.
Hopefully it will be enough instability for Asuka to confide in me, or I fear that she might end up making mincemeat out of Puppy-kun.
...Sigh. You're one high-maintenance friend, darling, and damn lucky that this Mama-cat likes to look after her own, too.
"Sorry, sorry, Princess, I'll stop. You're so fun to tease that I can't help myself, sometimes," and that's a hundred percent true. It's time to get slightly serious, however. "So, everything's going well, then? Can we expect a big announcement in class when we get back to school?"
Well, she's not instantly hanging up on me, so I'll count this as strike one.
Come on, Princess. Give me another one.
It does take a few seconds of tense waiting before the adamant girl at the other end of the line finally gives in.
"...I don't know. Baka-Shinji isn't really working with me, right now."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"I mean that he's not responding to any of my questions! How am I supposed to get this date going if he's not collaborating?! There's only so much I can do on my own!"
You are the biggest, fattest, liar I have ever seen, girl. I get that you don't like to show weakness, but wow.
I wish I could have recorded the scene at the café and mailed it to you. Your face would have been worthy of a photo.
Oh, well. I'll save my scoop for the first time I manage to get Asuka drunk (a few years down the line, mind you), or something. That way, I'll have alcohol intoxication standing between me and her trademark Teutonic fury.
But for now, that was strike two. And it's time to manoeuvre around this curve ball, I guess.
"So, is Shinji-kun so beset with worry that he doesn't want to risk screwing today up?" I hum sceptically. "That does sound like him but, I don't know... I get the feeling that you aren't being entirely honest with me here, Princess."
"You calling me a liar?"
"No, far from that. I'm just pretty sure that you are not telling me everything, since I don't recall you ever having any kind of trouble with getting Puppy-kun to speak up, in the past."
Granted, Puppy-kun didn't exactly want to partake in those conversations most of the time, but the point still stands.
"Well, that's true, but..."
"There's something more going on," I press before Asuka has time to bring the conversation back to her territory. "Isn't there, Princess?"
Nothing but heavy silence for a few moments.
Until, finally, and with a monumental discontented groan, the Great Asuka Langley-Sohryu spills the beans:
"...Maybe I'm also having a little bit of trouble coming up with topics to talk about."
And that's three! Batter out, batter out!
Took you long enough, Asuka.
"Ah, so that's the problem! No worries, just bat your eyelashes at him and bump into him accidentally once or twice. No need to speak a word and you'll have Puppy-kun in the bag in no time, guaranteed!"
"Stop it, as if that would work! I'm being serious here, Glasses!"
"And so am I, but I suppose you don't feel like acknowledging my veterancy right now. So, what is it? Getting tongue-tied and no words coming out? Stomach-butterflies travelling upwards and clogging your vocal chords?"
"I'm just drawing a blank, all right?! All of the ideas for conversation that come up to my mind sound plain stupid!"
...Sigh. Whatever happened to 'keep things simple', Asuka?
You're really hopeless, girl.
"I expected as much," Asuka makes to retort, but I cut her off before she has a chance at doing do. "Look, Princess. You're not going to make me re-run our last serious conversation, are you? Because I swear, if I have to run over to Suzu's and give you a piece of my mind once again, you can bet your pretty ass that I'm going to do just that."
I haven't finished speaking before Asuka hurriedly (and in a bit of a panic) retorts back.
"Hell no! You stay well away from this place, Glasses! I can handle this on my own, and you better believe that I'm calling the whole thing off if I so much as suspect you being nearby!"
I actually have to hold myself from breaking out laughing at that.
If only you knew, Princess.
"Fair enough. How about an idea, then, if that's all you need to become unstuck? There's a music store in the shopping district if memory serves, right?"
"Yeah, there is. Pretty big shop that deals in many kinds of instruments," an unmistakable brand of heavy sigh invades the line. "I know where you're going with this..."
"Then do it. Bring Puppy-kun over there and get the ball rolling!"
"...I don't know. That sounds way too easy, somehow."
Seriously, stop over-thinking already!
"And why would it be hard? I mean, both of you have an interest in music, right? I've heard you talk about that plenty of times, before."
"Well, yeah. But bringing up such an everyday topic today sounds... silly, I guess."
Another heavy sigh fills the line, this time from my end. It's truly astounding how pigheaded this girl can be.
Time to deliver a compelling argument, then:
"Princess, if you really think that a romantic life with your significant other is going to be full of wondrous and original topics of conversation for each and every day, I'm sorry to say that you're in for one hell of a disappointment."
And why exactly do you sound surprised at that? I know that you don't have your old man around anymore, but you spend so much time around Shinji's folks that I kinda expected you to realize that already. I mean, Puppy-kun's dad is sort of scary, but other than that you'd be hard-pressed to find a more stereotypical marital relationship than the one those two have.
From the few, brief times I've actually seen them, it looks like that, anyway.
But I digress. Let's get back to the matters at hand.
"Really," I confirm as firmly as I can. "And you better believe me! I'm the expert, remember?"
This time, an annoyed groan reaches my ear.
"You're not going to let me live that one down, are you?"
Taking one or two jives at you after all the trouble you are making me go through isn't that much of a price to pay, Princess. I can cut you some slack, though.
"If the next time I hear from you I get to learn that the Princess and Puppy-kun finally hooked up, I might consider it."
And I'm being completely honest, there. Not like Asuka's ill-spoken words ever really bothered me, anyway.
"Then you better start working your brain, Glasses. That way, maybe you'll have decided by the time the new term starts."
Ooh~. Someone seems to have found her fighting spirit again!
"That's better," I cheer. "Go, Princess, go! Strike Puppy-kun with all your love and affection!"
"You had to go and say something cheesy, didn't you?"
I ignore Asuka's predictably annoyed barb at my witty encouragements with a roll of my eyes.
Such is the thankless role I play, after all. I mean, with so many sticks in the mud in this little troupe, it's clear someone has to bring in the joy and cheer.
And I can't see that someone being poor Hikari-chan.
Oh well, I'll bask in the knowledge that our favourite redhead is most likely performing her best impression of a tomato at this time, anyway; once again, I mentally groan at the thought that a picture of Asuka's face at this time would have been great.
It is at this point, with me somewhat torn between mental elation and lamentation, that a thin sliver of voice coming from the earpiece of my phone barely reaches me.
I answer instantly, and maybe a tad too abruptly; I can hear a bit of a hitch at the other end of the line as the proud girl I just talked to seems to double back on what she was about to say next.
I allow her as much time as she needs. The virtue of patience and the wisdom in waiting are two of the (many) things you must always keep in mind when dealing with Asuka Langley-Sohryu, after all.
However, she doesn't make me wait very much this time:
With those two words, the line goes dead with no warning, and I turn to look at my phone as if it had just grown a mouth and called me Mama.
And then I blink, still speechless.
Well, that just happened.
Definitely not something you get to hear every day. Not from her, at least.
That still brings a smile to my lips, though.
Oh, Princess, Princess... always looking to play the tough girl, when you are a real softie inside. Show this amount of 'dere' to Puppy-kun, and you'll have him in the bag in no time at all!
Well now. Let's check on the fruits of my labour, shall we?
I put away my phone into one of the many pockets of my uniform and jog back to join Ota-kun in our make-shift observation post. He's still keeping a close eye on the café, as I asked him to, and I take the opportunity to quickly serve myself and gulp down another cup of hot cocoa.
Phew, that hit the spot. Nothing like a nice, hot, drink after a successful plan!
Just as I screw the thermos closed again, though, Aida hands me the binoculars with a puzzled expression.
"...What did you do?"
That's a good expression to see on him. If the sight he just caught weirded him out so much, it must mean that Asuka was being nice to Puppy-kun!
We are totally back in the game!
"Just worked my magic, of course," I send Ota-kun one of my official beaming grins. I feel up for it. "My arguments are both sound and enthralling, you know?"
A momentary surprised look crosses his face at my no doubt gorgeous smile. Probably because it came a bit out of nowhere.
But then his cute expression turns sour, and subsequently devolves further into a nasty scowl. Ota-kun turns away with a scoff and quickly walks over to his work equipment.
"Tch, you could have saved yourself the argument and us all this trouble. It's only a matter of time until the Devil rips Shinji a new one over something minor, anyway."
What the-? The nerve of this guy!
"Hey! Don't go badmouthing people behind their backs!"
He just ignores me and goes back to his work, and I have to hold myself from making a face at him.
Seriously, what's up with Aida today? He's so high-strung and out of character that I'm having to constantly remind myself that that's him over there, and not one of the tens of random guys that owed me a favour!
Truly vexing but, sadly, I cannot spare many more thoughts than those for you right now, Your Grumpiness. Do excuse me.
I reset the binoculars in front of my eyes and quickly scan for our two protagonists. Considering the Princess' natural gifts for standing out, and that the people around Puppy-kun and her are giving them a wide berth, it doesn't take me long at all to find them.
...And Asuka is back to jerky and robotic movements, pretty much dragging Shinji along by the wrist and death-glaring anyone that gets in her way; is the brain of this girl limited in the amount of good qualities it can have active at a time, or something?
Sigh. I guess that will remain forever buried as one of the many mysteries to the Great Asuka Langley-Sohryu.
In any case, I better make sure that the logistics team have finished gearing Kittens 3 and 4 for their part in the operation.
"Mama-cat to Kitten-3, what's your status, over."
"Mama-cat to Kitten-3, what's your status, over."
This time, a response does come in.
Piggy-chan answers my question haltingly, in a tone caught in between embarrassment and her usual righteous indignation.
And I know exactly what she's feeling insecure about, of course, but I feel like stringing her along for a bit. I think I deserve a bit of fun after my serious time with the Princess.
"Tsk, tsk, Hikari-chan. That's not proper radio communication terminology you are using there."
"Makinami-san, what is the meaning of t-this?!" Hikari just ignores my comment and keeps on breaking radio doctrine. "Your so-called 'logistics s-support battalion' pretty much abd-ducted me and forced me into... into..."
"Now, now, Hikari-chan," I soothingly interrupt the agitated girl. "'Abduct' and 'force' are a bit too strong of a pair of words to put on a group of people that were just following my orders to the best of their abilities. I asked them to do their jobs quickly and efficiently, since I never expected we would have as much time as we ended up having, but I trust blindly that they never hurt you at any time during the process. They were all girls too, so what is the problem?"
"G-Gods, no, they n-never hurt me. B-but the dress... I-I look..."
Charming? Fetching? I wonder if Piggy-chan currently looks as adorable as she sounds.
...What am I saying, of course she does! I chose her magical girl outfit myself and she's been dressed by a team of wonderful professionals, after all! I'm itching to see what they managed to do with prim and proper Horaki-san!
"Oh, that," I take over casually, as if talking about the weather. "That is the disguise you'll be tracking Princess and Puppy-kun with, of course!"
I can already picture Hikari-chan with her hair down, and fidgeting around in that pretty green and white outfit. I'm sure that my people have made such a good job that she will look straight out of Sailor Moon, down to the very short mini-skirt!
A little detail that, coupled with the cold weather, will no doubt play into my hands, mind you.
"T-This?! Y-You never told us about c-c-cosplay being a part of anything, Makinami-san!"
Wait, what? I'm absolutely sure that I wrote that one down.
"...What do you mean I didn't tell you, Hikari? Of course I did! It was right there, in the briefing!"
"In the briefing?" I don't really like how shocked Piggy-chan is sounding right now. "It was?"
"Yeah, pages forty-three and forty-four went through your part of the Operation! Didn't you read those?"
