“It’s like we traveled back in time,” said Kaika while looking around.
She knew this was Arashi’s first trip overseas. A drastic change in scenery would elicit a proper response from the mollusk beside her, or so she had thought. Instead, Arashi just tilted her head with the same sleepy, blank look.
The spaghetti straps of her white vest top hung on her petite shoulders. Her rump, plump like steamed buns, tested the elasticity of her denim shorts. It was not her usual style, but she had opted for a more casual outfit appropriate for Manila’s humid tropical climate.
Excluding the large metal case on her back, Arashi was also lightly clothed. Black jeans, reaching just below her knee, tightly hugged her peach-shaped buttocks. Only a salmon pink tanktop covered her upper body. She had abandoned the idea of wearing a bra under the sweltering heat. Kaika did not need one in the first place.
They strolled side by side on a crowded sidewalk. The human traffic had already spilled out into the main road, but that posed no real danger because the vehicles moved even slower than the pedestrians.
About fifteen minutes ago, Kaika had been comfortably riding with Arashi in an armored car. Realizing they would not make their showtime at the next orphanage because of congestion, she had decided go on foot. To avoid unnecessary attention, Kaika had left her bodyguards behind, taking only Arashi with her. That, however, was a fruitless endeavor. Their unusually fair skin, clashing with the much darker complexion of the locals, made them stick out like sore thumbs. The two adorable teens gathered looks of admiration and envy from everyone around them.
Kaika noticed the sidelong stares from the opposite sex growing fiercer each time she raised her arm to wipe the sweat off her brow but paid it no heed. Arashi’s unsupported, albeit modest, bust also accumulated intense attention, but the sloth-like teen could not care less.
“It’s like the energy revolution never happened in this country.”
“Energy… revolution..?” asked Arashi.
Arashi’s lack of societal knowledge was nothing new. Kaika loved to teach, so she patiently answered Arashi’s questions whenever they came up.
“Several decades ago, there was a breakthrough in fusion energy research that greatly reduced the cost of power worldwide.”
Arashi’s eyes wandered away from Kaika.
“Listen! You were the one who asked the question!”
Arashi’s focus returned to her employer.
Simple words, simple words…
“Basically, energy became very cheap, and people became richer as a result.”
“However, there are exceptions, like this country. Look around. It’s nothing like Japan, right?”
Arashi did as commanded and then nodded.
“There’s no decent public transportation, infrastructure makes no sense, poverty and unemployment run rampant, and the list goes on. Forget a pyramid, this country’s social class model is like an upturned T.”
The poorer countries, who were supposed to benefit the most from the energy revolution, had barely improved. That was because of their long-standing systemic and cultural problems. Wealth had enforced aristocratic power and further stagnated social change. Fairness was a legend that existed only in mythos.
He would have hated seeing this.
Ageha’s dissatisfied face flashed in her head. Kaika also despised the situation but for a less noble reason. That difference, their distance, caused a sharp pain to prick her heart.
Kaika noticed that Arashi was tuning out again. She clicked her tongue. “I mean, this country is poor. To be exact, the people are poor.” She glanced at her listener to confirm she had gotten her attention. “That’s because the rich and powerful people are hogging all the money.”
Arashi made a sour expression. “…Money is important.”
That was the first time Kaika had seen such a look on her.
She did say she needs it to get stronger.
“My… mother left… because we didn’t have… money.”
Kaika hardly knew her own mother and hated her father. She could not understand what the teen felt. She could easily fake empathy, but after seeing Arashi’s rare display of emotion, she opted not to.
Arashi looked at Kaika. A flame of determination could be seen in her eyes. “Those who have money… should share it.”
“…Being one of the richest people in the world, I’m in no position to preach. But.” Kaika pointed at Arashi, or rather, what Arashi was holding. “That’s not convincing coming from you!”
Arashi raised the wooden skewer in her hand and bit off one of the small orange balls on it. Then she tilted her head.
“Don’t act as if you have no idea what I’m talking about!”
Arashi was holding numerous plastic bags full of food. Wooden skewers were sticking out from some of them. She wrapped her lips on a blue straw and started sipping her watered down mango juice.
“Don’t you feel sorry for all those children begging for some of your food earlier? You even kicked some of them away.”
“They were… persistent. These are mine. My… money.”
“Technically, it’s my money, but that’s beside the point. Weren’t you saying something about sharing?”
“I… don’t have any money left to share.”
“That’s because you spent it all on street food! Share that instead! Those kids were asking for food anyway!”
“Food… is a different story.” Arashi jogged towards another food stall.
“Hey, we’re going to be late!”
Arashi ran back to her mistress.
“Oh, that’s unexpectedly obedient of you,” said Kaika.
Kaika kicked Arashi’s leg and hurt her own toe. “Dammit! I should know better, but this little..!”
