Seasonal Flavors : Summer Bliss


First Course – Variable Stew


Hello, Mizuki Ayumi here! My sister's summer break started three days ago but it doesn't feel any different. Aki-chan woke up early today to do her homework with her friend at school. I'm happy to see her working hard even though it was already her awaited vacation.

For breakfast, I prepared an omelette, an oven-heated chocolate-filled croissant we bought from the bakery, and a glass of orange juice for her. I also made packed lunch for the two of them to share with – grilled chicken strips in chili sauce and stir-fried veggies for the side dish. She told me not to make many because Mayu-chan will also bring her own food. I'm quite nervous how it turned out. I hope her friend likes it too. I wouldn't worry too much about Aki-chan...

The weather's nice. What should I do for today?

You know, I can't help but look at the pendant like expecting something to happen. This is also a first case for us to know the real problem about it but we can't be sure of our own conclusion without letting an expert in artifacts look into it first. Miyako-chan already asked help but she's not sure when we will meet that person though. I wonder if the person also works in the agency...

Hmm? It looks like Miyako-chan's up now. What she's doing there?

Maybe I'll start making breakfast...


Ayumi, after preparing breakfast, sat on her favorite cushion in their living room. She tried scanning through the channels in the television but there weren't any interesting shows early that morning. With that in mind, she decided to return to the news channel like always and leave it at that.

She dumped her face to one of the scattered pillows on the floor and grumbled incoherently as if her energy was being drained by just doing nothing.

Only then her stomach grumbled, reminding her of the food in front of her. On the small wooden table were a plate of stacked hotcakes topped with a small block of butter, a few slices of toast on another plate, a jar of pineapple jam, and two mugs containing hot cocoa. Still, she had to wait for Miyako. It was possible that her cousin went back to sleep again. Perhaps she had overlooked that likely chance?

"Morning Yumi-chan," greeted Miyako as she entered the living room, yawning. Ayumi didn't need to check on her after all! "Oooh, smells nice here..."

"Good morning, Miyako-chan," replied Ayumi as she sat up straight. "How's sleep?"

"Oooh! Hotcakes!" Miyako's eyes gleamed and in an instant, any signs of her drowsiness disappeared. "Were you waiting for me?"

"Yes. I thought you'd be already up, so I made breakfast."

"Thanks, Yumi-chan! You're the best!"

"Oh, there's a pitcher of orange juice in the fridge too if you want something cold..."

"Okay, I'll get them myself. How about you?"

"I'm okay with my drink," she answered as the blue-haired girl went to the kitchen.

Not even a minute transpired as Miyako slumped beside her plum-haired cousin with a chocolate syrup bottle and a glass of orange juice in both of her hands. "You don't mind if I use Aki-chan's chocolate syrup, right?" she asked. "I'm sure that she'll get angry at me again if she knew about this."

"J-Just don't use it too much." Ayumi handed her over an empty plate and a fork. "She'll get angry at you again."

"It's weird how can she figure out those things-" Miyako stopped with an irritated look."Ah, I know, I know! I'll try to use less syrup, okay?"

"M-Miyako-chan?"

"A-Ah, just talking to myself." Miyako placed a hotcake on her plate and generously garnished it with chocolate syrup. "Thanks for the treat!" She immediately put a piece of hotcake in her mouth with the fork. "Hot! Hot!"

Ayumi giggled. "Slow down, Miyako-chan. It's like you're competing with Aki-chan."

"You looked bored just now. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I think."

"Say, what do you usually do at times like this?" Miyako asked.

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"I mean, when Aki-chan's not around? Don't you get lonely? Bored?"

"When not doing any chores, I just laze around like this. It made me realize how much fun school is."

"Must be tough for you, huh?" Miyako took a gulp of her orange juice. "I wish we could trade places."

"Silly Miyako-chan. Aren't you glad that the agency's concerned about schooling?"

"It's one of their obligations, so I don't find that special. Though, I want to go to a normal high school. The atmosphere there is different!"

"You don't like there?"

"It's not that I don't like attending class. There's nothing fun to look forward to, like lunch breaks or after school activities."

"Now that you mentioned it now, have you made any friends in those classes?"

"A few to chat with to pass time, but that's that. They're just classmates."

"Why not? I think everyone can get along together-"

"I guess that's possible if we're not aware of the things we do on the job..."

Ayumi looked defeated, giving up with that particular topic. She could somehow relate that the people there were no longer 'normal' compared to everybody else. For curiosity's sake, those implications didn't stop her to imagine her cousin's classmates. Differences could be set aside for the sake of knowing one another, right? But I'm not the person to say such things...

"Where did Aki-chan went to anyway?" Miyako asked after a gulp of juice. "It's only past-eight."