"W-Well, no... I h-had to help out at home yesterday and went straight to bed after I was done..."
Oh. That's... great. Just dandy. The most responsible member of my Elite forces didn't read about her part in the mission.
...Sigh. I could have expected this from Suzuhara, but Hikari-chan? Come on, you're killing me here...
"I-I..." A groan makes its way through the line, followed by the unmistakable sound of a hand palming against a face. Piggy-chan's probably, judging by the proximity. "I want to help Asuka-chan as much as you do, but why can't we do this in our normal clothes?"
"You know why, dear," and I went through that in the briefing too. "The Princess knows your wardrobe from top to bottom, and there's (quite literally) no other way than this of getting Ball-kun into anything that's not a tracksuit. And if we are going to go to the trouble of giving the two of you clothing that the Princess will not recognize, we might as well go the extra mile and make you two completely unrecognizable."
"W-Wait!" Hikari interrupts, panicky. "S-Suzuhara is coming with m-me, too?!"
Oh, yes, you bet he is. I'm actually surprised that it took you this long to realize that, Piggy-chan, especially when I just mentioned it.
"Of course, that was also in the briefing! 'All lookout personnel will be required to operate in pairs, so as to better ensure the success of the operation.' You ever heard of the Buddy system, Hikari-chan?"
She's completely ignoring me, though, immersed in her own worries and sudden stage panic.
"B-But that means that he... he..."
Yup, he'll totally see you. And notice you, if he knows what's good for him, at least.
And, by the way, just wait until you see him.
...Man, this is going to be great.
"In any case, it sounds like you are about ready, Kitten-3. Once Kitten-4 joins you, I want you to go outside and-"
"Wait, what?! You want me to move outside? In this thing?!"
...I don't get to finish my orders before said person roars his way into the conversation.
Ouch. Someone has taken yell-into-the-communication-device lessons from the Princess, apparently; where was he, anyway? He must have had his earpiece off until just now, or something.
And what was that he was yelling about? The whole go outside in disguise again?
That's not an issue, damn it! And I explained it crystal clear in the briefing, too! Does no one around here read those when they are handed to them or what?!
"Yes, I want you to move outside in that Combat Butler suit, Ball-kun." I explain; patient but stern, as you would talk to a child. "I'm sure that familiarizing yourselves with your gear was one of the main points in the briefing. Did the two of you not read it, or what?"
Really? A thing? All of his other inconveniences aside, I can't help but sigh at Ball-kun's lack of knowledge on everyday items.
But I digress. Let's focus back on what's important:
Namely, the deadly silence that has plagued the line after my critical question.
"...None of you have actually read the briefing, have you?"
A rhetorical question, as the answer to that is painfully obvious by this point. Nevertheless, Ball-kun kindly offers a response.
"You didn't honestly expect us to read seventy-three pages of your usual nonsense, did you?"
Well yes, I kinda did. Especially you, Ball-kun, considering that, after losing so horribly last time, you are ours for the duration of the day. I would expect you to be giving this Operation 110%!If only to recover whatever scraps of honour you can...
And I'd also watch my tongue while you are at it, Suzuhara, it's well within my power to have you court-martialled for blatantly insulting my sheer genius!
In any case, how am I supposed to lead this Operation to success if my most trusted retainers don't prepare properly? Preparation is vital to victory in any battle! That Chinese guy said it, and he knew quite a bit about warfare!
Man, playing match-maker is truly exhausting these days. And having my 'allies' undermine my efforts at every step is sure as hell not making things any easier!
But I'll be damned if I'm going to let that daunt me; I'm not called Illustrious for nothing!
I'm going to be taking this lesson to heart, though: next time, I'm not allowing any kind of printed briefing to be delivered. I'll be PERSONALLY directing the briefing and making damn sure that everyone involved understands what they have to do to the letter!
And then they'll have to recite their orders from memory, forwards, backwards, and in four different languages, freaking Esperanto included!
Okay Mari, calm down. The sheer incompetence of your Elite troops might be frustrating, but you don't want to start adopting the Princess' breathing exercises just yet.
"Fine, I'll briefly go over the relevant part of the briefing:" And you better listen up this time! "Operatives Horaki and Suzuhara (Kitten-3 and 4 from here on out) will serve as ground support and lookouts while the relocation of Central HQ to its secondary position is underway. In order to avoid detection by Objective Princess, they will be issued disguises and masks. Said disguises will be employed to blend in with a major cosplay event that will be taking place in the target area during the operational hours of Thursday, December the 24th. Kitten-3 and 4's primary objective will be to report to Central HQ about any issues with the target subjects (Princess and Puppy) that may endanger the success of Operation Unsinkable."
And before you ask, yes, I know the whole thing by heart, all seventy-three pages of it. Which is why those two not bothering to read the parts relevant to them feels like such a nuisance to me.
Luckily for all of us, Commander Makinami is always ready and willing to set things back on track.
"Wait, 'cosplay event'?" Suzuhara eventually questions through the radio. "You mean those posters all around town with that girl the Devil likes so much in them?"
Along with many more characters, but you are on the money, Ball-kun!
"Yeah, those ones! It's the perfect cover! No one is going to bat an eye at two cosplayers heading for the event, and I'm willing to bet that soon enough this place will be crawling with them. Now, get going already, or you'll lose our leading pair! That's an order!"
I briefly think about adding 'Comply or face execution!' at the end there, but refrain from doing so. That idiot Ball-kun might decide to choose the latter just to be a thorn in my side, after all.
In any case, it seems like that finally got them moving. Or at least Toji is (not without a lack of grumbling over the radio, mind you), and I suppose that Hikari-chan should be joining him shortly.
Speaking of, what the hell does he think he's doing, slinking around quickly and making himself as small as possible? No cosplayer worth his salt would dare disgrace his costume by so blatantly ignoring the character he is portraying! Does he want to blow his entire cover, or what?!
Oh well, time for a bit of a lecture!
"That's no way to carry yourself, Ball-kun! You are a Combat Butler. A COMBAT BUTLER! Stand tall and wear your uniform with pride, damn it!"
Through the lenses of my binoculars, I can see Suzuhara stop suddenly and let out a deep, aggravated, sigh. He then looks upwards in the rough direction of this roof that I'm standing on, eyes narrowed in a nasty glare, before speaking into his ear-piece.
"...I hate you, Makinami."
"That's Commander Makinami to you, soldier!" I correct, swift and authoritative. "Now, continue on with your mission before I get you court-martialled! Failure is not an option, and consequences for that will be dire."
"...The hell are you going on ab-"
"You have been warned."
My warning tone promises a myriad of painful and traumatic things to come, and the boy in my sights visibly gulps before hurrying towards the music store that Shinji and Asuka have disappeared into.
I also notice with some satisfaction that this time he is carrying himself properly, standing tall and allowing his broad shoulders to fill the entirety of his elegant black and white suit. A marked improvement over his previous behaviour that is actually garnering his oblivious self some attention of the female kind, too.
Of course, nowhere near the levels the Princess achieved, but still. You should wear other stuff than that old tracksuit of yours more often, Suzuhara, I'm sure that Hikari-chan would appreciate it.
What little of his expression that I can make out through the mask is still a far cry from what it should be, but I'll let that one slide for the moment. That's not really that important right now, anyway.
All things considered, I don't understand Ball-kun's reluctance to wear the suit. Sure, he's not pulling off the character perfectly (or even remotely decently, for that matter), but, all in all, the stylish costume makes him look pretty handsome.
But enough about him. Let me see if I can... Oh! There she is! Hikari-chan and her adorable magical girl costume!
And, wow, she looks every bit as good as I expected, perfectly in line with every other one of the Sailor Scouts, indeed. Piggy-chan is obviously far from comfortable with moving through the small crowds while wearing the dress but, true to my word, cosplayers have started to flood the area already, so she doesn't really stand out that much.
If all goes according to plan she won't have to worry about her state of dress for much longer, anyway.
In any case, she looks good.
Oh, yes. I get the feeling that Asuka won't be the only one getting tongue-tied today.
And it shall be glorious!
On second thought, maybe I should stop cackling like a madwoman; Ota-kun is starting to look at me weirdly.
Nah, screw it! The plan works, all's going according to schedule!
Eat your heart out, creepy tinted-glasses schemer! You are nothing against the genius of Mari Illustrious Makinami!
You are so predictable, Ball-kun.
Then again, I would have seriously kicked your ass had you not offered your jacket to poor Hikari-chan. No young man worth his salt would allow a fair maiden to be cold, after all, not if there's anything he could do about it.
Oh yes, just a scant few seconds after witnessing Ball-kun's and Piggy-chan's exit from the music store (in hot pursuit of our two main targets, of course), I can already tell that the secondary objective of Operation Unsinkable is all but achieved. My clever disguises have served their true purpose, and those two can barely keep their eyes off of each other.
Yes. A second ship has just hit the water, today.
And once again, chess mistress Makinami strikes, leaving all of the forces acting against her confused and in disarray.
I would go with a lengthy elaboration of my reasoning and theories as to why this plan was 100% foolproof, but I don't want to bore you with the details. I doubt that many would be able to understand my sheer genius, anyway!
So instead, I'll just keep things simple and go with this:
Just. As. Planned.
Sure, this development will no doubt lessen the efficiency of Kitten-3 and 4 on what was supposed to be their primary objective, but I have plenty of redundant lookouts ready to pick up their slack. I just have to tell Ota-kun to change radio frequencies and...
"All Overwatch elements, be advised," I call out into the device. "Secondary targets have just cleared the absolute borderline. All operational personnel is to maintain watch on Primary targets at all times, over and out."
Soon after I relay my orders, eight different team leaders answer back with their agreement, all in perfect operational order. And just like that, thirty-two more people have now more actively joined Operation Unsinkable, with very clear orders in mind.
And these guys and gals are fully aware of their duties, too, thank God.
Now that I think about it, it's almost time for Ota-kun and I to start relocating to our secondary headquarters, so I should probably relay any remaining orders as well before we start packing.
"All Event personnel, be advised," I call out once more. "We will be starting all Operation Unsinkable events in T minus ten minutes. I repeat, we will be starting all events in T minus ten minutes; remember, stick to your event planning and respect the timeline, because we don't have a Load button on this one, people. I know that you guys won't disappoint, though; and to all reserve personnel, be ready to start sub-operation Great Wall at my command."
All of the different team leaders (many more, this time) voice their agreement, and I put back the radio in its rightful place once more.
That should do it for the time being. Now, to take a short peek at our two lovebirds before we start our relocation.
Muhuhuhu... I like what I'm seeing!
Puppy-kun and the Princess are finally starting to look like they are enjoying themselves, or at least that's what their broad smiles are telling me! Asuka-chan, especially, looks remarkably relaxed at this point, and it's been a long time since I last saw her looking this happy and composed, too.
I couldn't ask for a better sitrep to start the second phase of Operation Unsinkable with!
Well then, let's get cracking! I only have to ask Ota-kun to instruct me on how to pack up all of these things and...
Wait a minute. Aida is using a pair of binoculars himself? And he is doing his grumpy face, too.
...Just what is he looking at?
Hmm. This development demands further investigation, good thing that we have the time to spare.
Time to go sneaky!
I quickly move behind Ota-kun, with the speed and stealth that characterise me, and look through my binoculars right over his shoulder with nary a sound. I imitate the angle and drop of his binoculars with mine, and I'm rewarded with a rough approximation of what he's looking at for my troubles.
And lo and behold, it's none other than our lucky couple that has my dear partner's attention.
