It had been two days since what Frankenstein called Muzaka’s botched heroic suicide mission. The wounds Muzaka sustained from his fight with Raizel were now mostly healed.
Two days in Frankenstein’s house, still no closer to being enlightened. Muzaka was at the balcony, staring out at what little scenery the city had to offer, ruminating on the scrap of information he was provided.
There were three modified children in the household. And then there were Raizel’s human friends. Frankenstein’s school probably housed hundreds more children. “Someone in our care related to you by blood” seemed to have a rather wide scope.
Muzaka’s musing was interrupted by the door opening. Raizel stood alongside him and was within arm’s reach. The thought that the household was assured he would not attempt a repeat of giving his life force to Raizel was rather offensive. Were they not afraid of him?
“I know why you did it,” Raizel quietly began.
“Don’t expect me to say sorry because I’m not,” Muzaka faced Raizel and willed himself not to cave to his mournful gaze. “I had everything planned out and you and Frankenstein just had to ruin it.” And to what end, for him to have a chance at happiness?
“Will I ever know who that person is or did you really just trick me?” Muzaka could not help but throw the accusation out. He had nothing to live for and giving him false hope was utterly cruel.
“I trust Frankenstein’s judgment. There are reasons why that information cannot be revealed yet,” Raizel said.
“And I suppose I won’t get any answer from you no matter how much I try?” Muzaka huffed out.
Raizel relented, if only a little, “The least I can tell you is that we are doing our best to keep that person safe.” Raizel appeared to want to tell him more but he resolutely kept his silence. Muzaka knew then that it was a lost cause.
So Muzaka found himself wandering the hall heading towards the lab. If Raizel would not give him answers then better try the next best person. Or the person with actual answers in this case. The door he was about to enter opened and he was met with Tao, Takeo and M-21.
“Uh, Boss, someone’s here to see you,” Tao announced. Muzaka understood if his interactions with the three were somewhat strained. He acknowledged them with a nod and pretended not to notice the wide berth they gave him as he moved into the lab. The door shut and Muzaka was left alone with Frankenstein, who seemed intent on ignoring him.
Frankenstein busied himself on the computer for a few minutes. The truth was he wanted to delay the inevitable questions as well as to rein in the anger that was creeping at the sight of Muzaka.
“Did it ever occur to you that he’s still recovering from his ordeal at the Werewolf Island and yet you had the gall to injure him?” Frankenstein asked at last, unable to keep the ice from his voice.
Who? Muzaka was confused for a moment, then he realized Frankenstein was referring to M-21. He could only look mortified at that, “I only meant to incapacitate them for a while but he was fighting so hard—”
“Of course he would,” Frankenstein snapped. “That’s just the way he is.” You stupid, idiotic bastard. If Muzaka had the gumption to engage Master in a mock battle and harm him all for the sake of his plan, then he could hurt someone like M-21 without a second thought. Frankenstein resisted the urge to murder Muzaka right there since it was counterproductive. For all his talents, he did not know how to raise the dead.
Muzaka was beginning to sense that now was not the time to discuss his concerns with Frankenstein. With the mood Frankenstein was in, he might just make good on his earlier threat and feed him to Dark Spear.
“So what brought you here?” Frankenstein eyed Muzaka after calming himself down.
And there went his chance to escape. Muzaka had no choice but to push ahead “I have questions—”
“And you will not get any answers, not the ones you’d want to hear,” was Frankenstein’s terse reply.
“I am aware of that. But still, I deserve answers. Whether I like them or not is irrelevant, only that they are the truth,” Frankenstein’s glower was unnerving but Muzaka did not break eye contact.
After what felt like eternity Frankenstein inquired, “Tell me, Muzaka, can you guarantee that you won’t harm that person once you find out the nature of your relationship?” Muzaka was painfully cognizant that he would be lying to himself if he said yes.
Frankenstein sighed, “You’re not ready.” He continued before Muzaka could say anything, “I trust you, but not your state of mind. You’ve been unstable since you woke up, the only thing keeping you sane are those drugs that you’re being supplied with.”
“You’re right, my mind’s a jumbled mess without those pills,” Muzaka conceded. “But I remember the past clearly. I had another child who died with Eirin.” Muzaka almost choked on that bitter truth, “Are you implying that child somehow survived?”