"Didn't she tell you? She went to school with a friend awhile ago. She told me that she doesn't have any plans at the moment, so she wants to finish all of her homework starting today."

"Really? You two are definitely sisters."

"Don't you have summer homework too?"

Miyako froze as she was about to eat another hotcake piece. She inflated her cheeks. "Jeez, you don't have to remind me that..."

"Don't neglect your studies, okay?"

"By the way, about your pendant," Miyako said. "It's been a week and nothing happened so far. All we knew is that the artifact's having an anomaly of some sort..."

"Sorry. We could've solved this early if I knew all about mom's pendant..."

"Don't blame yourself, Yumi-chan," she replied. "Are you sure that you're feeling well, Yumi-chan?"

"Yes. You don't have to ask me that all the time-"

"E-Eh?" Miyako voiced, surprising her cousin who was spreading fruit jam on her hotcake.

"What's wrong?"

"I didn't know that you put jam on your hotcakes," she said. "Ah, pineapple too?"

"Do you find it weird?"

"I always put syrup on mine. Well, I guess it depends on every person."

"You can try doing this too." Ayumi carefully rolled the hotcake until it looked like a swiss roll. She took a bite of it afterwards.

Miyako did the same to a new hotcake only after adding chocolate syrup all over it. "Oh, it is more fun eating it this way!"

"T-That's too much syrup..."

"My bad! Sorry, sorry! You don't have to be so angry! It's just syrup! W-What?"

Ayumi stared at her. "H-Huh? I'm not angry at all. Are you okay, Miyako-chan?"

Her cousin waved her hands. "Ah, nevermind that! How about we go out somewhere? Come to think of it, I haven't gone anywhere since arriving here," she said. "I'd like to buy something too."

"Aki-chan said that she would return in the afternoon. What about her?"

"We will meet her up later, okay?"


"I think this is my first time here. I'm surprised that you know this place," said Ayumi as her eyes examined the place before them. After a short bus ride, they set foot in front of a shopping mall in the neighboring city. She saw a large poster about the ongoing month-end sale. Luckily for them, today was the event's last day.

"Well, I try to look the places up before heading there myself," Miyako replied.

"That's nice. Aki-chan and I often go to the shopping district instead."

"Let's go, Yumi-chan. There's much to see!" Miyako went behind her and asked, "Ready?"

Ayumi turned her head and stared at her cousin. "Uh, I guess so?"

What followed next was definitely not she was expecting. Miyako began to push the wheelchair while running at breakneck speed!

"A-Ah, Miyako-chan! I don't want this! S-Stop!"

Ayumi could only cry as they zoomed towards the mall's doorway. Thanks to her cousin's unneeded assistance, not only they reached their destination in a flash but they also gained everyone's attention with that small stunt they made!

Miyako laughed, wiping the sweat off her forehead. "I got carried away there. Was it fun?"

"...It's not."

As they entered the building, a beeping sound went off above them. That was the time when one of the security guards by the entrance approached the pair. Were they in trouble for what they just did? She noticed that the guard kept glancing at the black leather case strapped on her cousin's back. A few of the people coming through the entryway stopped as well, probably out of curiosity.

Miyako stared at him in the eye and asked, "Do you need something, sir?"

"Ladies, this way for a moment." He led the pair out of the doorway and to the mall's directory next to the wall. He then turned around, facing them.

The guard pointed at Miyako's protruding case. "Can you open that please?" he asked. "I'll need to check your pockets and other pouches while we're at it."

"Ah, so that sound was from a metal detector! Yumi-chan's wheelchair must have set it off though."

Ayumi glanced above the doorway's frame where said device was installed. If her wheelchair was at fault for that false alarm, why did the guard need to check Miyako's belongings?

"Still, we will have to check everything to make sure. I know it's troublesome, but we have to do our duties. This place had its share of problems not long ago."

"Uh-huh, I understand," said Miyako. "Ah! About this one..."

Instead of opening the case, she opened her vest which surprised the guard for a second. His gaze focused at a particular object attached under the blue-haired girl's garment. It was an insignia, similar to badges carried by police officers. Though, hers was a unique variation – the badge was shaped similar to a coat of arms. The most eye-catching detail was the shield divided into four sections. The top-left portion of the shield had a pentagram embedded while the opposite corner at the bottom part had a gun cartridge. The silhouette of the sun present in the standard police badge was at the shield's midpoint and the complementary sun rays were at each side of the badge's body appearing as ornate wings.

A complicated-looking insignia indeed...

The guard gulped. "Do you have some business to take care of here?" he asked Miyako.

"No worries," the girl replied. "I'm just taking my cousin around here. It's not like I'm after for somebody."