...Interesting. Very interesting. I think I just found the reason behind Ota-kun's crankiness today, or at least something that would go very far towards explaining it.
I mean, if Aida had a thing for the Princess and he was forced to help set her up with someone else (a close friend, at that!), it's no wonder that he would be pissed. I know I would be, at least.
But I'm not 100% behind this theory, to be honest, as I've never witnessed anything that would imply Aida having any romantic interests towards the Princess, but I've been wrong before. Just not as often as I'm right.
No one's perfect, and all that. Despite what the Princess may claim.
But jealousy would explain many of Kensuke's more... caustic claims today, especially considering that they were aimed mostly at me, the one person that is responsible for all of this.
Yes, this is an avenue of attack that is worth exploring thoroughly.
And nothing beats the Hail-Mari tactic when it comes to testing theories! Here goes nothing!
Aida jumps at least a foot in the air and quickly turns around to face me, hanging onto the steel railing behind him for support.
Huh. Talk about a feeling of déjà vu.
"What's the big idea, you idiot!? You trying to murder me or what?!"
The sandy-haired boy in front of me glares at me through the lenses of his glasses, as he attempts to calm down his racing heart. Hell, I can almost hear the out-of-control beating from here.
Sigh. What a drama queen. It was just an itsy bitsy little scare! Oh well, it's not like he's not playing into my hands. Shaken people are more likely to blurt out something they don't mean to, after all.
So let's get on with it!
"...Now I get it!"
I make sure to press well into Aida's personal space while looking him in the eye.
"W-What do you get?"
"You," I raise my right hand skywards before decisively pointing it down in the rough direction of our primary targets, "are angry at the fact that Shinji-kun's the one down there and not you, are you?"
Ota-kun's shocked into silence for a few moments, eyes wide, before he noticeably swallows and looks away from me.
"...I-I've got no idea w-what you are talking about?"
I do know that you are one terrible liar, though.
"You like the Princess, don't you, Aida-kun?"
"Me?! Like the D-Devil?! T-That's bullshit!"
Right, that totally didn't sound suspicious, Ota-kun. At all. And I suppose that you blushing hard enough to melt rock is just a coincidence, too?
Come on, Aida. Why don't you get yourself a neon-sign that says 'Crushing on the Princess' while you are at it?
"Out with it, Ota-kun," I insist, in my no-nonsense tone. "You know I can be very persuasive."
Before long, our eyes are locked in what can only be described as a titanic clash of wills. Unfortunately for Ota-kun, however, I have plenty of experience at these, courtesy of the Princess, and the intensity of his meanest glare really doesn't compare to one of Asuka's.
And that would be when she's having a good day.
Shortly after, Kensuke inevitably gives up and visibly slumps with a heavy sigh, tiredly glaring back at me.
"Okay, fine. I do. Not like it matters, anyway."
Why wouldn't it matter?
"I mean," Kensuke continues bitterly, rising back to his feet and turning his back to me. "I'm just stupid little Kensuke, the guy with the weird hobbies that is always in the background and that barely anyone remembers. I never stood a chance to begin with, considering how popular Sohryu is. Not as the socially-awkward and uninteresting person that I am, anyway."
I... well. I can't really dispute that. Not the angsty self-deprecating part of Aida's monologue, mind you (that's a load of crock), but the part about not really standing a chance with the Princess. I don't see much potential in such a relationship, to be honest, they are not really made for each other.
But let's go step by step: I should probably think about cheering up Ota-kun somehow, or at least coming up with some way of comforting the guy. Not only because that's the humane thing to do, but also because he's sort of useless to me in this state.
"Hey, what's with all that defeatist talk? You have plenty of good qualities, Aida-kun!"
"Oh yeah?" Aida throws me an almost disinterested look over his shoulder. "Name one."
I wasn't expecting for him to be so direct about it.
"You said it, you name it. Go ahead."
"Oh! R-Right! You're..." Think, Mari! Think! "...techie?"
Well, that was lame. Maybe Ota-kun does have a point about being easy to miss if that was the first thing that came to my mind.
Because sure, Makinami, you don't know Ball-kun and Ota-kun as personally as the others but you can do much better than that with Suzuhara.
Aida looks unimpressed, obviously. But I'm not defeated yet, time to rally my forces!
"No, of course not! I mean, that's not fair, putting me in the spot like that! You just caught me off-guard, that's all!"
"So? On the spot reactions and thoughts are bound to be the most honest."
"Quit it with the cynicism, already! Point is, Asuka and you just wasn't meant to happen, but that doesn't mean that there is anything inherently wrong with you! Stop it with the doom and gloom, damn it!"
"There is no doom and gloom here, I'm just annoyed." Aida turns his head again and goes back to looking through his binoculars. "Can't a guy be annoyed at having his hopes dashed, or what?"
"Not today! Today we all end up the day in high spirits, and that includes you, mister!"
And I'll be damned if I'm going to allow Operation Unsinkable to fail on that front! Today is a day for celebration and not for wallowing in self-pity! Granted, that would have been much easier to achieve had I known about this little crush beforehand, but I'm not going to let that deter me.
Kensuke Aida is ending the day with a smile on his face, or I'm not called Mari Illustrious Makinami!
The vehemence of my words seem to have little effect on Ota-kun, though. Looks like I'm not going to be winning him over by awing him. Not yet, at least.
Time for plan B.
"Fine!" I exclaim, loud enough to make damn sure that I have Ota-kun's unbridled attention. "You want a date, I'll give you a date. Just give me the name of the lucky girl and I'll work my magic once we get back to school!"
Because sure, Aida and the Princess doesn't really work, but that doesn't mean that I don't have plenty of candidates with potential in mind. I wouldn't at all mind setting something up in order to heal the small wound my carelessness has caused. A good Commander must reward his soldiers from time to time, anyway.
"Seriously, Makinami," Aida answers lowly. "Stop pulling my leg before I get really pissed."
Ota-kun doesn't seem to be seeing it my way, though. Does he think I'm messing with him, now of all times, or what? I wouldn't do that!
"Hey, I'm serious here! My services always offer guaranteed results, and I'm not above helping a friend in need!" I pause, taking a moment to rearrange my thoughts. "So, who's it going to be? Yamagishi? Kirishima? Chidori or Makise, perhaps?"
I receive no answer for some time, the far away murmurs of the people below us the only sound to fill the deadly silence. And I'm starting to get a bit nervous, too, to be honest.
Because if I lose Aida at this point, recovering him before today is over will become little more than a pipe-dream. Therefore, I can't really afford to fail. Not if I want to achieve total operational victory today.
No one left behind, and all that. This Mama-Cat looks after her own.
However, and much to my joy, Ota-kun eventually utters a single word:
And one that I wasn't really expecting.
"Tanaka?" Damn, Ota-kun's aiming high. Not impossible, though. "That might be a bit of a tall order, but I'll see what I can work-"
"No!" He suddenly interrupts me, pointing down to a specific spot in the street below. "I mean that Tanaka is down there with some friends."
I blink. Wasn't expecting that one, either.
I rush over to his side and take out my own binoculars, quickly pointing them over towards the area Aida is pointing out.
And Ota-kun is right. Walking over from the opposite end of the district are a small group of girls that I know quite well. Or at least I know their leader, anyway.
Chihiro Tanaka, quite the nice girl. Active, charming, determined, and above-average as far as looks go. I don't know her too deeply, mind you, but I've really liked the few times I've chatted with her.
Unfortunately, she also hates the Princess' guts, and the opposite stands true as well. Any interaction between those two would be a textbook case of oil and water, if only the water was boiling and the oil was on fire.
Add in a magnitude nine earthquake or two to the mix too, for good measure, and you'll have a pretty close approximation of what any encounter between those two tends to go like.
Which presents a bit of a problem to our current situation, as both parties are unknowingly on a direct collision route. And we obviously can't have that. I'm not going to be ending the day with a Titanic incident, thank you very much. This ship's staying afloat no matter what!
And I suppose all the poor innocents that would be caught in the crossfire would also be thankful for my intervention.
So, time to bring out the countermeasures! And I have just the right answer to this dark event...
Oh yes... Sparkles will do nicely.
I draw my phone with enough speed to shame any cowboy and quickly tap my fingers on the screen a few times. Soon enough, the familiar tone of a connection attempt is reaching my ear and, after a few seconds, a male and melodious voice comes through the device.
"No offense, Makinami-san, but I was hoping that you would not call."
Polite as always, this guy never fails to bring a smile to my face.
"We are all always hoping for things to go one way or another, Sparkles. I have need of your services."
"Very well, then. However, I would appreciate it if, at least, you called me by name," there's a hint of reproach to his voice, almost imperceptible. "In any case, what would you have me do?"
Calling him by name? A small price to pay, I suppose.
For those of you not in the know, by the way, this is Kaworu Nagisa, violinist, painter, poet, and probably a few things more, all rolled into one. I suppose you could call him an aspiring artist hoping to follow in the footsteps of folks such as Michelangelo; he has all the quirks befitting of one, at least.
He's a bit weird, but a nice guy, nonetheless.
Okay, fine, he's a lot weird.
That doesn't stop him from having a sizable amount of unwanted fangirls back at school, though. If you wanted to simplify matters, you could say that he's the male version of Asuka, as far as romantic followers go.
Too bad that the romantic inclinations of all those poor girls are doomed to fail miserably. But that's neither here nor now.
"Nagisa-kun, you are to intercept and distract target Tanaka and her entourage," I command clearly and with no room for error. "The targets are currently in the southern part of the shopping district, and close to the fashion stores on the western side of the street. Contact between Tanaka and objective Princess is to be avoided at all costs. I assume you are nearby and properly geared?"
"Yes, I am indeed close to that position. I have been watching Shinji-kun and Sohryu-san for quite some time now, actually," a small sound makes it through the line and, for some reason, I can picture Nagisa sporting that small smile that makes the girls go crazy. "The both of them are shining brightly, today."
I'm not too sure about what Sparkles means with 'shining brightly', but I suppose it's his poetic way of saying that Shinji and Asuka look good together. And I couldn't agree more!
"They are, aren't they?" I don't even try to keep the grin off my face. "But you didn't answer my question, Nagisa-kun. Did you come properly geared?"
A hint of hesitation breaks the chain of quick answers he has been offering me.
"...I suppose. I dressed as 'smartly' as I could."
"Perfect! Then go ahead and do your thing!"
"About that..." Sparkles responds haltingly. "What is this 'thing' that you speak of, Makinami-san? I cannot for the life of me-"
"Don't sweat the details!" I interrupt with my best reassuring voice. "Just be yourself and invite them over for some coffee, or chocolate, or whatever! Chop, chop! Time is of the essence!"
And we can't have you figuring out why you're so influential with the fair gender, after all. You wouldn't be half as good at it if you were aware of your own abilities, Sparkles!
"Very well, if you say so." A deep (but elegant) sigh reaches my ears. "But just so we are clear: I will not owe you a favour anymore after today, am I correct?"
"That's right," I confirm. "You won't owe me anything anymore. But let's not kid ourselves: considering that Shinji-kun is involved, you would have done this even if I had asked you to do it for free."
Again that small sound, and again that same smile makes its way into my head.
"Yes, I suppose that you are right," the line goes silent for a moment before our dear artist comes through once again, this time sounding way more serious than I ever remember hearing him. "I see Tanaka-san, moving to make contact."
Huh. That was a very efficient shift from casual to professional mode, Nagisa. Kudos to you.
"All right! Best of luck to you, Sparkles! Over and out!"
And with that, I kill the connection and pocket my phone back into its rightful place, before pulling my binoculars once more.