Frankenstein was defensive. “I did not say that—”
“The truth, Frankenstein, I only want the truth,” Muzaka bit out.
Frankenstein weighed his options and decided to be honest, “I don’t want to give you false hope. That’s why we’re verifying the information we have.” He already made a grave miscalculation before and he did not want to commit that same blunder now, “You and that person are indeed blood-related. As to your relationship, I have…theories though I still need more concrete evidence.”
“So there’s someone out there related to me but you’re not sure if that person’s a cousin or some other kin.” Or my child was left unsaid. Muzaka wanted to weep and laugh at the same time, except that would only prove to Frankenstein that he was truly on the verge of madness.
“And what am I to do while you’re searching for information?” Muzaka had cut his ties with Crombel because he was supposed to be dead two days ago. Perhaps he should return there in the meantime…
“I have a proposition for you,” Frankenstein said. When he had Muzaka’s rapt attention he further explained, “Allow me to stabilize you, and once I deem you ready I will tell you who that person is.”
“But you have Raizel to take care of—” Muzaka was quick to mention.
“I’ll have you know that I’m capable of multi-tasking. I’m also doing this for Master’s sake,” Frankenstein replied without missing a beat.
“I can just go back to my acquaintance. He’ll be probably glad to see me back,” Muzaka reasoned.
“I would rather have you here so I can better monitor your progress. And not that I’m calling your acquaintance a quack, but he missed various aspects in your treatment.”
“Can live here as well. Hmm, I think I should look into her treatment too,” Frankenstein was leaving no room for arguments. “The house is not lacking in spare rooms if that’s what you’re worried about. Adding two more people won’t be a concern.”
“Where I’ll be staying is the least of my concerns,” Muzaka began pacing around the room. “How would the rest of the people here react if I live here?”
“They know the reason for your actions. True, they’re a little wary of you for now, especially M-21, Tao and Takeo. But they will understand with proper explanation,” Frankenstein reassured Muzaka.
“You’re going to tell them that I might be related to one of them or to someone they know?” Muzaka’s surprise was evident.
“That information is highly confidential,” Frankenstein emphasized pointedly. “And I trust that you won’t discuss what we talked about here with anyone other than Garda.”
“Ah, of course you won’t tell them that, you’re barely telling me anything as it is,” Muzaka halted his pacing and leaned on one of the examination tables. “When did you learn about it?”
“When I processed the data I got from you. It was purely by accident,” Frankenstein stopped himself. That was a little too telling now, was it not?
A clue, that was a clue. Muzaka pushed for more. “Will you at least tell me if that person’s male or female?”
Frankenstein narrowed his eyes at Muzaka, “Trying to push your luck now, are you? You haven’t even agreed to my offer yet.”
“Does that person know any of this?” Muzaka tried after a few minutes.
“That person knows nothing. Do you agree to my offer or not?” Frankenstein pressed again. Their exchange of words ceased, Frankenstein mercifully providing Muzaka time to absorb information. There was too much and too little of it.
“Raizel only has a few months to live—” Muzaka thought aloud.
“And you still want to go through with that plan of yours?” Frankenstein saw that Muzaka was being obstinate. Well, two could play this game then.
“I never said I won’t try again, did I? Letting me stay here will make things easier for me.” The threat did not have the weight it should because Muzaka was now second-guessing himself, his previous determination undone by an eight-word sentence.
“I will do everything in my power to find a way to prolong Master’s life,” Frankenstein’s conviction was palpable. “If I fail at that, the least I can do is make his remaining days peaceful and surround him with those that matter to him. But here you are making my work complicated.”
Muzaka ran a hand through his hair as though the gesture would tamp down his frustration with himself and the situation he was in, “So you have information and I need to prove to you that I’m capable of handling it. And to ensure that, you’re also offering me help to fix myself.”
“In the simplest terms, yes,” Frankenstein confirmed. “And to be frank, to me that person’s welfare is far more important than yours and I will not risk it over some unsubstantiated information. You are tied by blood and that is a truth.” Frankenstein once more found himself edging a little too close to revealing. Muzaka did not become a Werewolf Lord by brute force alone. He was by no means dimwitted, although he gave the impression of being prone to lapses in judgment. Present him a few pieces and he just might decipher the entire puzzle.