He gave her a nod then he signalled to his colleague who was waiting for a response far at the back. "I see. Sorry for the inconvenience. Have a good day." He left to return to his post afterwards which puzzled Ayumi even more. He didn't bother to check the contents of the case!

"I remember you bringing that same case with you two weeks ago. What's inside it, Miyako-chan?" Ayumi asked. "Do you need it for something?"

"Remi-chan and the usual stuff."

"Huh?" she uttered, blinking her eyes several times. "Remi...chan?"

"Oh, you haven't seen her yet. I'll show her later," she replied, turning to the mall directory. She stared at the building's layout for a moment. "Let's look around for now."

Since the shopping mall only had two levels, they decided to check the upper floor first where the majority of the stores and merchandise were found. People scuttled in and out of the shops, taking advantage of the price sale. The pair was no exception as they went to check for clothes in every available store that they could find and bought what they liked the most. For almost an hour of shopping, they decided to return to the ground floor.

"What's wrong, Yumi-chan?" Miyako asked as they exited the elevator, pushing Ayumi's wheelchair from behind. "You're still thinking about that?"

Ayumi glanced over her shoulder. "I promise I'll pay everything you spent for our clothes..."

"You don't have to. Like I said, leave everything to me for today!"

"That's why I'm worried..."

"But since I'm the one who earned it, I also have the right on how I should spend the money."

"That's true. If I can only find a decent job, then..."

Miyako stopped, crouching beside Ayumi. "I'm hungry. How about we check the eateries around? They all seem great."

Ayumi kept staring at her skirt as if she didn't hear anything.

"No. Maybe we should go around more first. What do you think?" Hearing no response from her cousin, Miyako frowned. "Come on! Don't make a face like that!"

"S-Sorry! I got caught up with myself again."

"You're thinking too much. It's kinda worrying."

"Thank you, Miyako-chan. I'm fine now."

"In that case, can I check on something for a bit?" Miyako asked, pointing to an electronics shop beside them. "I won't take long!"

"Sure, I'll just look around for now."

She propelled her wheelchair to browse the food stands at the mall's center place. Seeing a lot of food stands at one place always pleased her. Ice-cold refreshments and other treats were a must to combat summer heat! Smoothies, fruit juices, ice-cream and popsicles!

"Hello, care for a stuffed bun? I'm giving out free samples," a middle-aged woman asked as she passed by a stand. When Ayumi nodded, the woman leaned forward with a sample in hand. "Try it. I'm sure you'll like it."

Ayumi took the steaming bun and noted that it was roughly half the size of the original on display. Maybe good for two bites? Probably one for Miyako! She took a bite of it and as soon as the bun's filling touched her taste buds, her eyes widened. "It's...spicy. Chili filling?"

"Is it too much for you?"

"No, it's delicious!"

"A whole set has ten pieces of assorted buns," the woman said, presenting a red box. "We also have new fillings included in this too."

She looked at the display of buns with their labels. There were about twenty fillings to choose from. She reached to her skirt's pocket for her wallet for the payment. "I'd like to buy one."

After the exchange, the woman smiled. "Thank you very much!"

"It's you again. Are you alone today?" a voice asked from behind.

She turned herself around and saw a girl with saffron-colored hair that went down to her chest. She had a couple of paper bags in her hands too. Maybe she got indulged in a shopping spree? Their eyes met and stayed like that for a while as if time stopped just for the two of them.

"Uhm, can I help you?" Ayumi asked, taking the first move. Staring at each other wouldn't get them anywhere.

The girl smiled. "I remember you saying the same thing. By the way, is that any good?"

"Yeah. It's spicy too."

"Eh... I'm not that fond of spicy stuff..."

Her body stiffened and her heart began to race, finally recognizing the voice that Ayumi thought she would never hear again. No doubt, the person before her was the mysterious cloaked girl with probing golden eyes that night. The same girl who questioned her about the artifact she had.

But now that she could see the stranger's face clearly, she didn't feel any sort of threat or intimidation from the girl. Nevertheless, looks could be deceiving.

"I already met you before that night, but you're face seemed too familiar." The girl shook her head. "...Nevermind. I might have mistaken you for someone else."

"H-How did you find me?"

"It's because of your artifact." The girl pointed at Ayumi's chest. "It's radiating mana like last time. Seeing you today was just luck."

"Mana?"

"You don't know what it means?"

"It's just like Aki-chan said," Ayumi mumbled, examining the accessory.

The girl tilted her head. "I'm really curious all about that pendant, so will you tell me the details this time?"

"Why do you want to know it badly?"

"Because, I'm-"

From the electronic store's entrance stood Miyako, eyes squinted. "Fumi-chan? Is that you?" she shouted.

"Eh? M-Miyako?"The girl looked at Miyako's direction. She seemed so horrified suddenly.