It doesn't take me long to find Nagisa among the crowds of people and, he is right, he did come pretty stylishly dressed. It's nothing too groundbreaking, mind you, just some jeans, a shirt and a jacket, but it's a definite step up for a soul that is otherwise as fond of school uniforms as Puppy-kun is.
Those two should grow out of that silly habit as soon as possible, by the way. We girls deserve our fair share of eye-candy, after all.
In any case, contact has been made, and Sparkles is now furiously working to complete his part of the objective. It shouldn't be too hard for him, he's barely spoken and I can already see two of the girls melting at the knees.
"Sparkles?" Ota-kun asks disbelievingly from my right. "Why would you call Nagisa Sparkles, of all things? Does he glow in the sun like in that crappy movie or what?"
"Mufufufu... You'll see."
Oh, Ota-kun. How ignorant you are of the things that make the world go 'round.
Soon enough, however, a chance to remedy my partner's deficiency appears. By this point, pretty much every girl in Tanaka's entourage is itching to accompany Sparkles to the end of the world, save for Tanaka herself. She's proving to be a tough nut to crack, and I can see that Nagisa is starting to feel a bit flustered at her lack of cooperation.
Flustering that leads artist-boy to smiling and touching his hair with his left hand in what I have long since identified as a nervous tic.
And then it happens.
The area immediately around Nagisa's face lights up in a colourful show of... well, sparkles, drawing the attention of almost every female within a fifteen metre radius, and promptly leaving them slack-jawed.
I am mostly immune to its effects at this time, mainly due to the fact that I'm watching through a pair of binoculars and not via naked eye. Otherwise, there is virtually no female on Earth who can resist the allure of such a lightshow.
Needless to say, Tanaka folds pretty much immediately after that. And soon after, the small group is heading over to one of the cafés in the area, to chat and gush over this and that.
An experience that is bound to be pretty awkward for poor Sparkles.
Do not worry, though, his sacrifice shall be perfectly detailed in the after-action debriefing report but, for now: Mission Accomplished!
"Did he just...?" I hear Ota-kun gasp in disbelief. "No way. Must have been a trick of the light, a reflection or something."
Disbelieving of your own eyes, Aida-kun? Don't worry, I am here to educate you, after all.
"Oh no, Ota-kun, it is no trick of the light! It is an unparalleled combination of many diverse factors: facial structure, gentle and sensitive nature, artistic inclinations and many, many more!" I raise my arm high into the air, for I am about to speak an irrefutable truth! "They all lead to one undeniable outcome, however: Sparkles is the perfect Bishonen!"
"The perfect what?" I don't like that doubtful tone, mister. "That doesn't even make any sense! And even if it were true, why would that allow him to freaking twinkle?!"
"Tsk, tsk, tsk, Ota-kun," each one of my syllables is punctuated by a gentle stab of my index finger into his chest. "It's common knowledge that all Bishonen possess the innate ability to refract light at will!"
Aida merely pushes the offending appendage away and narrows his eyes at me.
"Something tells me that I want to stay as far away as possible from your 'common knowledge' as I can," Hey! That's rude! "In any case, I thought that Nagisa was... you know."
"'You know'?" What is he-? "Oh, that! Yeah, he is! But that doesn't detract from his Bishonen factor at all, you know? It merely skyrockets it even more!"
"Who was even talking about Bishonen anymore...?" Ota-kun shakes his head and signals me to stop. "Whatever, I think that I'm going to abandon this argument while I still can."
What? But I still haven't managed to make you see the error of your ways! You can't do that!
...Okay, fine, be a stick in the mud, Ota-kun.
We remain in a comfortable silence after that, with me starting to pack up my things and Ota-kun looking through his binoculars at the street below.
What he's looking at, I really don't need to say.
And so I silently continue my work for a few minutes. At least, until my partner's musings reach my ears.
"She looks happy," he says, neutrally. "Way happier than I have ever seen her, in fact."
Well, here we go. I knew that this would happen sooner or later; Aida seems to have calmed down considerably, at least. That should make this much easier.
"I'm sorry to say, Ota-kun," I answer lightly, but not too lightly. "But you never really stood a chance against the childhood friends card. I mean, it's a cliché because it's true!"
That draws a heavy sigh from the boy in question.
"...Rub it in a little bit more, why don't you?" He took that little joke in stride. That's a good sign. "Man, I wish I brought my camera. She looks really beautiful, smiling like that."
'Tis a shame, indeed. No argument there.
"So..." Ota-kun eventually asks. "No chance whatsoever?"
...Sigh. Time to stomp on the tattered remains of this young man's hopes. I really wasn't expecting having to do this today.
"I don't see it happening," I shake my head in the negative. "Sorry, Aida-kun."
His head immediately hangs down in disappointment. ...Man, do I hate to be the bearer of bad news.
I'm not going to let it end like this, though. I stand by what I said earlier: everyone is going to end this day with a smile on their face!
And I think I know exactly how to do it.
"Listen to me, Kensuke."
I make sure to use his first name, just so I can have his undivided attention.
It works like a charm.
"You cannot have Asuka's heart, that much is true. It belongs to someone else, and there's nothing that you can do about that." ...Man, sounding indisputable is turning out to be kinda hard at this time. Deep breaths, Makinami. "But there is something that you can do: you can help me make sure that this date ends up a resounding success, and that the girl you like can go to bed today feeling the happiest she has ever been. I mean, sure, it's not as great as being directly responsible for that happiness, but every war needs its fair share of unsung heroes, don't you think?"
I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts, but make sure to press on before I lose Aida's attention.
"Plus, it's not like you won't ever get your own chance at making someone that happy," I throw the poor guy the best smile I can muster. "My previous offer is still standing, you know?"
I watch as Ota-kun's face contorts and shifts into a few different expressions. At this point, I get the feeling that he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Ultimately, however, the sound of chuckling does reach my ears.
"...That's got to be some of the corniest stuff I've ever heard."
I can also make out a few hiccups here and there, mixed in between the boy's mirth, but I sure as hell am not going to mention it.
"Tsk, first the Princess and now you! Everyone's a critic!" I respond in mock anger. "You try being in my shoes for a while and doing better, okay?"
Aida just keeps on laughing, but I can hear the chuckling steadily overcoming the whimpers.
And I can't help but feel a bit proud of that.
"Fine, you win," Ota-kun manages between fits of chuckles. "I'll help you with what remains of this crazy scheme of yours."
He then looks at me with glistening eyes and a sad smile before carrying on.
"But I'll also say no to you finding me a girlfriend. Let that happen on my own merits, all right?"
Wait, what?! He's refusing my services?! The gall of this guy! And after I was so nice to him!
Oh, the betrayal! Oh, the humanity!
"Hmph! Your loss!" I purse my lips into my trademarked adorable pouting look. "And I was actually looking forward to that, too!"
Way to spoil my fun, Ota-kun!
My name's Toji Suzuhara, and I'm sort of conflicted at the moment.
I mean, against all odds, the day hasn't gone as badly as I initially expected, and even having to dress up in this silly Combat Butler thingy hasn't been as terrible as I thought.
Plus, I've managed to witness a side of the Devil that I never would have imagined existed. Both she and Shinji have been completely different persons during the past hour, all smiles and jokes and looks! Hell, they've been holding hands for a while now and even I have to admit that their initial embarrassment was sort of cute.
It was also pretty surreal, to the point that I've been periodically pinching myself just to make sure I'm not dreaming.
The Class Rep on the other hand, has been gushing almost non-stop.
Speaking of, I don't know who was responsible for dressing Horaki up but they made a hell of a job. It's common knowledge among the boys in class that the Class Rep has a bit of a cute factor going for her (sadly overshadowed by her tyrannical rule), but I never thought that letting her hair down could make such a difference!
I mean, she looks really good right now, and the mini-skirt showing as much leg as it does sure helps matters as well. I sure as hell don't mind the eye candy!
So yeah, the day could have definitely been worse.
Which actually makes me kinda sad at this time, considering that a veritable human-wall-out-of-nowhere has caused us to lose track of Shin-man and the Devil. To make matters worse, all communications with our crazy Commander have gone silent.
I'm afraid that Operation Unsinkable is over for the both of us.
...What now, then?
I mean, sure, I can just go home, but that feels like kind of a waste considering that I'm already here. On the other hand, wandering around alone doesn't sound like the best of times, either.
Maybe Horaki wants to hang out for a while? I can definitely think of worse company, after all, both in looks and personality.
Hey, it's worth a try at least.
"So... Wanna go grab something to eat?"
I seem to have caught the Class Rep flat-footed. I guess the idea did sort of come out of nowhere.
"I mean, there's no way we are finding those two without Makinami's help and, since we're here..." I scratch the back of my head. Never was any good at talking to girls, really. "We might as well, you know what I mean?"
"Oh. S-Sure," Horaki blushes slightly and signals at her bare legs. "B-But shouldn't we g-get changed first?"
...And miss out on the eye candy? I never thought I'd be saying this, but the cosplay can stay!
"It'll be fine, Class Rep, we'll miss too much time if we do that anyway. Let's go!" I turn and get going before Horaki can voice any objections. "How about Suzu's?"
"Huh, what? W-Wait up, Suzuhara-kun!"
And so, the Class Rep and myself go on our own way, intending to make the most of what remains of the afternoon. I'm sure it will be pretty neat.
Unbeknown to me, however, several people report every one of our actions in real time and, in a van somewhere nearby, an Illustrious Mari Makinami grins widely.
"Umm... Sorry, Nagase-kun. The target reacting like that wasn't within the expected range of responses... But, hey, as a result of your injury, you can consider all of your debts repaid! Yeah, all of them! Sorry again! Get well soon, and bye!"
I let out a deep sigh and tap my phone to end the call. That didn't go as expected, and I guess I have no one else to blame but me for underestimating the Princess.
Ota-kun sends me a sympathetic look before handing me my mug, filled to the brim with hot chocolate fresh out of a new thermos. It was a truly a really good idea to bring more than one of those, and leave the ones I wasn't immediately using in the transport van.
Hot chocolate for the entire day! Or what's left of it.
I smile at the sandy-haired boy and accept his humble tribute, before taking a nice and hot gulp of the brown liquid. Aida responds in kind by raising his own mug towards his lips.
I lent him one of those, for anyone wondering. I thought that he more than deserved a little treat after proving himself exceedingly helpful during the last two hours. We're both currently in a bit of a lull after hearing the latest report of a semi-successful event.
You see, this latest event involved a trio of guys I know quite well. High-schoolers that are combining their studies with acting careers at some local theatres and aiming to become future actors. They also happen to be pretty good-looking, all things considered.
So, their objective was simple: wait until Shinji and Asuka became separated for whatever reason and use that opportunity to come in, and flirt a bit with the Princess. Nothing major, just enough to try and elicit a bit of a response from Shinji, before retreating away into the crowds again.
They weren't meant to be rude or anything like that, of course, and we certainly didn't get any reports about the actors stepping out of line at any time, but apparently the Princess needed very little provocation to respond with full and overwhelming force.
Which is to say, she kicked one of the actors directly in the groin. Hard.
...Poor Nagase-kun is going to have some real trouble with walking straight for some time.
Sigh. You've really got to work on that temper of yours, Princess...
Aida's questioning voice pulls me out of my thoughts.
"How was he?"
"Pissed, of course, but otherwise fine," I respond, in something in between a sigh and a chuckle. "I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up using this little fiasco to guilt-trip me into something, though."
At that, Ota-kun stops mid-sip and stares at me weirdly for a moment.