Turning his back to Muzaka, Frankenstein grabbed a clipboard and started scribbling on the paper. He tore the page off, enclosed something that he got from one of his lab coat’s pockets and neatly folded it. Then he made a beeline for Muzaka and unceremoniously handed the paper, “You know which way the supermarket is, correct?”
“Eh?” was Muzaka’s articulate response. Then he realized the implication, “You’re sending me on an errand at a time like this?” See, Muzaka was not slow after all.
Frankenstein’s smile was brittle, “Now is a good time as any. Think of it as payment for our hospitality in the last two days.” Both men were aware that they were already fraying each other’s nerves. It was probably time to end their conversation before it turned for the worse.
Muzaka pocketed the paper, “Fine, I’ll go get whatever’s on this.”
“I suggest you bring Garda with you,” Frankenstein wanted them both out of the house for what he was planning to do.
“Right,” Muzaka agreed because he had plans of his own too. There was Garda waiting for him at the entrance to the ground floor. “Let’s head out.” Garda nodded and followed him.
Back in the lab, Frankenstein was almost beside himself in sheer exasperation. He would have admittedly reacted the way Muzaka did if he did not know any better. He sent out a text message to Tao, instructing him to gather everyone except for Master in the living room within fifteen minutes.
You are upset. Raizel observed matter-of-factly. Did Muzaka come to see you?
Yes he did. I made him the offer we talked about. Raizel patiently waited for Frankenstein to finish explaining. Frankenstein’s frustration was leaking into their Link. He neither said yes or no.
From his position in the balcony, Raizel saw Muzaka and Garda as they passed at the sidewalk outside their property. Are they leaving?
No, no—well I hope not. I just sent Muzaka on an errand. Frankenstein promptly clarified.
I see. Raizel appeased Frankenstein. Worry not. Our offer is reasonable. Muzaka will recognize that soon enough.
Going on an errand was the perfect, mundane distraction Muzaka did not know he needed.
Muzaka focused on the task at hand rather than dwelling on that unfinished discussion with Frankenstein. Arriving at the supermarket after a short walk, he pulled out the paper Frankenstein gave him. And found himself gawking confusedly at its contents.
Antibacterial detergent powder. Lavender-scented fabric softener. Liquid stain remover. To the left and right of the words were numbers—the ones on the right were the quantity? Was Frankenstein blending some sort of concoction? There was also a rectangle-shaped piece of paper, which Muzaka assumed was the currency for this country. The last time he was here with Raizel they visited the food section. He was rather certain that none of the items listed were edible.
“Hello! Is there anything I can help you with?” A young man who appeared to be one of the supermarket workers approached Muzaka and Garda.
Muzaka flashed his friendliest smile, “As a matter of fact, yes. Where can we find these?” Muzaka showed the list. Not only did the young man bring them to the correct aisle, he also assisted them in picking the appropriate items in the required number. Before long they were walking out the supermarket laden with several bags of these mysterious items.
It was time to return to Frankenstein’s house. Although Muzaka did not want to, not yet.
Muzaka changed course at one point of their route and entered a large, garden-like area humans called park. It was mid-afternoon and the park was filled with people enjoying the sunny weather. They roamed around until Garda pointed to a secluded section with an empty bench under the shade of an oak tree.
And they had been sitting there since. Muzaka wore a faraway expression as they watched people go about their activities.
“Dad!” The shout startled Muzaka out of his reverie. It was from a little boy who was running towards presumably his parents and older sister. The little boy was showing them something that made the mother and sister smile and the father ruffle his hair. The little family moved on to another part of the park, conversing animatedly. Muzaka stared forlornly after them.
Visitors trickled out of the park as the sun began descending on the horizon. Some lingered to savor the cooling temperature. Soon, lamps lit up around the park signaling that evening had settled. Muzaka gradually came out of his trance. Then he spoke to Garda, voice barely above whisper.
About his blood relative, Frankenstein’s generous offer of assistance and his vacillation between belief and denial.
“I bet you’d be scolding me right now if you could talk. I very much want to do that myself,” Muzaka said bitterly. His mind clung to the notion that his blood relative was in fact his youngest child despite Frankenstein’s efforts at ambiguity. And there was someone he strongly suspected, though he dare not let the idea take a firm hold, dare not make a further assumption. Because it was an assumption that almost had him annihilate humanity and his only friend eight hundred twenty years ago. If anything, he had to learn from that mistake and its aftermath.