"Oh, it is you!" Miyako squealed as she scampered towards the girl. "How's it going?"

The girl called Fumi took several steps back. "W-What are you doing here?"

"I'm not supposed to meet you today, right? Oh well, your timing is just great!"

"I-I'm quite busy, you know?" she replied, a bead of sweat running down her face.

Miyako eyed the paper bags the girl was holding. "Busy at shopping, I see."

"And what are you doing here?"

"Why ask that if you already knew the answer?"

"You know her, Miyako-chan?" Ayumi asked.

"Yeah. She's a friend of mine."

The girl bowed. She introduced herself with a shaky voice. "Ikegami Fumi, pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Fumi-chan is an artifact hunter and dealer. I just heard she settled around here for some time now. She's an elusive one too, so we're fortunate enough to bump into her today!"

"Underhand tactics again? Your pretty clever Miyako." Fumi sighed and looked over at Ayumi. "Is she your friend, by any chance?"

Miyako shook her head and chuckled. "Why do you think I brought her with me today?"

She stared at the plum-haired girl for several seconds. "Don't tell me..."

"She's my cousin, Mizuki Ayumi-chan. Don't tell me you forgot her!"

Hearing the name, Fumi began to tremble. She glanced over at Miyako with an embarrassed face. "Y-Y-You should inform me better next time! You didn't even tell me that she's a wheelchair-user!

"What do you mean?"

Scowling, she dropped the bags in her hand and brought her cellphone out. She pressed on the keypad several times before presenting the screen. "See?"

The other two leaned forward to get a better look. Ayumi gasped. "That picture... That's from last summer trip..."

The picture showed Aki, Ayumi and Miyako together standing by the shoreline. The shimmering waters behind the group and the ever-blue sky with few traces of fluffy clouds became the perfect backdrop to match the relaxing, happy atmosphere.

Miyako glanced back to Fumi, raising an eyebrow. "What's wrong with it?"

Fumi sighed. "Is it hard for you to send a more up-to-date picture?"

"Well, a lot of things happened. Though, I'm more surprised that you didn't recognize her."

"That explains why I have this feeling that kept nagging me since I did it. I even put up a fight against her sister too."

"I thought so. Aki-chan said she will pulverize the person who attacked her. I will be more careful if I were you..."

"Are you that dense? You're somewhat responsible for that!"

"Hmph, I'll have to blame you too!" Miyako crossed her arms, pouting. "You rarely reply to my messages and even make a lot of excuses when I need you for something! I already told you that Yumi-chan's case is important!"

"Everything coming from you is important! Like when you invite me for a sleepover or accompany you to karaoke! I can no longer tell otherwise!"

"But they are important!"

"W-Wait!" Ayumi said, grabbing the chance to interrupt the two. "What do you mean about the fight with my sister?"

"Let's just call it an accidental friendly fire, Yumi-chan," replied Miyako. "She had no idea."

"F-Friendly fire?"

"I think Fumi-chan should explain that."

Fumi took a deep breath and avoided eye contact. "T-To think that you're my client Miyako told me about, I'm terribly sorry that night. I was the one responsible for the ambush. That only meant to stall her, but..."

"You... harmed my sister?" she asked. Fumi nodded with a glum expression. "I see. Thank you..."

The saffron-haired girl looked at her blankly. "Huh? Why are you-"

"I mean, for telling the truth," Ayumi said, her lips forcing a smile. "Even though Aki always tells me that she could handle herself, I'm still worried."

"I know, I know! Aki-chan's strong, no doubt about it! She can't lose easily to someone like Fumi-chan," Miyako said with a somewhat disturbed smile. Fumi glanced at her.

"That came out of nowhere. What are you talking about?"

"Even though Fumi-chan's like that, she's the only artifact hunter I know that wouldn't go to extreme lengths just to get their hands on their loot."

"That just means that I value my life." Fumi looked away. "I didn't know you trust me that much. Don't expect me to return it at the same level though."

"It's okay. I'm used to it!" Miyako giggled.

"Since you caught me, I don't have other choice but hear you out. I'm more interested since this is urgent. Am I right, Miyako?"

"Urgent?" Ayumi asked.

Miyako nodded. "Thanks Fumi-chan. I'll explain the details later. How about we search for a place to eat first?"

Ayumi looked at Fumi. "Did you take your lunch, Ikegami-san?"

Fumi shook her head. "Uhm, not yet. How about we try this place?" She revealed a glossy flyer out of one of the paper bags she was holding.

"Oh, oh!" Miyako's eyes shimmered. "Let's go for it! What do you say, Yumi-chan?"

"Why not? I haven't had one in a while."