"Nothing bad, right?"
I blink back at him, slightly taken aback.
He's worried about me? How cute.
Not like there's anything to worry about, but still.
"Of course not, Ota-kun, just what kind of stuff have you been reading?" my question is laced with a knowing tone. "He'll probably just ask me to help him practice some lines sometime, or to accompany him to some event or another. Nothing strange or nefarious."
"Oh, umm... good to know," I can spy a bit of an embarrassed blush in his face. "And I guess I can't blame him for being annoyed, really. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
Yeah, you're right. But I bet that he won't stay mad for long.
In any case, you can come out from behind your mug now, Ota-kun.
"Anyway," Aida starts, deflecting the conversation away from his little faux-pas. "How come you managed to pull in so many people into this, Makinami-san? Don't tell me that all of them owe you favours..."
Huh? Oh, that. I guess that someone holding influence over such a huge group of people could be seen as strange, indeed. It's kinda weird that no one questioned me about this earlier, to be honest.
Then again, Ota-kun was pissed at the time, Ball-kun wanted to be pretty much anywhere else, and Piggy-chan had her own share of worries. I guess that they've had other stuff flying through their heads.
"Well, actually," I answer, smiling impishly. "Most of them do! You are in the company of one very sought-after individual, Ota-kun."
Your expression is golden, Aida.
"No, I'm not! With the exception of the logistics support battalion, who just happen to be guys and gals from my internet cosplay group, pretty much everyone else is either a volunteer, or someone that I have helped in some way in the past!"
Ota-kun looks at me intently, checking for any signs that may denote me messing with him. Obviously, he finds nothing.
"...Wow," Aida shakes his head in wonder. "You must have been busy, then."
"You bet I have! Why do you think I'm so hard to get a hold of, Ota-kun?"
"Heh. Yes, I guess that would explain that."
Aida chuckles to himself for a bit (no doubt in wonder at the perfection of my people's skills), before the both of us lapse into a comfortable silence after that, thinking about our own stuff.
But now that I think of it, I should probably get you guys up to speed, as well. We are currently on our secondary HQ post, at the top of an apartment block that overlooks the central lake in the city and the park that surrounds it. I've got it in good knowledge that this is the next stop in the route of the Princess and Puppy-kun, and so, we are ready and on standby for any eventuality.
How do I know about their date planning, you ask? I guess I could attribute it to my sheer genius, but that'd be sort of a lie.
The Princess pretty much asked me for my opinion on good date locations, so that was as good as directly telling me where they were going to go. Exactly the kind of intel I needed to plan Operation Unsinkable, and I have obviously put it to good use!
We've had several simple events going on as well during the past two hours, like shopkeepers complimenting the both of them on how good they looked together, and our Elite Shock Troopers 'accidentally' shoving Asuka into Shinji's arms, in order to cue in a close contact experience.
True professionals, those guys.
The accidental shoving events were cancelled after the fourth charge, though, per Ota-kun's recommendation. According to him, being shoved into Shinji's arms five times in less than fifteen minutes, while nice, might have been enough grounds for alarm bells to start ringing inside the Princess' head.
He kinda had a point there.
Since then, we've been mostly monitoring the date without interfering too much. Things are going really well as it is, and there's still one more major event remaining that should finish cinching things up for us.
And for them, of course.
But there's still some time left until that, which is why we are lazing around so much at the moment. There's really nothing else to do right now but to drink chocolate and enjoy the day.
But sitting around like this and thinking about stuff has reminded me that there's a little something that has been bothering me for a while now. Something regarding the very first thing that I discussed with Aida.
Wonder if he's up for indulging my curiosity?
Only one way to find out!
"Hey, Ota-kun. Mind if I ask you something?"
Aida brings his attention from inspecting the clouds and back towards me.
"What is it?"
"Well, it's about your ex-photo circle..."
I can see Aida's entire body tense up in response to my question.
"...What of it?"
That got him a bit more defensive than I wanted. Better calm the waters down a bit before I continue on.
"First of all, sorry for being so... bitchy about that earlier. I was a bit nervous back then and, even if I don't agree with what you did, I could have handled that conversation way better than I did."
And it's true, I've never done anything as big as Operation Unsinkable before after all, and it's not as if the stakes were anything but big, especially at the beginning. I was jittery with anxiousness and excitement in equal measures for a good part of the afternoon, and I might have ended up taking out a few of those negative feelings on poor Ota-kun.
"...Don't worry about it," he answers, redirecting his gaze towards the inside of his mug. "I had almost forgotten about that, to be honest."
Well, you are not making it sound all that believable, but it's nice of you to try and reassure me, Aida.
"Thanks, that's a load off my shoulders, Ota-kun, but that's not everything I wanted to clear up," far from it. "I mean, why did you set up the whole thing in the first place? I know that the photos weren't cheap, and the risks that you were taking were anything but small. You must have made a lot of money, but what was so important for you to willingly risk that much?"
In light of the recent discoveries I've got a theory in mind regarding that, but I don't really have much to contrast it with, really. And nothing better than getting it straight from the source's mouth, right?
Aida doesn't seem too keen on sharing, though. Maybe I could pressure him a little by revealing my suspicions?
"Come on, you can tell me!" I insist, in as much of an enticing voice as I can manage. "Was it something for the Princess?"
For a few seconds, Aida seems to engage in a short skirmish with himself, before finally shaking his head and answering bluntly.
"No, nothing like that."
Huh, would you look at that curve ball. And I thought I had him all figured out, too!
So, if it wasn't the Princess... What was it, then?
With a deep sigh, Ota-kun continues before I can question him again.
"Remember that car accident Toji's family got themselves involved in back in June?"
...Okay. That was unexpected.
I know exactly what he's talking about, however.
"Yeah, nasty thing from what I recall. It's a miracle that no one died."
"And thank goodness for that." He pauses for a moment here, probably thinking about what to say next. "You do remember what happened to Toji's little sister, though, right?"
Ball-kun's little sister? Sakura, wasn't it? Yeah, I remember.
Oh. I think I know where this is going...
"She injured her legs quite badly, didn't she? Spent a lot of time recovering at the hospital. Didn't she come out last month?"
"She did. As lively and full of energy as ever, the little runt," he confirms with a good-humoured grunt. "She has been driving her family crazy ever since, but I can't really blame her after being stuck to a bed for the better part of six months."
"Must have been tough."
"You bet. Toji, Shinji and myself visited her pretty frequently and, looking at that girl's face during the beginning of the treatment, I had to constantly remind myself that she was the same Sakura that I've known since she wore diapers."
Well, I can't really comment on how the girl looked before the accident, but I have to agree with Ota-kun when he says that she didn't look especially well after it. Not in the one or two times I saw her when visiting with Hikari and Asuka, at least.
The answer to my initial question is pretty obvious at this point, though.
"So, it was something for her, then?" Aida throws me a quizzical look. "The money you raised. You bought something for Sakura, didn't you?"
"Yeah," he confirms with a nod of his head. "Laying in a hospital bed is not fun for anyone, but least of all for a six year old that's known for being hyperactive. She was bored beyond tears, and she was also starting to sound more and more depressed with each passing day."
"And you decided to do something about it?"
"She's a huge fan of the 'Genesis' series, but the TV in her room didn't have any of the channels that broadcast it." Really? Must have been a pretty crappy selection they have in the hospital then, considering how popular the damn thing is. Hell, just ask the Princess! "So I decided that I would get her the Collector's edition of the series, with all of the seasons and the figurines and all that."
I nearly spit the mouthful of chocolate I was drinking at that.
"Wait. All of it?!"
There's no way in hell I heard that right.
"All of it."
And of course, Ota-kun confirms the preposterous fact without missing a beat.
"But it's like, twelve seasons long! And that's without counting all the extras! The entire thing must have cost a fortune!"
"115.500 yen, to be exact."
A hundred and fifteen... thousand?!
That's... That's a lot of money.
And Ota-kun just dropped the number as if it was nothing. What the hell?
That's just... wow. My mouth must be making a great impression of a fish right about now.
"And... couldn't you have worked part-time for it?"
I don't know if what I just asked even makes any sense, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around the information I've just heard.
Aida just shakes his head in the negative.
"With the kind of part-time jobs that were available in the area, Sakura would have been out of the hospital by the time I raised the money. I also didn't want Toji or his folks to catch wind of what I was planning. They already had enough problems at the time without anyone else butting into their family matters..."
Oh, right. Suzuhara's family went through a bit of economical trouble at that point. I heard that Ball-kun couldn't make it to the regional basketball championship during the summer because of that. I see why Aida thinks that they could have taken his meddling as a bit of an insult, especially with something as expensive as that.
"And since I needed the money as soon as possible," he continues. "Well, my little circle was the only thing that came to mind on short notice. Worked like a charm, too, much better than I expected."
I... don't know what to say, both to Ota-kun's revelation and the monetary side of things. I mean, I knew that the circle had moved a lot of money, but I didn't know that the total amount reached that high.
Hell, I might just propose to Ota-kun that we revive the circle with some willing participants. Imagine the amount of stuff I could buy with that kind of money!
The willing participants themselves might be kinda hard to come by, though...
"When I finally managed to buy the Collector's edition I left the box and all the extra stuff at home and brought Sakura the DVDs and the figurines. Said that a cousin of mine had gifted them to me a while ago, and that I didn't mind passing them along to Sakura. Neither Toji nor his folks were knowledgeable enough on the series to call me out on my story, so they accepted the gift without question. Sakura was overjoyed, of course."
And with that, Aida shrugs his shoulders and takes another sip of his chocolate.
And then a second one, followed by a third.
Eventually, I manage to get enough of the gears in my brain working to say something.
"I... I see."
Yeah, I know. It's lame but it's also about the only thing that's coming to mind right now.
Wow, talk about a surprise in the chamber, Ota-kun. Or a dozen of them. You've managed to leave Mari Illustrious Makinami completely speechless, and that's not by any means a simple thing to do.
But I kinda have to say something, don't I? I mean, I was the one that asked in the first place. Never mind the fact that the conversation didn't go even close to what I expected.
"Well," I start, somewhat awkwardly. "I can't say that taking advantage of the urges of our male classmates is the best thing I've ever heard but..."
A sudden and out of place chuckle from Aida catches my attention.
"Hey! What's so funny?"
And why are you suddenly looking so smug?
"Oh, nothing," he explains, before taking a small sip of his drink. "Just the fact that my best clients were actually women."
Yeah, it's come to the point where my mouth is automatically repeating the first thing my brain can think of. I really don't think I can take many more groundbreaking revelations at this point, Ota-kun.
"Someone has a faulty information network, doesn't she?" he explains with a half-grin. "Who said that I only sold pictures of our female classmates? I mean, why would I cut down on my market opportunities, considering that I needed the money quickly? I'll let you know, by the way, that the male swimming and basketball teams are insanely popular among the fair gender."
...Wait, did Ota-kun just blindside me?!
He totally did, and he did that on purpose!
The bastard! This cannot stand! I'm the one that blindsides people! Find your own hobby, Ota-kun!
In any case (and unnecessary gloating on Ota-kun's part aside), I guess that kinda settles the whole photography circle thing. And I think I'll forget about the whole event, to be honest.
I mean, his methods may have been questionable but, ultimately, Aida did what he did for a good cause, and I really can't fault him on that.
Actually, I think I want to use this new information for his benefit.
...And for a little bit of payback, of course, Makinami-style!
I can't stop a smirk from decorating the side of my face at the thought. The side Aida cannot see, thankfully.