But then Muzaka remembered the first time he met that someone. The sensation of losing his breath, of time slowing then standing still. His calm demeanor belied his inner turmoil. The colors were different, but he was definitely looking down at his beloved Eirin’s face—
Muzaka quickly broke this trail of thought. Curse his wandering, traitorous mind! Garda anxiously gaped as Muzaka scrubbed a hand across his face and struggled to control his emotions. A few moments passed before Muzaka rose from his seat at last.
“No more running away,” Muzaka breathed out. “It’s time for me to stop running away,” Muzaka declared, steeling himself. He looked back at Garda, “Will you support whatever my decision is?” Garda bowed her head, a sign of assurance.
It was time to stop running away.
The household had assembled and Frankenstein imparted to them the unrestricted, bare-bones points of the arrangement he was making with Muzaka.
“So in a nutshell, you’ll be treating Muzaka and Garda and they’ll be staying here from now on,” Takeo summarized.
“If they agree to my offer, yes. Muzaka hasn’t made a decision yet. Though I’d like to think it’s something he can’t refuse,” Frankenstein said. “Since nothing is final I want to hear your views as well.” He noticed that M-21 had been sitting quietly and appeared to be in deep thought. It almost made Frankenstein afraid to ask, “Is there something you want to say, M-21?”
Everyone turned their attention to M-21, who was quite hesitant at first. Finally he made his case, “Muzaka really wanted his plan to succeed and did everything he could to make sure it did. Then all of a sudden he changed his mind.”
Seira beat Frankenstein to the question, “Will it not suffice that he saw the error of his ways?”
“No, I don’t think it’s just that,” M-21 argued, this time more certain. “There must be another reason, something much more significant to him than his plan.”
Raizel paused drinking his tea. Frankenstein felt an eyebrow twitch. Please stop being nosy, you little brat.
“Though that’s something we’re not privy to, I guess,” M-21 concluded. “As long as they don’t pose a danger to anyone here, I don’t have a problem with them living with us. I’m willing to give them a chance.”
Frankenstein inwardly sighed with relief. Raizel was likewise pleased. They understood that it would be difficult to persuade the others if M-21 did not approve in the first place. And sure enough, the rest of the household agreed with M-21’s viewpoint. Such was his influence unbeknownst to him.
With this matter settled, all they needed was Muzaka’s answer.
The supermarket was only three blocks away from their house and it would take fifteen to twenty minutes—thirty minutes if the person was very much ambling along—to get there. Muzaka and Garda had been gone for nearly three hours and counting.
Had they really absconded as he feared? Frankenstein subtly checked the clock for the third time in the last ten minutes. Or did they get into some kind of trouble?
“They’re here,” Raizel announced from his seat on the sofa. The doorbell rang and Frankenstein had to keep himself from dashing to the door.
“Can someone get the door? We don’t exactly have a key,” Muzaka said from the other side. At least Muzaka knew how to use the doorbell. Frankenstein schooled his face into a neutral expression before unlocking the door.
The first thing Muzaka noticed as they got in was that the living room was conveniently devoid of the rest of the household.
“I agree to your offer,” he stated without preamble as soon as he was standing in front of Raizel and Frankenstein.
Raizel and Frankenstein traded glances before Frankenstein started, “Let’s be clear on things so you know exactly what you’re agreeing to, shall we? You will be undergoing a treatment program to stabilize your condition and will be living here.” He turned to Garda, “You’ve been told of my offer right? Do you consent to having a treatment program as well?” Garda gave a firm nod in response.
“And in exchange for allowing the treatment, you will tell me who my blood relative is and how exactly we’re related,” Muzaka underscored the crux of their agreement. “Anything else that I’m missing?”
“Harm anyone in this house and the deal is off,” Frankenstein fixed his coldest glare on Muzaka. “That person does not deserve someone who can’t hold back his violent tendencies.”
Muzaka wanted to call out Frankenstein on his hypocrisy. “Do clock me on the head if I overstep my boundaries, intentional or otherwise,” was his reply instead. Raizel was now scrutinizing him. Muzaka returned his gaze with equal intensity, “I intend to fulfill my end of the agreement to the best of my abilities.”