Going by Fumi's suggestion, the trio entered a pizza parlor near the opposite end of the shopping mall. They quickly settled in a vacant booth while being attended by a waitress. After scanning the restaurant's menu, they ordered their respective meal sets and a regular-sized pizza for them to share with.

Ayumi looked around, noticing how packed the place was. Everything was kept neat and simple which was always a good thing. More than that, the distinct smell of cheese in the air was quite enticing!

Her eyes shifted to Fumi who began to speak.

"Should we start while we wait? With the little info you gave me, I can tell this is going to be lengthy..."

"I thought I already told you a recap about this," said Miyako, slamming the table with a hand. This garnered the attention of the parlor's customers. "See? I bet you're just deleting most of my messages, didn't you?"

"Or there's this possibility that you haven't told me about it yet," Fumi retorted, crossing her arms and resting her back on the chair. "All I know is that your cousin has an artifact that needs to be checked."

"Jeez, I guess I'll do a lot of explaining today. For starters, why don't you check Yumi-chan's artifact?"

Ayumi felt hesitant for giving her pendant as if she would lose it for good. "Don't worry, Yumi-chan. She might not look like it, but she's an expert on this matter," Miyako assured.

"A-Ah, we don't need to force her, Miyako. I don't think that would help us."

"If you say so."

Ayumi lowered her head to hide her face. "U-Uhm, I'm sorry..."

"Why does she needed to wear that in the first place?" Fumi asked.

"First of all, her body makes more and more mana in a rate faster than normal mages. Her mana production will even exceed the limit of her own body to the point that could threaten her life."

Fumi glanced at the plum-haired girl. "That's quite a rare condition."

"And If she will just keep all of those mana within her..." Miyako paused as she glanced outside then back to Ayumi. "She'll go boom or something like that. A boom with a force of a nuclear warhead!"

Her eyes widened, mouth opened. "Y-You mean, she'll explode!?"

Even Ayumi herself was caught off guard. "M-Miyako-chan, can that really happen?"

"Maybe for a ten-mile radius? What about the fallout after the-"

Fumi placed a hand in front of Miyako's face. "Seriously, enough with that."

"Just kidding! Yumi-chan, you should have agreed!" Miyako smiled as she formed a peace sign with a hand. "Her own mana will consume her, so to speak. That's one thing we don't want to happen. The artifact somehow regulates the mana inside her, slowing the production down and eating up the extra mana when it gets worse."

"If that's the case, why would you need an artifact to do that? She could just discharge those excess mana by using spells regularly."

"Probably because it's much more convenient?"

"I can't argue with that..."

"There's another reason, see? It prevents her from being tracked and hunted. Unlike her sister Aki-chan, she's literally radiating mana off her body which is very weird. The artifact helps to hide that too."

"Are those the only functions the artifact have?"

"As far as I know, yep. Oh, the leak doesn't happen everyday. Since Yumi-chan can't tell it herself, we would have to rely on her little sister to tell us on that."

"I first thought that the artifact was radiating mana," she said, nodding. "To be honest, I've never seen or heard an artifact with a function like that before. I think no one would even consider using this in the first place. It will be severely punishing for a normal mage to use that."

"I think that's all you need to know about-"

"Custom-made ones are really amazing. I wonder if I could find more bizarre artifacts more than that."

"I know that you're obsessed with artifacts. Don't get sidetracked now."

"Right. This is just a guess but it could be that the artifact is having hard time keeping up with the mana she produces. It's more like the artifact is already at its limit."

"You figured it out already? As expected of Fumi-chan!" Miyako said.

"Well, I only know that her body continues to develop as she grows, but an artifact can't do that on its own."

"So, we need to replace it?"

"I... I don't want to!" Ayumi said as she clutched said accessory. The idea of a replacement stung her very core. It didn't mean that she would have to dispose the pendant but still...

"I highly doubt we can even replace this artifact." Fumi looked at Miyako, eyebrows knitted. "Spare the jokes for later."

"S-Sorry, Yumi-chan..."

Ayumi shook her head. "N-No, it's okay. I shouldn't reacted like that in the first place."

"We will need more info about it for a solid confirmation," Fumi said. "For now, it's still functioning the way it should, right? Unless we find a person specializing in artifacts, we can't really do anything about it."

"Yeah, I think so."

"Yumi-chan, just tell us if you started to feel weird or anything. Your safety is top priority!"

Fumi scratched her head. "I guess I'm not much of help for you. Miyako probably thought that someone like me is enough for your case."

"Not really. You haven't heard the more urgent part of this meeting."

"I'm listening, Miyako."

"It's about those people after her. We'll have to assume that they found the town where she's living now, and it won't be long before they begin their move. I don't think they would do anything rash or stupid because it will definitely get them a lot of attention. Anyone wouldn't want that, you think?"

"The tone of your voice and what you said just now doesn't match at all. By the way, where on earth do you get all those intel in the first place?"