"Well~," I start, in a sing-song voice. "In light of these new developments, I'd like to amend my previous statement, Ota-kun. If you don't mind, that is~."
Aida tenses up instinctively at my tone. A smart reaction, but a useless one as well.
"Previous statement?" the poor guy has 'puzzled' written all over his face. "What previous statement?"
I send him the very best of my smiles. The one kind that has never failed to turn any male I met into butter.
And judging by Kensuke's sudden blushing, it doesn't disappoint this time, either.
"You're techie, sure, but I find that you're also a very kind-hearted young man. And generous, too, almost to a fault. Do those work as a pair of good qualities~?"
I bat my eyelashes for added effect and Aida gulps loudly, before losing himself into a bunch of stammered nonsense.
I can't blame the guy. After all, I have it in good knowledge that this secret weapon of mine is classified as a weapon of mass destruction in at least twenty countries.
"I-I... It- It was n-"
"And don't tell me it was nothing, by the way," I mercilessly cut the attempt of an answer he managed to rally together. "I can't think of many people that would go as out of their way as you did for a bed-ridden young girl that was bored and slightly depressed. Hell, I'm almost tempted to say that the risks you took don't really justify what you wanted to do but, well, who am I to speak for your motivations, right?"
At this point, I think he's had enough retribution to last him what's left of the day. Let's just be merciful and close the conversation with a final parting gift, shall we?
"In any case," I wink charmingly. "I'm glad that I didn't report you back then."
It is at this point that I make an exaggerated act out of taking a look at my watch, finally allowing Ota-kun to recover a bit of a semblance of rational thought.
"Oh, wow! Would you look at the time!" I hurriedly set down my chocolate mug and start walking over to the radio device. "I think it's time to get back to work! Don't you think, Ota-kun?"
Aida doesn't respond (still lost in the middle of rebooting his brain, I bet) but, as I walk past, I can see him smiling out of the reflection of my glasses.
He definitely has a cute smile, he should use it more often.
Yes, yes, yes!
That went perfectly! I knew that going through the effort of bringing that street painter into Operation Unsinkable would be absolutely worth it!
I mean, I knew that the guy was good, but I didn't think that he would manage such a masterpiece with just a few spray cans and some shaped cardboard! One of the support operatives in the area sent me a picture of the finished product a while ago and I tell you, it is amazing! Asuka and Shinji look almost life-like!
This is great! Last time I saw her, the Princess was tightly clutching the painting to her chest and positively beaming, Puppy-kun wasn't far behind her in the emotional spectrum, and the final lap of the date had pretty much surpassed my wildest expectations!
This is going so well indeed, that I have decided we are not going to be interfering anymore from here on out. I've just sent the RTB message to all active field operatives, in fact, and I just told Ota-kun to leave the radio equipment in the van. No need to set up HQ for a third time if we are just going to be spectators for the finale of the show, after all.
And what that finale entails, I really shouldn't have to tell you.
I've been scouring the street below up and down with my binoculars, so giddy with excitement that I feel like I'm about to blow up! Any moment now..., they should be arriving any moment now...
I jump slightly at Ota-kun's voice, as I was so focused on my scouting that I didn't hear him walk over beside me.
"Of course I am, everything's going swell! Aren't you?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
Aida's smile is somewhat forced, but I can tell that there's some genuine feeling behind his words, nonetheless.
Oh well, I guess I can brush his ego just a tiny little bit.
"Well, you have plenty of reasons to be happy and proud. None of this would have been possible without your technical expertise, Ota-kun, or, at the very least, it would have been quite a few orders of magnitude harder to pull off."
Out of the corner of my eye, I can spy a bit of a blush on his face. Not used to being complimented, are we?
"Thanks, I guess. But I would focus back on what you were doing, if I were you," my partner points his finger to one of the households below. "I don't think you want to miss what's about to happen."
I heed Aida's words and set the binoculars back in front of my eyes, only to find that Shinji and Asuka have somehow made it to the front gate of the Sohryu household completely unnoticed.
How in blazes did they make it there so quickly?! I wasn't talking to Ota-kun for that long now, was I?
In the middle of my bewilderment I happen to hear the sound of steps walking away somewhere behind me, and automatically bring my attention back to the person responsible.
"Wait! Aren't you going to..."
I start asking the first thing that pops through my mind and immediately realize the silliness of what I was about to say.
"Nah, I'll pass," Ota-kun nods towards the opposite side of the roof with his head. "I'll be back there if you need me."
Well, of course not, Makinami. Why would Aida want to watch the girl he likes kiss someone else? That would be just plain weird on his part.
It's a bit sad that he won't get a final satisfaction out of all of his hard work, though, and I don't like the note of wistfulness I heard in his voice, either. I bet he'll be fine in a while but, if not, I'll have to think of something to bring his mood up at least a little before the day ends.
Hmm... The whole maid outfit photography shoot is sounding more and more tempting with each passing minute...
But we can think about that later, while we pack up the few things that we brought up to this HQ location! Now, we focus on the goal we have been working towards for the entire day!
Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!
I can hear a chorus of voices in my brain repeating the same word over and over in a jubilant fashion, and it doesn't take long before I'm following the trend in whispers.
"Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!"
Shinji and Asuka are awkwardly standing in front of each other, making some small talk and no doubt trying to gather their courage for the final step.
They are also blushing hard enough to tint the entire neighbourhood red.
"Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!"
Come on, you two! You know what's coming next, so stop dilly-dallying! Oh and, Princess, no punches or slaps out of nowhere this time, okay?
"Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!"
And then, in the middle of my excited voyeurism, I hear the sound of an engine, followed by that of a car slowly making its way around the back of the block.
I feel a knot of fear forming in my stomach, and quickly take a look at the source of the noise.
And sure enough, I know that car.
No, no, no!
"Not now, you are not supposed to be here!" I involuntarily voice my thoughts as they run through my brain. "The four of you were going to be shopping for groceries until seven-thirty PM!"
My sudden exclamation must have alarmed Aida, because he's at my side in less than a second.
I point to the vehicle below, from where four figures we both recognize are stepping out.
"The Ikaris and Asuka's mom just arrived when they weren't supposed to, and they are about to go back home! The moment they walk in front of Asuka's building they are going to interrupt the moment, or even worse, catch them in the middle of it!"
You may think that I'm overreacting a bit, and I realize perfectly well that those two getting caught at this point is going to do little to endanger the overall success of Operation Unsinkable. Sure, they'll be embarrassed and teased to death by their respective mothers, but that's about it.
However, we are not aiming for a 'good enough' ending to this, not after everything we have achieved. We are aiming for a Perfect 10 at this time and we are almost done, damn it! I don't want this perfect day to receive any degree of sourness whatsoever!
I speak confidently, of course, but it's that same confidence (or an abundance of it) which has led me to get careless at the worst of times.
Damn it, damn it, damn it!
Why did you call off your armies while the battlefield's still roaring, you idiot! Chinese guy would be sorely disappointed with you!
Crap, crap, what now?! Think, Makinami, think! There must still be a way of turning this around, or running damage control at the very least!
Setting up the radio is out of the question, it would take too long and most of the operatives will have turned off their devices anyway. I could always use my phone to call someone, but who? Nagase-kun is the only one who lives close enough to provide support in any timely fashion but, well... considering his last brush with the Princess I'm afraid he is not going to be able to help us out any time soon.
...Guess that leaves Ota-kun and me to do something about it, I suppo-
...Wait, where is Aida?
I look around me and throughout the entire expanse of the rooftop, but I find no sign whatsoever of the sandy-haired boy.
That is, until I notice that the access door to the rooftop lies conspicuously open, as if someone had just gone through it and not bothered with closing it behind him.
Oh, crap. I guess Aida was a step ahead of me on that one. And probably a step too far away too, considering that he probably used the elevator to rush down as quickly as possible.
...The only elevator, mind you.
Shit, I can't make it down there in time anymore, not if Ota-kun has taken the only elevator down! Maybe if I had gone directly down when I first saw them, like he must have done...
Gah! What a time to get yourself stuck at a crossroads, girl! Now you are definitely stuck as an observer!
And if there's something I hate, it's to be left as an unwilling and powerless observer!
...Oh well, I guess I'll try to show my support in some way, since that's about the only thing I'm currently allowed to do.
There, that should do it. I hit 'send' and pocket my phone back into its rightful place, before taking hold of the binoculars once again.
And now I suppose that I'll just stay up here. And cross my fingers, or something.
...You better have something good in mind, Ota-kun.
My name is Kensuke Aida, and I don't know what I'm doing.
Or rather, I know what I'm doing but I have no idea about how I'm going to actually do it. But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.
Come on! Go faster, you piece of junk! You are going down, can't you do it any quicker?!
I feel something vibrate on my chest pocket and quickly take out my phone. There are still four floors to go (much to my chagrin), so I should have time for a quick peek before I have to start running like a madman.
...Damn, now that I think about it, I really should have warned Makinami before taking off like that, but it's not as if the idea went through my head at the time. All of the events up to me closing the doors of the elevator are sort of a blur, to be honest, mixing up on top of one another in one weird mish-mash.
All I know is that, when I saw the situation as it was presented to me, something in my mind compelled me to do something, right then and there. I guess the rest of my body just complied without question; and I get the feeling that it had something to do with that corny speech about smiles and beds. It must have become ingrained deep inside my head, or something, for it to have that much of an effect on me.
In any case, checking the phone... and speaking of, it's a message from Makinami.
Godspeed? Well, I appreciate the good intentions but how about some Godstrength, or some Godsmarts while you are at it? I'm sure that those will be a lot more useful in this situation!
The elevator doors finally open up and I sprint out, pocketing the phone with half a mind and nearly barrelling into an old couple that were about to enter the building. They start to angrily call out stuff (and I bet that my ears are going to be ringing for a while) as I hastily apologize, but I don't bother with them anymore and just keep on running.
...So, here I am. Racing through the almost deserted streets and trying to get to Shin-man's block as quickly as I possibly can, without any kind of plan and with the sweat that I'm going to build up as my only weapon. Do also keep in mind that I'm really not that great at improvisation, either, and that's probably being generous.
Truly, I have barely started and things are already looking grim. But I'm going to see this through to the end, no matter what.
...Man, talk about a bunch of words that I never expected to use together. That's some main character stuff, right there!
But still fitting. I mean, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the bravest of people, quite the opposite actually. I'm as non-confrontational as you get and yet, I'm feeling strangely determined at the moment, a kind of feeling in my heart that keeps on driving me forward.
And no, I'm not going to be giving a name to said feeling. The situation is corny enough as it is.
I run, and run, and run a bit more. Until, finally, I catch sight of my targets.
And I'm only slightly out of breath! Our P.E. teacher would be proud.
In any case, I hasten my run as much as I can, quickly closing the remaining distance. I slow to a stop a few metres away from the car and take a few deep breaths of air in order to satiate the needs of my beating heart. As I wait, I notice that most of the groceries that my target group went out to buy are already out of the vehicle, so time is of the essence here.
The three adults that are unloading said car also notice me, with varying degrees of surprise/curiosity.
And then, a small, laughing, rocket slams into my midsection from out of nowhere.
Oh, hey, little Rei-chan is here, too! And as cute as ever!
Adorable as you are, though, I would appreciate it if you remembered my name, you runt.
Shinji's little sister, by the way. She's seven and probably the closest we'll ever get to a chibi version of his mother. Hair colour, eye colour, you name it: it's the same.
A mother that just reprimanded her in such a tone that even I felt the instinctive need to straighten up. Sheesh, talk about a commanding presence.