Arashi looked at Kaika, her eyes glistening. Her expression hardly changed, but a pleading aura emanated from her. It reminded Kaika of an abandoned puppy, especially with Arashi’s half-closed eyes.
Kaika, secretly vulnerable to cuteness, could not resist. Arashi had been taking advantage of that weakness for a while now. Kaika might have had a better relationship with her sister if Kureha had been as impudent as Arashi.
“Here you go.” Kaika handed a wad of local paper currency to her.
Arashi took the money and bought a few more skewers of food.
Kaika looked at the bags in her left hand. “Is your left arm okay now?”
“…How did you know?”
“People watching is a hobby of mine.”
“It doesn’t… hurt anymore.” Arashi made a shallow bow. “…Thank you.”
Kaika answered with a smile. They resumed their travel as Arashi nibbled on her newly acquired morsels.
The tiny tycoon glanced at what she was eating. “Is that what they call “Isaw?”
“I’m amazed you’re eating things you don’t even recognize, especially something that grotesque. I’m fine with eating offal, but intestines on a stick is a bit too much.” Kaika stared at the skewer Arashi was holding. “I mean, it looks like a skewered worm. Is it any good?”
Kaika had also been sampling the local delicacies, but she had avoided the more exotic items in fear of food poisoning. In contrast, Arashi probably did not even know what food poisoning meant.
Arashi nodded to Kaika’s question and then stabbed the grilled chicken intestine skewer into her mistress’s mouth.
“Mmgh! Whngh nyuu doongh!?”
Arashi ignored Kaika’s muffled complaints.
Kaika was forced to bite off a piece. Her expression changed from surprise to one of deep thought. “…This is actually quite good. Excellent, in fact.” Kaika’s eyes sparkled. “The drizzle of spiced vinegar, sweet barbecue glaze, and the blackened char-grilled edges create a sublime balance of flavors! There’s also an interesting texture contrast between the crisp exterior and the meat’s inherent chewiness.” She furrowed her eyebrows. “…I’ve been missing out.”
Arashi, no longer listening, bit into a piece of grilled pig ear.
For the nth time that day, Kaika sighed in resignation. She checked the time using her mobile terminal. “We won’t make it at this rate. Let’s take a shortcut.” She pulled up a GPS map on the small screen and chose the shortest route.
The teenage pair turned a corner and proceeded into an alley. As they delved deeper into the narrow back alleys, the large case slung on Arashi’s shoulder knocked into a wooden cart filled with bottles and cans. Kaika apologized to the cart’s owner and quickly pulled Arashi away.
“Why did you have that thing made anyway? It’s too big.” said Kaika.
But that won’t work against Ageha.
Considering that she had funded its creation, she had every right to complain and inquire about its purpose but decided not to. Kaika found Arashi’s choice odd because the teen’s goal was to defeat, not simply kill, Ageha, but reminding her of that was the last thing she wanted to do.
After about five minutes of traversing the dirty backstreets, a young man walked up to them.
“That’s an expensive-looking terminal you have there,” he said.
Arashi, who did not understand a word of Filipino, kept walking. Kaika understood him but followed her companion’s example.
Apparently insulted by the lack of attention, the man pulled out a butterfly knife and expertly opened it with a flick of his wrist. He flashed a cocky grin and said, “Hand over your stuff, ladies.”
Arashi stopped and glanced at her employer.
Kaika rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Make it quick.”
Arashi moved the bags in her right hand to her left and approached the man. Surprised, the petty criminal pointed his knife at Arashi’s face. Before he could say anything, Arashi grabbed his hand and crushed it along with his knife. She then effortlessly twisted the man’s wrist as she swept his legs, causing him to crash to the ground. With a bored expression, Arashi stomped on his crotch. He screamed in pain as his genitals were reduced to mush under her sole.
Arashi turned to the terrified voice. It belonged to a paper-thin man holding a knife against Kaika’s neck.
“Let him go, you freak!”
Arashi hurled her half-eaten pig ear skewer at his eye. It did not have enough mass to pierce his eyeball but caught him by surprise. The man held his eye in pain. Using this chance, Arashi dashed forward and stabbed a clump of wooden skewers into his other eye. Freed from his grasp, Kaika calmly walked away as Arashi dug the makeshift stake deeper, completely skewering the man’s eyeball.
“We’re running late,” said Kaika while checking her terminal.
The young man lost consciousness and toppled to the grimy ground. Arashi divided her bags between both hands and lined up with her mistress.
“Your melee skills have improved. Looks like you’re getting good experience from your matches.”
They left the alleyways and entered a crowded street lined by shanties on both sides. Children were playing games in the middle of the road as their parents, already drunk from cheap gin, were gambling on the sidewalk. Tall buildings towered just behind the patchwork residences. The highest and lowest echelons of Philippine society, separated by only a two-story concrete wall, were contained in a single landscape.