Miyako paused for a second or two with a grin. "Come on, Fumi-chan. That's because I called you for our Yumi-chan's defense squad!" she said, ignoring Fumi's question.

"Defense squad?"

"With your marionette arts, we could form a powerful team of mages!"

"You're not a mage."

"I never said I'm going to be one..."

"If you already know this much, I assume you already have any idea who's behind this?"

"You mean the mastermind?" Miyako asked. "You're silly, Fumi-chan."

"What?"

"It's not much thrilling anymore if we already knew that at this point. I mean, we could just search for hideout, beat him up and his henchmen, then that's that. Before you know it, you're already at the last page of the story!"

"Yet you call this meeting urgent." Fumi shrugged. "I have to take back what I said earlier."

"N-N-No! It's just that my very reliable source is all dried out and I can't really give a guess at this moment."

"So, there's not much progress on your part, huh?"

"I'm trying my best, you know?"

"Why not have a few from your agency help out as well? They could at least provide protection to your cousin with the proper request!"

"From AICU? Too risky." Miyako held up an index finger. "You can only count the number of people there that you can trust with a hand. Lucky if you know more of them. That's why it's better to ask help from freelancers, you know?"

"E-Eh? But you told me that you're supervised by the country's police agency! That only meant that you're questioning their credibility even if..."

Fumi's voice faded, seeing Miyako frown. The blue-haired girl rested an elbow on the table and her palm under her chin.. "That doesn't stop us for doing whatever we like. We're not that different from regular freelancers like you."

"You don't trust them?"

"Not as a whole, you know? If it was that crappy from the start, then I probably quit right after I joined!"

"And for you to stay in such environment, I don't get you at all. I hope you don't end up like those people you're referring to."

Miyako brightened up, . "You really care for me! I'll treat you candy next time!"

"Just candy? Whatever..."

Fumi's looked away as her stomach started to protest, loud enough to be heard by the other two.

Miyako grinned. "Ah, can't wait for your order?"

"...I haven't had breakfast."

"Really? You're lucky you get to eat with us, huh?"

"I'd still eat otherwise."

They soon received each of their orders: sausage sandwich special and Mediterranean salad for Miyako, seafood tomato pasta for Ayumi, and meaty carbonara platter plus garlic bread for Fumi. A thick pepperoni pizza was served last along with their drinks.

"Thanks for the meal!" they said in unison before holding on their respective utensils.

Miyako took the lead as she chomped on her sandwich. "Wow. I didn't know this is spicy!"

"Do you even read what's in that sandwich?" Fumi asked. "More importantly, did you wash your hands after using the comfort room?"

"That's rude! You don't have to ask that!"

"Just making sure."

"And about the sandwich, you say? The picture looks good enough! The picture says it all! The picture can't lie!" Miyako sang, waving her fork like an orchestra conductor. "One more thing! Can your apartment room accommodate, let's say, one or two more people?"

She nodded with her eyes closed. "I don't know what you're getting at, but yes, it's quite spacious there."

"Can you let Yumi-chan stay there for a few days?" She took another bite of her sandwich and added, "Please?"

"Unless you explain why first." Fumi opened one eye to look at Miyako. "Wipe that mouth of yours."

Miyako snatched the nearest tissue available and dabbed her lips clean. "It's still part of the plan about Yumi-chan's safety! I want to make sure that nothing goes wrong." She opened one of the hidden pockets under her vest, bringing out a silver rectangular case. She flipped the case open to show two circular earpieces bearing the same color. "Please take one."

"What's this, Miyako-chan?" Ayumi asked as she took one of the device. It was almost twice as large as a typical shirt button. It also had a wedge-shaped tail half the size of the entire device connected from the body's edge.

"Psyche-exclusive intercom system, a byproduct of artifact technology. Mom happened to have an extra set and gave one to me before summer break." She turned her head slightly, pointing at the intercom in her left ear.

"You mean this is an artifact?" Fumi asked, holding the device with her thumb and index finger.

"Nope, but the one Aki-chan's using is somewhat like it. By the way, she's the host of the conference since she has the core unit."

"Could that mean Aki-chan's listening with us this whole time?" Ayumi asked.

"That's right! You're really quick at this, Yumi-chan!"

Fumi became flustered. "W-Why didn't you tell that sooner?"

"Sorry, it's Aki-chan's request," Miyako said as she poked the tip of her tongue out. "Huh? Okay! Okay, Aki-chan! You don't need to shout!"

"How do we wear this, Miyako? I'm sure it will just fall off by just looking at its design."

"Just wear it like you wear regular earpieces then it will attach by itself. Simple as that." The saffron-haired girl stared at her with narrowed eyes. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"We'll see..."