Little Rei scrunches her face in that 'caught' expression that only young children are able to pull off, before letting go of me and bowing deeply.
"I'm sorry. Good evening, Aida-san."
And then she instantly goes back to glomping me.
Yui Ikari sighs deeply and rolls her eyes in mock exasperation. She then walks up to us and affectionately ruffles her daughter's hair.
"Forgive her, Aida-kun, Rei's manners are still a work in progress," Ikari then looks at me curiously. "Is something wrong, though? You look a bit unsettled."
Chibi-Yui jumps in with her own question before I have time to answer her mother, earning herself a disapproving look from the latter. She doesn't notice, though.
"I-I'm fine, Ikari-san, just a little winded, and good evening to you, too," I bow as well as I can manage with a seven year old hanging from my waist. "And I don't know where your brother is, Rei-chan. I haven't seen him all day."
"Oh..." a disappointed frown mars the girl's face for a second, before a look of realization suddenly dawns of her. "Oh! I know! I bet Shin-nii is with Asuka-nee! Is he? Is he?"
I unintentionally tense up at Rei's blind bulls-eye, but somehow manage to keep my facial expression from showing any tells whatsoever. I have to think of some way to deflect the conversation away from this topic, though, and as fast as possible!
Thankfully, a third voice joins the conversation before I'm forced to put my poker face to the test.
"Ha! Hell will freeze over before Asuka grows the guts to ask that boy out!"
And the voice of my saviour would be none other than that of Kyoko Sohryu-Zeppelin, Sohryu's mother and the Japanese part of her heritage. Their hair colours don't really match (with the mother sporting a blonde tint to hers), but, after hearing the mother speak, I get the feeling that they are a one-to-one match personality wise.
And, well... let's just say that if Sohryu grows up to look anything like her mother, she's not going to be losing popularity anytime soon.
"Don't be like that, Kyoko!" Yui lightly retorts. "The two of them just need some time, that's all."
"Right. About an eternity, if it comes down to my daughter, at least. And I really don't think Shin-chan's the kind to take the first step, either. You might have to start thinking of alternate plans for your grandchildren, Yui."
At that, the two of them launch into a light-hearted debate on the fine points of romance between their two children, pretty much tuning the rest of us out and going into a lot more detail than I could have ever asked for.
And yes, for those of you curious, it's as awkward as it sounds. I don't need to know about the crib adventures of those two and how they translate to their current situation, thank you very much.
Meanwhile, Rei keeps bombarding me non-stop with all kinds of questions, as she usually does. I get the feeling that she has noticed that I'm not paying as much attention to her as I normally do, and is trying to remedy the situation.
Sorry, Rei-chan. The situation stops me from playing with you right now, but I'll make it up to you next time.
I feel another vibration in my pocket and quickly take a look at my phone inbox. Makinami again:
'Princess and Puppy finally doing it! Keep busy!'
That reads all kinds of wrong. And I bet she did that on purpose, too.
But hey, things are going pretty well, all things considered! Much better than I expected, at least! Maybe I won't have to do anything anymore if those two keep on talking abo-
"Yui," a deep voice rumbles throughout the area, rooting me to the spot. "It's getting late."
...Oh, right, forgot about the fourth person here. And I don't know how, really, considering he's freaking terrifying: None other than Gendo Ikari, Shinji's dad.
Remember how I said that Rei-chan is pretty much a scaled-down version of her mother? Well, that doesn't really apply to the male half of the family.
I mean, sure, there's some physical resemblance between Shinji and his dad, but that's about it. They couldn't be more different personality-wise, mainly because Shinji doesn't sound like he's sentencing you to something every time he talks, or doesn't make you feel like he's staring into your soul every time he looks at you.
And I swear, those damn tinted glasses Shinji's dad brings everywhere don't help tone down the intimidation factor at all. It's really a wonder how such a scary man can be married to a kind-hearted woman like Yui-san.
It must be some sort of 'Beauty and the Beast' scenario, or something.
But focus back on what's important, Aida! Mr. Zero Facial Expression has just single-handedly screwed you over, after all!
Both Yui-san and Kyoko-san have stopped their gossip and are about to start walking again! And we are less than twenty metres away from the point of no-return!
At least Rei-chan has finally let go of me (probably after judging me un-fun for the day, I bet), and gone back to her mother's side. A good thing, too, or I'm sure that she would have eventually noticed the rivers of sweat starting to make their way down my back.
Think fast, Aida! What can I do to buy myself some time?
I know! I can tell them that Makinami is stuck up that building, and that I need help to get her back down!
...No, that sounds completely unbelievable after saying that you had no problems before! Even worse, they'll just tell you to call the police, or something!
What, then?! Fake some sudden sickness? Impossible, both of the women are certified doctors and will see straight through me! Make up some bullshit about there being something wrong with the car? And what exactly? You don't know jack about cars to make up something convincing!
Kidnap Rei and force everyone to stay their ground?!
...Just what the hell are you thinking, Aida?
I feel the phone vibrate for a third time. What now?!
'Princess shoving tongue down Puppy's throat. Need more time!'
Dammit, Makinami. There's a thing called too much information! And what's more, you're not helping!
And I wouldn't say no to any kind of help at this time, by the way! They are just ten metres away from causing a critical mission failure and I'm completely out of ideas to turn this around!
And then, from out of nowhere, a feeling of clarity invades me. I can feel the world slow down around me, as a sense of purpose starts to permeate every inch of my soul.
Actually, I do have an idea. If you can call something as crazy and suicidal as this an idea, anyway, as it involves risking the fury of the Ikari patriarch himself.
But this is pretty much the only shot I have left, isn't it? I mean, Gendo is the one bringing the rearguard while all of the women are up ahead, busy discussing their children. That means that, at least, the only one with a chance to see what I'm about to do is Gendo himself.
The problem is that this is freaking Gendo Ikari we are talking about. If the stories are true, there's a fairly sizable chance that, after this, I won't live to see the end of this day.
Through my sudden inner peace, a crisp picture of Sohryu's smiling face appears in my mind's eye.
Damn. Can I do this? Risking life and limb for the happiness of one girl?
...Heh. Who am I kidding? I've never seen Sohryu smile like she did today. I might have been an undercover witness to that little miracle, but I swear on my honour that I'll fight tooth and nail to protect it nonetheless!
With that sudden surge of conviction, I feel my jaw tighten, and my right foot step forward. My eyes lock onto the back of my target.
Yes... Yes! I can feel the voices of my ancestors, urging me forward! Urging me to fight for everything that's important to me until my last breath!
I hear, and I listen!
Hand me a bandana, for tonight Kensuke Aida rides the divine wind!
My left foot steps in front of my right, and soon enough, I'm charging forward in a glorious last stand! My target grows ever closer, and closer, and closer, until I'm finally at arm's reach!
I close my eyes and brace for impact.
Witness me, Asuka-chan!
And I strike with all of my being, bringing down my target to his knees with a pained grunt! Bags full of groceries fall down, as well, emptying their contents into the street.
I also fall down to the ground, in a not-so-glorious fashion. Right on my ass, incidentally.
"What in blazes...!"
But I have succeeded! Everyone has stopped in their tracks following my assault! Victory is mine!
"Aida-kun, Gendo-dear!" Yui-san hurriedly comes back to our position. "Are the two of you all right?"
And suddenly, the world goes back to real time, and my new-found courage abandons me just as quickly as it came.
...Damn you, ancestors!
"Umm, y-yes, Ikari-san," I stutter, barely able to keep my head focused. "I j-just... tripped! Yeah, that's it! I tripped and crashed into your husband!" At this point, I'm reminded about said man and quickly turn around to run damage control. "M-My deepest a-apologies, Ikari-san! H-Here, let me help you with that!"
Gendo looks at me for a moment but remains silent (he succeeds at rooting me to the spot, though), focusing on picking up the fallen groceries instead.
And the Ikari matriarch stands there, shifting her attention between her husband and myself, and no doubt wondering just what exactly is going on.
"Aida-kun," Yui-san testily begins. "Are you sure you are all right?"
"Y-Yes! Perfectly fine! Perfectly fine, indeed!"
I can tell that she's not buying my less than exemplary performance of a sane man, but she doesn't press the issue.
"Well... if you say so. But make sure to go to bed early tonight, all right?" Yui-san throws me a last, concerned, look before turning around and heading back towards Kyoko-san. "Where were we, Kyoko?"
And just like that, the female trio resume their path towards the event of the century, much to my despair. And I'm left behind, slack-jawed and impotent.
I... I give up. I cannot stop them, I have nothing left. I did everything I could, but I suppose that the complete operational victory of Operation Unsinkable just wasn't meant to be.
But I can go back a proud man, right? I fought against the odds as hard as I could, even if my efforts amounted to nothing.
I'm sorry, Asuka-chan. I just wasn't good enough.
I close my eyes and force back any tears born out of my own helplessness.
...And then a strong grip coils around my wrist.
"What is the meaning of this?"
"Keep it low," Gendo Ikari growls. "You did not trip. An accident would not have made me fall," he narrows his eyes dangerously, and I feel a knot of terror take hold of my stomach. "Why did you assault me?"
I remain mute, caught somewhere between panic and terror.
Apparently, not answering wasn't the correct answer.
...Well, if I'm going to die, I might as well die an honest man. It's not like it's going to matter in a few seconds, anyway.
"S-S-Sorry!" I squeak. "I was buying t-time! Because S-Shinji is having his first k-k-kiss right now, and I didn't w-want you to catch him and r-r-ruin the m-moment!"
Man, I'm shaking so hard right now that my insides could be used to make cocktails.
...And considering how Gendo is looking at me, that might as well just end up happening. Thank you, overactive imagination!
"A likely story," he scoffs. "You are a terrible liar."
'A terrible liar?'
At his last words, I feel the world slow down once again, this time for less than a second. I also feel some of my previous backbone return, and manage just enough self-control to stop most of my convulsions.
The sense of purpose is back and, once again, I know what I have to do.
It's do or die time, Kensuke Aida. Nothing left to lose.
"No!" I refute, answering the stare of this monster of a man with one of my own. "L-Look into my eyes and t-tell me I'm lying."
I try my hardest to channel everything I've seen and felt today into my eyes: the anger, the joy, the heartbreak, the acceptance, the hopelessness, the determination,...
Asuka and Shinji, smiling side by side as they hold hands in that street artist's rendition. Listening to Toji and Hikari test the waters of what may someday end up becoming something more. Mari, grinning from side to side and celebrating an event gone well in that wacky and free way of hers.
...This man can call me many things after everything I've done today, and a lot of those terms will be less than flattering. But today, at least, I am no liar.
We stare into each other's eyes for a few moments, and I can feel my enemy size me up, look into my sudden conviction with curiosity.
I refuse to show any weakness.
Suddenly, the hold around my wrist loses most of its intensity, and I see something shift inside Ikari's eyes.
"...I see. Is it Sohryu?"
I blink in surprise for a second at the sudden shift in tone, and then just nod my head as hard as I can. I'm way too emotionally drained to do anything else by now.
"That is good," I notice the sides of Gendo's mouth curve slightly (almost unnoticeably) upwards. "I will have to congratulate Shinji later."
Wait, is that a smile? This guy can smile?!
...And did he just wink at me?
The hell is going on here?!
Gendo Ikari's voice rings out through the street once more, bringing all other conversations to a halt pretty much instantly.
The three women stop in their tracks and turn around, a hair's breadth away from the final frontier, looking strangely at the man that is still dutifully picking up all of the fallen groceries.