“And us as well,” Raizel solemnly promised.
“We’ll begin your treatment the day after tomorrow,” Frankenstein informed Muzaka before switching topics. “You made it just in time for dinner. Got lost on your way to the supermarket?”
“Ah, well….things happened,” Muzaka seized the opportunity to dispel the somber atmosphere. “What are these for?” he motioned with his head to the bags of purchases currently occupying the floor.
“Those are for tomorrow. We ran out and never found the time to buy them because the past few days were hectic,” Frankenstein jovially responded. Muzaka ignored the not-so subtle jibe. It was best for him to get used to those now that he would be under the same roof as Frankenstein for the foreseeable future.
It was Saturday the following day. For some reason no one was dressed for school, Muzaka and Garda observed.
“It’s Saturday,” Regis noted their puzzled expressions as he set down some fresh fruits. Everybody had gathered for breakfast and were now seating themselves at the table. Garda’s raised eyebrow was a sign that she did not see the relationship between the day and the relaxed pace. Muzaka could only shrug his shoulders.
“Oh right, I think they don’t know Ye Ran is closed on Saturdays and Sundays,” Takeo helpfully supplied.
“Ah, so you don’t go to that school the entire week?” Muzaka clarified. He sat beside Rael, who was concentrating on pouring himself a cup of black liquid from a pot and stirring in some white powder afterwards. It smelled like ground beans the kind of which Muzaka could not identify.
“Oh, how terrible,” Tao said in mock horror. “But seriously, Ye Ran is closed on weekends. Everyone needs a break, you know?”
“And I’m not a slave driver that I would subject our students and employees to such harsh treatment,” Frankenstein put in indignantly as he poured Raizel a cup of his usual tea. Then he took his place at the table and served himself some food.
Muzaka examined the spread. There were rectangle-shaped loaves of bread sliced into thin pieces. There was butter, a jar of what smelled like strawberries and another jar with an orange-scented mixture. There were fried eggs, sliced fruits and meat. And stacks of golden brown patties. Everybody had their pick from the various choices. Except for Raizel who was having a bowl of ramyeon. Again. Muzaka wondered if he would ever grow tired of eating it.
“Here, you should try these. They’re called pancakes,” Takeo offered one of the plates with the patties to Muzaka. He then proceeded to explain the correct way of eating the said food.
Muzaka surveyed the household as he chewed on a piece of pancake. His eyes stopped on M-21, noting that he only had a small amount of food on his plate compared to the others. Even Regis was eating more than he was. No wonder M-21 had a slight build. Maybe it was an effect of what he’d gone through at the Werewolf Island. Earlier, Muzaka caught sight of M-21 as he took out a bottle of pills and popped one into his mouth. Muzaka had another piece of pancake to get rid of his unpleasant feeling.
Soon breakfast was over. Muzaka retired to his room wondering what to do for the day. There was a knock on the door so he gave permission to whoever was out there. Seira poked her head around the door at first then entered carrying a large, round basket, “Excuse me, but I need to gather the dirty linens.”
Muzaka was baffled, “Which ones?” Because everything still looked clean to him. And he made sure that he washed himself before using the bed. Besides, he’d only been staying here for three days so anything would not be that dirty yet.
“Everything,” Seira answered. Muzaka carried on appearing to be at a loss on what she wanted done.
“Everything. The sheets, the blanket, the pillowcases,” Seira politely said.
“Ah, is that so?” Muzaka carefully stripped the bed of its sheets and thick blanket, while Seira removed pillowcases and deposited those in the basket. Muzaka followed her example.
“Your dirty towels, if you will,” Seira requested. Muzaka got inside the bathroom and came back with two towels and a washcloth that he placed inside the basket. Seira glanced at the window curtains.
“You need those too?” Muzaka asked. Seira nodded so Muzaka got the curtains down as well. Those joined the rest of the items in the basket. Muzaka held the basket before Seira could, “Where to next?” Muzaka had nothing planned so he might as well help around the house.