Ayumi had no problem attaching the device to her right ear. In fact, it did exactly what just Miyako said after releasing her index finger supporting the intercom in place. A few seconds later, she heard a short audio prompt from the device.

She suddenly winced, shutting her eyes close. "M-Miyako, my ears are ringing..."

Psyche-Merger initiated... Requesting clearance to host unit...

"It will wear off soon," Miyako answered. "Like they always say, it's normal for first timer users."

Verification complete. User confirmed and identified: Mizuki Ayumi

Directing to host's conference shortly...

"It should be done by now. How are you feeling?"

"My ears are fine now, I think..."

Link synchronized. Awaiting response from user...

Ayumi decided to give the intercom system a test run. "Uh, hello?"

"Loud and clear, Yumi-chan!" Miyako gave her a thumbs up.

Fumi sighed as she finished securing her own earpiece. "Of course, she's just beside you."

"Is that you, sis? Glad to hear from you!"

Hearing the voice of her little sister, Ayumi giggled. "So, you were listening all this time?"

"Yup! I heard pretty much everything."

"Did you do your homework?"

"Yeah, we've done a lot since morning. We just finished lunch awhile ago. It was yummy!"

"Really? That's good to hear!"

"Miyako, the last prompt message said that I need the host's authorization to proceed," Fumi said.

"Aki-chan? You haven't added Fumi-chan to the conference!"

"I forgot. Wait!" There was a short pause before Aki replied, "There, it's okay now."

"Just wondering. Does this thing run on batteries or something?"

"So curious!" Miyako said, arms crossed. "You see, the device connects to the user's psyche then to the core unit for it to work. Unless the core unit is not running anymore for whatever reason, you don't have to worry about batteries!"

"Sounds suspicious. Are you sure about that?"

"Yep, it's in the manual."

"You read manuals? Now, that's even more suspicious..."

"Well, Mom did." She paused to take a sip of her drink. "Anyways, the good part about this communication system is that it can't be interfered by conventional means!"

"Even so, it can be interfered."

"Come on, Fumi-chan! I never mentioned that it's a perfect system! But I heard that the newer model in development didn't have to rely on a host unit to make conferences."

"I don't get the reason for using this if we can just use our cellphones. We're just making things complicated. So what if we get traced? They already did, so what's the point?"

"You're bringing that up again, Aki-chan? It's more awesome this way, right?"

"In other words, you're just abusing it," Fumi said.

"Those are two completely different things! We're using this intercom system for the best!"

"Then, what now?" Aki asked. "Am I supposed to wait here until tomorrow?"

"Just stick to our plan Aki-chan. Stay where you are while I check things back at home. I will give you the signal if I needed help."

"Fine. But you better make sure you're not making things up again. You and sis going to a mall is not anything like in the plan at all!"

Miyako pointed her fork at Fumi. "For your part, you just need to keep Yumi-chan in your place while I'm gone."

"Looks like I'm doing the easy part."

"You're going back home, Miyako-chan?" Ayumi asked.

"After we finish our food first."

Fumi rolled her eyes. "That's not what she meant."

"Don't worry. That's part of the plan too! Can't go on without an empty stomach!"

"You're misleading things." Fumi looked under their table. "What's inside the case anyway?"

Ayumi cheered inwardly. She thought she was the only one interested about the contents of the case.

"Remi-chan. I'll show her to you later..."

"That's a new name. What kind is it?" Fumi asked.

Miyako stood up and pretended that she was using a gun, her left hand positioned next to her shoulder while her other hand gripped under the imaginary weapon as support.

"A rifle?"

Miyako shook her head. Her right hand made a sharp pulling action then back to where it was, accompanied with her own silly sound effect. "How's that?"

"I get it now. But... did you really have to act the whole thing?"

"Y-You didn't tell me that you'll bring a gun!"

"Not too loud, Yumi-chan!"

People staring at them was the least of Ayumi's worries now...


Finishing their lunch and taking some minutes of rest, Miyako took off to the bus stop for her return trip while the other two walked their way to Fumi's apartment. It was already the middle of the afternoon with only a few pedestrians every now and then. Ayumi focused on moving herself, not uttering a single word since they left the mall. Maybe it was because she turned down Fumi's offer twice for pushing the wheelchair for her? Still, Fumi was trying to converse with her, which made things more... embarrassing...

Though, the plaza they just passed through seemed to be a convenient place for relaxing...

Thankfully, the silence didn't go any further with the help of her sister. She assumed that Aki was finally fed up with the inactivity in their nifty conference. Free of charge and time limits!

"Hey, don't think of any funny ideas..."

Fumi glanced at Ayumi. "You're referring to me, right?"

"Who else?"

"Or me," Miyako said. "Could be Yumi-chan too."