We’re almost at the orphanage.
Arashi was still munching on grilled internal organs. Seeing the teen’s contented expression, Kaika felt an urge to tease her.
“You didn’t even hesitate when I was taken hostage. You should be a little more concerned about my well-being. I’ve half a mind to cut your food allowance.”
Arashi made a frightening expression.
Kaika unconsciously took a step away from her. “Hey, I was only kidding-”
The teen dropped her bags and grabbed Kaika by her shirt, exposing her pristine belly.
“W-What are you-”
And threw her into one of the rickety houses.
There must be more.
Arashi had seen two red dots gather on Kaika’s chest. Realizing they were rifle sight markers, she had thrown Kaika into the closest cover. Luckily, her bionic eye could see the invisible bullet points. Their enemies likely had the same eye enhancement that she did.
She dashed into the shack and over to Kaika. “Two hostiles. Possibly more.”
Kaika rubbed her head. “Couldn’t you have thrown me more gently?”
Ignoring her complaint, Arashi checked the interior of the shanty. No one else was inside. It was surprisingly well-furnished and had ample appliances, but nothing looked useful for the current situation.
Kaika tapped Arashi on the arm. “Are you sure?”
“Affirmative. Two snipers. There are likely other support units.”
“Why can’t you be this articulate all the time?”
Arashi’s lips flapped wordlessly.
“I get it, I get it. Wait a second. I’ll think of a way to get us out of here.”
The teen looked her employer in the eye. “Not necessary.”
“What do you mean?”
A bullet penetrated the thin roof of the shack. Kaika reflexively put her hands on her head and ducked down. Another shot followed and punched a hole on the floor.
Not minding the gunfire, Arashi said, “Leave it to me.”
Kaika stared at her lone bodyguard for a few seconds. “Alright. My life is in your hands.”
Arashi placed her case on the floor and unlocked it. She then flipped the lid open and brought out her new weapon. Aside from having its scoped detached, the unusually long sniper rifle was ready for use.
The use of sight dots on Kaika earlier indicated that the enemy snipers had to be relatively close. Wind and gravity would alter the trajectory too much over long distances for them to be effective. Getting an angle into the cluttered city streets from afar also seemed impossible.
The laser sight is enough.
She decided to prioritize speed because assault troops might surround them if she took the time to attach and adjust her scope.
Arashi pushed the open alloy case to Kaika. “Hide… behind.”
Kaika nodded and took cover.
Even though her previous high caliber assault rifle was already massive, the weapon in her hands far surpassed that. The bolt action rifle’s sheer size burdened even her cybernetically enhanced body. There was no way she could run around and chase Ageha with this gun.
But that was fine. The gun was made to excel in two things and nothing else: accuracy and power.
Arashi knelt down and took a firing stance while inside the shanty.
Kaika peeked from behind the case and asked, “What are you doing-”
An explosive sound shook the hut. Part of the roof had been blown apart. Arashi’s feet slightly skidded on the wooden floor as she withstood the tremendous recoil. Without missing a beat, she ran towards the door while loading the next bullet. She then used her bionic eye to zoom in on the aftermath of her first shot and aimed her rifle.
There he is.
From the roof of a highrise, she saw a man scurrying away. She had aimed her first shot by calculating the bullet trajectory of the enemy’s gunfire using the bullet holes on the roof and floor. The bullet had hit a concrete wall more than a dozen feet from the enemy sniper, but it was sufficient to scare him into changing position.
Arashi pulled the trigger. Her second bullet obliterated a quarter of the man’s torso.
“Uh, wow,” said Kaika.
Years ago, her father asked Arashi a question.
“What’s a gunman’s worst enemy?”
Not knowing the answer, she could only tilt her head.
“A better gunman.”
Fending off melee attacks was nothing but a contingency plan. To put it plainly, Arashi was horrible at it. But that was acceptable because such encounters were very rare for mercenaries.
The main focus of her training had been dealing with fellow gunmen. Among those, her father had constantly drilled her on how to handle the most dangerous type, snipers.
Arashi observed the area. People were screaming and running around in panic on the street. Others warily looked out from the small windows of their huts.
She used the chaos to mix in with the crowd. Bullets followed her as she ran. A young girl was shot to death as Arashi passed behind her. The teenage bodyguard’s main goal was to distance herself from Kaika, and she willingly used human shields to achieve that.
Arashi took cover inside one of the shanties. She then plowed through the maze of interconnected houses by kicking down the thin wooden walls separating them. The fuming residents obediently gave way the moment they saw the giant rifle slung on her back.
She had a rough idea of where the enemy’s shots were coming from based on the collateral damage. Arashi looked out of a window and saw three men with bulletproof vests surrounding the shack where Kaika was hiding.