Seira led the way and entered the room beside Muzaka’s. Judging by the variety of gadgets and tools neatly arranged on the desk, it belonged to Tao. Seira picked up the linens that Tao already placed on his bed. By this time the basket was already full. Seira opened the door to the room across from Tao’s. There was no mistaking Takeo owned it, what with the familiar pair of pistols still in their holsters on the table. Takeo’s dirty linens were likewise on top of his bed. Adding those to pile in the basket made it overflow, but Muzaka still managed the load.
They met Garda and Regis at the hallway. Garda was carrying an almost-empty basket. Regis and Seira nodded to each other before Regis headed inside Takeo’s room with Garda in tow. Curious, Muzaka peeked in and found Regis guiding Garda on how to set up the curtains.
Muzaka turned back to Seira, who patiently stood to the side, “Sorry, where are we going with these?”
“This way,” Seira walked down the stairs and made a left turn to a hallway that had a row on each side of five shiny, box-like machines. Tao was there separating the laundry by color and size into different bins.
Tao made grabbing motions towards Muzaka’s basket, “Hand that over so I can finish sorting everything.” Muzaka did as he requested. Seira excused herself to do another chore.
Tao dropped the laundry into their respective piles, “Today’s linen washday, which is kinda the wrong name because it’s more like general cleaning day.” He opened one of the doors of the hanging cabinet on the room’s right wall. Muzaka recognized the bottles and bag Tao brought out as some of those that he and Garda acquired from the supermarket.
“You’re going to wash all these by yourself?” Muzaka asked slightly aghast. Tao would probably spend half the day to finish everything.
“Well, yeah, but it’s not me who’s gonna do the actual washing,” Tao unlocked the door on one of the machines on the room’s left side and started putting in the laundry. “Thanks to the latest technology, I don’t have to slave over these. Just my luck.” Muzaka received a crash course on the modern-day laundering process courtesy of Tao.
“You use detergent powder to get dirt out, stain remover for stubborn stains and fabric softener for, you know, making everything soft,” Tao ended his mini lecture.
“And smell like lavender. I like lavender,” Muzaka added. To Tao’s amusement, he was sitting cross-legged in front of one of the washing machines, watching as the laundry inside spun. It was to this scene that Takeo, Garda and M-21 arrived.
“Look Garda, this is how humans do their laundry nowadays. They sure have come far,” Muzaka was impressed. Garda stood beside Muzaka and bent to the side so she could likewise peer in the washing machine window.
“See, the laundry has froth on them. It’s from that thing called detergent powder,” Muzaka pointed out.
“You mean bubbles. Froth sounds like someone turned insane and went on a murdering rampage,” Takeo said. “You know that phrase, ‘frothing at the mouth’?” M-21 actually snickered, the rest stared at Takeo in various degrees of confusion.
“Uh, I’ll just show myself out then,” Takeo embarrassedly opened a tall cabinet and grabbed one of the long-handled brooms there, then moved to the far end of the hall and commenced sweeping away cobwebs from the ceiling.
Tao, Muzaka and Garda shared looks before Tao asked, “Was that a joke?” which made M-21 snicker again.
Muzaka rose from the floor, dusting the seat of his pants as he did so, “So all you have to do is wait for the cycles to finish and you’re done?”
“Well, not yet. I still need to use the dryers for a bit. Boss says we can hang the laundry outside since it’s sunny,” Tao fished his phone from his pocket and typed something on it. “I set an alarm so I can come back here when the cycles are finished. We can still do other things because that’ll take some time.”
“Regis would appreciate help cleaning the windows,” M-21 piped up.
“Why’s the little Landegre the one cleaning the windows?” Muzaka could not imagine how the shortest person in the household would manage to do that without aid. “Where is he?”
“Because his pride as a Noble said so,” was Tao’s sassy answer. “He’s probably somewhere upstairs.” They left the laundry room and went their separate ways, Muzaka and Garda to locate Regis and Tao and M-21 to tidy their rooms.
Muzaka did help clean the windows. And mop the second floor hallway. He also made sure his room did not have a speck of dirt in it. He was banned from assisting in the kitchen, though. To his credit, Muzaka knew how to properly peel carrots and potatoes. Cooking them was just a different story. Moreover, he had a nagging suspicion that Seira was simply territorial of the kitchen.
Being part of a household after so long brought back bittersweet memories.