"Shut up!"

Ayumi thought it was unavoidable for her sister saying things like that. "Don't worry, Aki-chan. She's a nice person," she said in a more assuring voice.

Aki groaned. "Didn't you say the same thing with Yuurei?"

"What? Yuurei?" Fumi repeated. "Was that a person's name?"

"H-He's a friend. You know, the other person that night..."

Fumi pursed her lips. "I remember," she replied. "Miyako. You know him too?"

"Yeah. What's with your serious tone all of a sudden?"

"There's something not right about that guy. Are you sure that you let someone like him close to you people?"

Ayumi frowned. It was unfair for him to be judged right off the bat.

"Sorry, it's just a small hunch. You know him more than I do, so you should answer that on your own."

"Relax. It's just you being paranoid," Miyako said. "Like Yumi-chan said, he's a friend of us."

"We're almost there." Fumi pointed at the seven-story apartment building near the end of the next block. "That's the one."

"It's near from the mall. How convenient."

"Yes. I'm lucky that there's a vacant room the first time I checked the place."

After taking the elevator they proceeded in front of Fumi's room, labeled with her own nameplate. She placed her shopping bags on the floor to get her room key.

"Here we are." Fumi unlocked her apartment's door then she held the doorknob as if she was having second thoughts. "There's nothing interesting to see though. I just moved here after all."

Ayumi nodded. "Sorry for intruding."

Like Fumi had said earlier, the interior was spacious enough to house four or five more people. Perhaps the lack of furniture and decorations inside contributed for that matter. Ayumi could see a small table and a couch, a bookshelf on one side of the wall and boxes of different sizes were piled at the farthest corner. A long wooden counter separated the kitchen from the rest of the room.

Fumi went to the couch to settle all of her spoils in her shopping. "You looked amazed."

"I didn't imagine that it would be this large."

"I know it's still early for asking this but what do you want for dinner? Don't expect too much though. I'm not much of a cook since I always eat outside..."

"M-Maybe I can help making dinner?"

Fumi smiled. "Really? That would help a lot. You might check the fridge later for that."

"You should, Yumi-chan. I doubt that Fumi-chan can cook real food."

"That doesn't make you any better at cooking too."

"But really! You should let Yumi-chan help. She could give you some tips on cooking."

Ayumi giggled. "This is kind of weird..."

"What's weird, sis?" Aki asked.

"It's like everyone is in the same room."

Miyako laughed. "Ah, you'll get used to it..."

"Maybe it's a bit too late for me to ask this but how do we exactly use this?" Fumi asked, tapping her earpiece a few times. "There's only this single button, but it doesn't do anything."

"You use it with your mind. Like when you wanted to turn the device off or just someone's connection. Easy, right?"

"And you expect me to believe that?"

"Why won't you try it then? Try blocking my connection feed."

"How?"

"Think and it will happen! Jeez, you won't know until you try!"

"I guess it wouldn't hurt anyone." Fumi closed her eyes. "Here goes."

"Fumi-chan! Remember the last time when I visited at your other apartment? I was the one who took that yummy angel cake in the fridge! Same goes for that cup of chocolate candies and strawberry juice! You haven't eaten those at all! Also, I'm positive that you forgot about your favorite pink pajamas you lent me months ago. It's still with me! You haven't lost it!"

"That's why I always blame you when something's gone," Aki replied. "Thanks for reminding me."

"Don't tell her, you two!"

Fumi opened her eyes again. "...I don't hear her anymore. What is she saying now?"

Ayumi looked away. "I think she said it worked..."

"You think? That's not convincing..." Fumi crossed her arms. "I bet she said something rude about me or somewhere along that line. Still, I can't believe it worked. Time to put her up again..."

"You saved me Yumi-chan! Thanks!"

"Hey Miyako, if this thing uses a person's psyche, that would mean it's somehow related to telepathy?"

"The R & D folks would call it Simulated Thought Conference." Miyako giggled. "Their naming convention is just weird, don't you think?"

"Can't they just call it something like 'simulated telepathy' instead? It's much easier-"

"Hey, talking about them isn't fun at all!"

Fumi took a deep breath. "...Miyako?"

"Yes?"

"Why don't you just focus on what you're doing now?"

"I know that." Miyako sighed. "Ten-four! Miyako out!"

"That should do for now..."

"Wait, I take that back! Hear me out, okay?"

"Okay, what is it this time?"

"I received this new update just now. Everyone, change of plans. Aki-chan, you'll head back to Fumi-chan's place instead."

Miyako's voice changed which made Ayumi nervous.

"I don't get what you're saying. Is this some kind of prank again?" Aki asked with a more demanding tone.

"Some friends paying a visit. I've expected them anyways."

"You didn't answer my question at all!"