She had left her charge alone on purpose. Kaika was bait.
Arashi shot one of the men in the midsection, splitting him crosswise. The other two frantically ran for cover, but she pulled the trigger faster. One of the men fell as pieces of his right leg scattered on the ground. Without caring for his comrade, the third man dove behind a parked tricycle. Paying the vehicle no heed, Arashi shot through it and killed him. She then checked on the one-legged enemy. He was unconscious, but she shot him in the chest for good measure.
Arashi changed location to a shanty with a low ceiling. She climbed on a wooden desk and peeled off a piece of the roof. She peeked out of the opening and readied her rifle.
I have to take out that sniper.
It was an exhilarating hunt. Normally, Arashi would be having a blast, but her lips did not form a smile. Instead, urgency and desperation appeared on her face.
I have to protect Kai.
She had no idea how many enemies were left. This was her first defensive battle and more importantly, her first time giving her all to protect someone. A missed shot meant the death of her employer, her benefactor, her comrade. The experience was completely new to her, and her fingers trembled.
But she had to succeed. She tightly gripped the rifle’s handle. Her gun was utterly useless against Ageha because it was not made for that. Arashi knew that sniping was the most effective way to assassinate VIPs and that only another sniper could fight against such an attack. The weapon in her hands, her fangs, existed solely to protect Kaika and Saya.
Her peripheral vision caught sight of hostiles approaching Kaika’s position. Arashi twisted around to aim her rifle. A bullet ricocheted off her right shoulder, causing her torso to smash into the iron roofing. She endured the pain and quickly ducked down.
That was close!
If she had not changed posture at that exact moment, her head or chest might have been shot through.
The sniper pinned her down while an assault team moved in on Kaika. If she changed position now, she would not make it in time to save her. If she prioritized saving Kaika, she would likely get killed in the process.
Did he face the same decision?
She recalled Ageha saying that he would have abandoned his friend Rin if Arashi had not saved him. However, that choice did not exist for Arashi. Losing Kaika meant losing Saya and her chance to defeat Ageha. No one was around to save her. She had to choose between death and losing everything.
She recalled being forsaken by her mother.
She recalled being forced to killing her father.
She recalled being abandoned by Ageha, alone and defeated.
She was tired of being a victim. She would not lose Kaika.
On the wall beside her, she noticed a hole created by the deflected bullet. Beyond the small opening, she saw a building covered with glass windows.
If she could see the enemies’ laser points, the reverse was also true. She punched a larger hole on the wall and used it to aim her rifle at the shiny building. Arashi saw the enemy sniper’s reflection on a glass pane and directed her laser sight at his reflected scope, momentarily distracting him with a surge of light.
Arashi fearlessly popped out from the roof and aimed at the sniper. She pulled the trigger as a bullet zipped by her scruffy hair.
Without confirming the kill, she ejected the bullet casing and then sniped one of the three enemies approaching the door to Kaika’s hideout. The other two made it inside before she could prepare her next shot.
Arashi threw caution out the window. Abandoning her cumbersome rifle, she climbed on top of the roof and leapt to the ground. She raced to the shanty with everything she had. Several loud bangs came from inside. Her heart sank, but her feet did not stop. She rushed into the open door and froze.
A girl’s corpse lay in front of her.
Her breath caught in her throat.
How could this happen..?
Beside the young female soldier on the ground was the mutilated body of her partner.
“Good, it’s you.”
Arashi searched for the owner of the familiar voice.
Kaika’s ebony twintails and eyes were peeking over the top of the soot-covered alloy rifle case.
“Leave it to you? I’d be dead if I did that. Good thing I’ve seen you use these before.” Kaika showed Arashi the grenades in her hands before putting them back in the rifle case. “This box is really sturdy. I’ll have to give a bonus to my gunsmith.” She dusted off her white top with both hands.
Arashi started laughing.
“What are you laughing at!? You’re just as dirty as I am.” Kaika rubbed the soot off her face.
Arashi lost strength in her knees and sank to the floor.
“Are you okay!?” asked Kaika as she ran to her bodyguard and checked her condition. “You don’t look injured…” Kaika froze in place for a few seconds. “Er, um, it’s okay… I’m okay. You don’t have to cry like that.”
Arashi touched her face and felt warm liquid seep into her parched palms.
Arashi bawled as she sat on the floor.
Kaika looked at her as if unsure what to do. She then came closer and awkwardly embraced her. A faint blush colored her cheeks, and her lips curved into a sheepish pout. “At least check if it’s all clear before breaking down.”
Arashi nodded in Kaika’s chest, her forehead rubbing against the girl’s non-existent mounds.
Kaika grinded her knuckles on Arashi’s skull. “Well, sorry about that.”