Muzaka went back to the laundry area in time to find Tao and M-21 unloading the laundry from the dryers. Tao was mostly doing the work, taking out the still damp laundry while M-21 handed him baskets to put them in. Muzaka could not ignore how gingerly M-21’s movements were and how he was the cause of it.
Tao opened the nearby side door, got out and walked in a few seconds later, “Looks like we’re good to go, Karias-nim and Rael have everything set up at the yard.”
“Okay,” M-21 made a move to pick up one of the large baskets filled with comforters.
“Wha…hey, don’t you dare do that!” Tao practically screamed at M-21 in panic. He marched back in and with his foot pushed the heavy baskets away from M-21.
Takeo, on his way to the porch with a deck brush and bucket of soapy water, passed by after hearing the commotion. “M, remember what Boss said about you not doing anything strenuous,” he gently admonished.
“I’m not going to keel over for just carrying a laundry basket,” M-21 answered in his defense.
Muzaka fought the impulse to rub his eyes. Did M-21 just pout? It was barely noticeable and so fleeting that seeing it felt he was intruding on something so intimate. It was, dare he say it, rather adorable.
“And no, making that face won’t change my mind,” Tao stood his ground. Takeo was likewise unyielding. So Muzaka did not imagine what he just saw.
“What the hell are you talking about?” M-21 shot back perplexed.
Tao just shook his head, “You won’t believe me even if I explain.”
And there it was again, that pout. Muzaka would have cooed at M-21 if it would not be creepy for him to do so. He went for the logical option instead, which was to grab one of the baskets with the comforters. “So where to?” Muzaka asked. The Trio looked at him like they forgot he was there in the first place.
“M-21 will show you where to go,” Tao was quick to recover. He took a smaller basket half-filled with pillowcases and table napkins and handed it to M-21. “Here, and please don’t be hardheaded.”
M-21 frowned at the basket but accepted it just the same, “You have got to be kidding me.”
Tao just smirked back, “I kid you not. Now hop to it, the sun won’t stay up until midnight.” Tao made shooing gestures at M-21. Takeo had gone on to do his task now that the minor hiccup was already solved.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” M-21 yielded and walked out with his basket, Muzaka dutifully trailing after him. Long rows of clothes racks occupied the center of the spacious backyard. M-21 stood at one end of a row and was about to place his basket on the ground when Tao rushed out with a high stool and made a beeline towards him.
“I almost forgot about this,” Tao positioned the high stool beside M-21, took the basket from him and placed it on the stool himself. “Put your basket there. I’ll bring the rest of the laundry out when they’re done.” He escaped inside before M-21 could raise a complaint.
Muzaka stared after Tao rather amused, then glimpsed at M-21 who already started hanging up his share of the laundry. Muzaka walked over to the row behind M-21 to begin with his own load. Not a word was said between the two, the only sounds in the air were that of Rael sweeping leaves on the ground and that of Karias snipping at some branches of a shrub a few meters away.
Tao had unobtrusively delivered the rest of the laundry and made himself scarce so Muzaka and M-21 were mostly by themselves now.
M-21 was at the other end of his row with his last pillowcase and Muzaka just finished hanging his third comforter when the latter broke the silence. “So, about the other day…I think I may have roughed you up a little too much,” Muzaka sheepishly confessed.
M-21 turned to face Muzaka, eyebrows raised, “Good that you know that.” Muzaka practically winced at M-21’s candor but appreciated it nonetheless.
“And you’re sorry for what you did, we know. Everyone’s had their share of doing absurd things at some point in their lives,” M-21 astutely declared.
Muzaka scratched at a non-existent itch on his cheek, “’I did quite a number on you’, is that the modern phrase?”
“I wouldn’t say that, I’ve gone through much worse,” M-21 refuted Muzaka before continuing, “Besides, I’m partly to blame. I seem to have a problem staying down when people try to knock me down.” M-21 searched for the other baskets of laundry and found some near the third row. Before he could do anything else, Muzaka took his stool to the third row and placed a basket of sheer curtains and hand towels on it. M-21 could only blink at his actions.
“They were making a fuss about you not doing anything strenuous,” was Muzaka’s explanation. He was now dealing with another basket of comforters at the fourth row. No need to say that Frankenstein might skin him alive if something untoward happened while M-21 was with him.