"Yes?" Yui-san questions. "What is it, dear?"
"The eggs have broken, and it is foolish to proceed with dinner without them," Gendo raises his head from his work and stares in his wife's direction, with a kind of look I cannot quite place. "We must acquire more."
Wait. Is he... helping me?
"Eggs? But we didn't-" the married couple's gazes meet, and Yui-san's eyes widen in surprise. She then grows a huge smile on her face. "Oh, of course, the eggs! Well, we better go back to the grocer's then. Come on, Kyoko!"
I get the feeling that a whole lot of unspoken communication just happened before me. Were the eggs some kind of secret code, or something?
"What, me too?!" Kyoko-san's protests are truly an exact mirror of her daughter's. "Why?!"
Then again, being forcefully dragged by the arm like that is acceptable grounds for some annoyed arguing.
"So we can continue our chat, of course! Come, Rei!"
Not like that's going to stop a determined Yui-san, apparently.
In barely ten seconds, everyone is back in the car, willingly or not. Just as they are about to leave, however, the driver's window goes down and I find myself staring, once more, at the terrifying visage of Gendo Ikari.
"...Shinji is fortunate to have such good friends. You should be proud," my enemy (or is it ex-enemy by now?) turns his attention back to the road before continuing. "Farewell. Don't stay out too late."
Little Rei-chan chimes in from the back of the car just in time before the window closes once again.
And then the car's engine roars back to life.
"Huh... right! Bye!"
I barely manage to mutter my goodbyes before the car speeds off into the distance, leaving a very tired and very confused Kensuke Aida behind.
...I mean, what the hell just happened? Shinji's mom thought I was crazy, then his dad tried to kill me, then he helped me, and then both of them helped me!
I-I don't even...
Thankfully, my phone's vibrating takes me out of my thoughts before I have time to delve too deeply into them. I don't think I could handle such profound attempts at reflection right now.
I bring out my phone and tap the message open without bothering to look at the sender. It's not like there are a lot of possibilities out there, really.
And I can't help but crack a small smile at what I find:
'Final status of Operation Unsinkable: GREAT SUCCESS!'
Sigh. Mari Makinami, true to form. I can pretty much picture her with her arms up in celebration, already.
But, hey. I'd be lying if I said that her enthusiasm isn't kinda contagious, though.
Anyway, I better vacate the premises as soon as I can. It wouldn't do for Shinji and Sohryu to catch me now that everything's finally over.
Unsung heroes and all that. Time to RTB.
"...and then Puppy-kun gets this glint in his eye, swallows, and takes a step forward. I tell you, Ota-kun, the scene was so tense that the hand on my binoculars was shaking in excitement!"
Not like a lot of effort is needed to pump you up, Makinami.
"I half-expected that the Princess would retreat in response because, let's face it, she is kinda bad at this stuff, but no! She stands her ground and allows Puppy-kun to close the distance undeterred!"
I'm more surprised about Shin-man taking the initiative, actually. Considering those two, I would have expected the whole thing to happen in the opposite direction, really.
By the way, no, you're not hearing things. This is actually Makinami telling me about the climax to Operation Unsinkable, at my request. You will probably think it strange that I would do this, but... well, Makinami looked like she had had way too much sugar when I made it up here, and I decided to humour her and let her release a bit of her pent-up enthusiasm.
Also, I must admit that I was a bit curious as well. I mean, considering that this is probably the closest brush with death that I've ever had, a part of me felt like, to justify the risk, I needed to know about how it ended. In order to get some closure, if nothing else.
It also served as a great excuse to finish up the last chocolate thermos because, damn, is it good.
"And then Puppy-kun says something. I don't get what it is, but it makes the Princess light up like a red traffic light and, before she can respond, he finishes approaching her and quickly, but tenderly, pushes his lips against hers!"
...I have to give it to Makinami, she's one hell of a communicator when she's talking about stuff she's passionate about. At this point, I'm listening to her both because of the story itself and how much feeling she's putting into every single syllable with her whole body.
Her arms flail this and that way and her pigtails try to follow her as she turns and turns in the spot, alternatively playing the roles of both Shinji and Sohryu.
Kinda like a hyperactive bunny. It's really funny to watch.
"Princess freezes up for a moment, and Puppy-kun uses the chance to put his hands around her waist and embrace her. And then they stay like that for a few seconds, enjoying the moment and the connection between the both of them."
Makinami pauses in her... elaborate exposition to take a gulp of chocolate.
"And then the Princess suddenly wakes up, throws her arms around Puppy-kun's neck and pulls off one hell of a reversal! I bet that she was thinking 'I will not lose!' all through that, too! I don't think Puppy-kun minded though, I can think of many things worse than losing a tongue-fight."
Yeah, like facing his dad, for example. I don't think I'm going to be going near the Ikari household for a while, thank you very much.
"Then they got sort of carried away and... well, I kinda had to stop them at that point. Turning this into an M-rated show wasn't in the cards, you know?" she winks in complicity. "I was a bit of two minds about actually interrupting, but it was worth it just for the sheer look of murder on the Princess' face. I swear, had I been standing there at the time, I wouldn't be talking to you right now, Ota-kun. I'm surprised her phone didn't burst into flames!"
Makinami goes into a fit of giggles at that, before taking another gulp from her mug. And then we stay in companionable silence for a few moments, just enjoying the moment and the sense of achievement.
...This is nice. Overlooking the city in the waning hours of the day with a mug of hot chocolate, idle chatter, and a pretty girl by your side. I could get used to this.
But now that I think about it, the few things that we brought up here are packed and we're running out of chocolate. It will be time to go back home soon.
Sigh. After all of the day's ups and downs, I don't really know how I feel about all of it finally ending.
It was a fun run, though, that's for sure.
"By the way, Ota-kun," Makinami takes a final gulp from her mug and affixes it to the now empty thermos. "I don't know what it is that you did down there with Shinji's old man, but it was awesome."
Oh... Don't remind me...
"Awesome? I'd say it was horrible."
"Horrible?! What are you talking about? You did great! Hell, I'm pretty sure that I would have taken off running in your position, and I'm definitely no chicken!"
Trust me, I would have ran away If I could. No doubt about it.
"In any case," she continues, raising a finger into the air. "Operation Unsinkable owes you a great debt of gratitude, Aida-kun. Because of that and as a memento of your services and the part you played in the overall success of the operation," the finger comes down, pointing towards my hands, "I want you to keep that mug. Think of it as a little thank you gift, from me to you."
I look down on my now empty mug, not really sure about what to say.
"Oh, okay... Thank you, I guess."
I mean, it's awfully nice of her to gift it to me but... I have plenty of these at home. This comes a little bit out of nowhere, to be honest.
"Oh, no, no, Aida-kun. Thank you for your hard work."
She throws a pretty smile my way and then turns around, before taking a look at the sky. The moon is starting to come up.
"I should get going, it's getting late and Ichijo-kun isn't going to wait for me forever."
Ichijo? That's the guy that was driving the van, I think. Sounds like he's going to be driving Makinami back home.
...Sigh. And I have to walk.
How unfair, good thing that at least I don't live too far away.
Makinami stops abruptly, though, and brings her right hand up to her temple.
"Oh, right! But before I forget..."
I feel a hand take hold of my left wrist and tug on it hard, and, suddenly, I find myself face to face with a grinning Mari Makinami.
"You didn't really think that all you were getting for staring down Gendo Ikari was a stupid mug, did you, Ken-kun?"
I don't get to question her on just what the hell she's talking about before Mari closes the distance between our faces and plants a soft kiss on my lips.
Well, more of a peck that lasts for a few seconds than a real kiss, really, but it's still enough to send my mind into a frenzy.
And then she steps back and breaks contact, still grinning, and I'm left having to question her about just where the hell that came from.
...I don't make a great job of it.
Don't look at me like that, by the way. I reacted like pretty much every male my age would have at being kissed literally out of nowhere by a pretty girl.
Said pretty girl just giggles at my stunned self and takes a step back.
"Think of that as a reward for heroism shown above and beyond the call of duty," Makinami purrs, incredibly sexily. She then smirks, winks, and turns around in a single movement, pigtails flying behind her. "Don't let it go to your head, though~!"
And with that, Commander Makinami picks up the bundle and thermos and takes off running for the door, calling out 'See you next time, Ota-kun!' along the way.
And I'm left there standing around like an idiot, with my mouth flapping up and down and my brain running on overdrive after a critical system shut-down.
I'm not sure about how much time I spend there, mentally debating and trying to figure out that crazy girl's last action of the day, before the feeling that helped me against the elder Ikari comes back and returns a semblance of normal operation back to my brain.
That part of myself counsels not to think too deeply on the girl's actions, and to avoid jumping to hasty, and often incorrect, conclusions.
She said it herself, after all: 'Don't let it go to your head'. Just take it as Mari's unique way of thanking you for your hard work and stop thinking about it.
After all, it's not like you need yet another emotional rollercoaster, anyway. The Sohryu-related disappointment was more than enough for a single day.
I'm sure that, in the future, Makinami herself will let me know if I'm supposed to be doing anything in response to her latest shenanigans, so, it's fine.
In any case, I now notice that the moon is quite a bit higher than it was when I last looked at it. I should follow our dear Commander's example and start heading back-
My phone's vibrating shakes me out of that train of thought. I automatically pull it out, and tap into the inbox to find yet another one of Makinami's messages.
It reads: 'Don't plan anything for Tuesday afternoon. Bring photo camera.'
And much as I try not to, I can't help but make a bit of a face at that.
Sigh. What is this, another crazy scheme? Don't tell me that she's going to organize yet another Operation Unsinkable for Toji and Hikari... let me rest, woman, not everyone has your infinite stamina!
...And what could she possibly want my camera for?
Oh well, I guess I'll find out on Tuesday. But now, I should really get going home or mom's going to kill me.
...Maybe a nice and relaxing walk back home is just what I need to end the day on a high note, now that I think about it.
And, hey, the cold temperature might end up helping me freeze for posterity that last little moment of insanity that Makinami reserved for me.
In any case, I don't have the slightest idea about what to expect from that crazy girl next Tuesday. But what I do know is that, at the very least, Makinami ended up staying true to her word for today.
...Yes, I get the feeling that I'll be going to bed with a smile on my face, tonight.
And that's a wrap for this one, which at 25k words ended up becoming way longer than I had initially envisioned. Then again, the word short isn't really in my vocabulary.
Many of you might have been surprised at the direction this sequel took, considering how the previous piece ended, but I didn't really feel like writing a Shinji/Asuka date scenario in the standard way. There are plenty of stories out there that cover that particular angle already, and chances are that many of them do it better than I ever could. And so, this crazy idea was born.
Plus, doing things this way allowed me to focus more on Mari and the rest of the cast, who didn't get much of a spotlight in the previous piece, especially Ken. Poor guy doesn't get much serious exposure/development in most stories, so I felt like doing something with him. Sadly, I think his 'main character' part of the story is the one that ended up coming out the weakest overall, as I was binge-writing and racing against the clock at that point, but I hope it at least was mildly entertaining to read.
This will be the last piece of writing I produce for a few months, due to work-related reasons. But I hope that at least some of you will look forward to whatever I end up posting next around here, whenever the time comes.
Special thanks (which I completely forgot to add last time) go to MisterHalt, Strypgia (Panther2G 'round these parts), and Ranma-sensei. Doubly so to the latter, which found himself drowned in a wave of un-beta'd snippets but still managed to keep himself afloat long enough to hand out both corrections and useful critique; Don't know what I'd do without you.