Inside the house Raizel commented to Frankenstein, “I have not seen Muzaka since breakfast ended.” Frankenstein was serving Raizel’s mid-morning tea in his room.
Frankenstein straightened from his position, recalling where he saw Muzaka last, “He and Regis were cleaning the windows a while ago. I’m not sure where he is right now.” Raizel gracefully got up from his seat and sauntered to the windows.
“Shall I open the windows, Master?” Frankenstein strode forward to do just that. Raizel shook his head no.
“I think they are having a bonding moment,” Raizel murmured, pleasure seeping into his voice.
Frankenstein could have asked Master how he came to know of the phrase but chose to follow his gaze instead. Muzaka was there at the yard hanging the laundry together with M-21. It was a harmless activity, but it raised his hackles for reasons he refused to acknowledge.
Raizel knowingly patted Frankenstein on the shoulder, “Do not fret, you can have your turn next time.” Frankenstein did his best not to splutter at that, opting to just watch the unfolding scene as well.
Back at the yard Muzaka examined their work in progress. “You know, despite all those fancy dryers I still think sun-dried laundry smell the freshest,” he remarked good-naturedly as he was hanging a large, fluffy towel. Muzaka’s smile dropped when he saw M-21’s humorless expression. Did he say something that—
“Karias-nim, that’s Boss’ favorite shrub,” M-21 called out without warning.
Muzaka spun to see Karias hurriedly step off the ladder he was standing on to inspect said shrub and all the others. “What do you mean? They all look the same to me,” Karias anxiously said.
“Not anymore, not after what you did,” M-21 responded. And true enough, the shrub Karias was working on had a slight dent to its supposedly spherical shape.
M-21 was not finished yet, “And Rael, are you trying to dig a hole there?”
Rael hid his flinch with a snappy retort, “And why would I do that, you fool?” He discreetly checked if the ground was now uneven due to his efforts. “I’m done here now,” Rael grabbed ahold of the garbage bag that contained the leaves he swept and marched past M-21 and Muzaka to the other side of the yard. Karias hastily folded his ladder and tagged along with Rael. Both nobles were soon very much out of earshot.
Now Muzaka and M-21 were truly on their own. And it made Muzaka relieved and uneasy all at once.
“Do you hate me?” M-21 asked out of the blue, openly staring into Muzaka’s eyes.
Muzaka was caught off guard that he nearly let go of the towel he was holding. They were fine a few moments ago so why that question?
Seeing Muzaka was yet to reply, M-21 pushed onward before he lost his nerve, “Are you angry that someone like me exists? Kentas was so angry the first time we met. The other werewolf warriors were not exactly delighted with me either.” M-21 broke eye contact, shifted his gaze to the side before looking back at Muzaka.
“I’m just an imitation of your species after all,” M-21 concluded his statement. He kept his head high though it was a struggle not to cower.
So that was it. Muzaka gathered his thoughts and with all sincerity said, “Why would I be angry with you? It’s not your fault that you turned out like that.” M-21’s wide-eyed stare warranted more clarification, so Muzaka continued, “Frankenstein told me a little about you. I don’t think you’re the sort to volunteer to be part of an experiment. If you did they probably lied to you about the details.” No, Muzaka did not find it in himself to be infuriated with M-21’s nature. The concept of him did not offend Muzaka at all. Why should it when—
“If you’re up to it, why don’t we have a spar one of these days? Maybe you can bring Tao and Takeo along?” Muzaka blurted, abruptly going off on a tangent. “But only if you want to. I think I might have a thing or two to teach about the fighting style of werewolves. Maybe the rest of your group can come along and I can bring Garda too? You don’t have to say yes if you don’t want to—”
“I look forward to it,” M-21 said. Muzaka stopped mid-sentence. For a minute he was dumbstruck, until comprehension finally came to him.
“I look forward to it, that sparring session,” M-21 reiterated and then wavered, “Unless you changed your mind about—”
“Yes! I mean no, no, I haven’t changed my mind.” The last time Muzaka was this flustered was when Eirin revealed she was pregnant with Ashleen. “And I look forward to it as well.” The smile Muzaka wore was infectious. M-21 nodded back, a reserved smile likewise gracing his features.
It seemed like the future has so much in store for Muzaka, and staying around to find out what the days would bring might be worth his while after all.