“I thought you stopped smoking because Mitsuki hated the smell,” said Ageha.
“Her asthma symptoms went away as she grew up, but she wasn’t satisfied with just that. This little overachiever actually started swimming to improve her lung capacity. Now she can hold her breath longer than I can. I’ll never forget the proud look on her face when I praised her for beating my personal best.” Valeriya smiled as she gently caressed Mitsuki’s fringe. “Thank you for protecting her.”
The sleeping girl’s head rested on her lap. Ageha was seated across them in a spacious limousine.
“I just did my job. And she protected herself for the most part.”
“I still can’t believe she was able to fight in that situation.” Valeriya shifted her eyes from Mitsuki to Ageha. “The place was a mess.”
Valeriya recalled the scene she saw at the pool. Calling it an indoor red tide would be an understatement.
“She didn’t see that. I held back as much as I could until she fainted.”
“…You can be surprisingly considerate.”
“Who wouldn’t after seeing her break down like that?”
“I see.” Valeriya made a bitter smile and gingerly touched her own right shoulder.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You just did.”
“Is that a no?”
“…Go ahead. I’ve already told you my story. I don’t have anything left to hide.”
“Why did you take her in?”
“There are a number of reasons. But that’s not really what you want to ask, is it?”
Ageha looked down for a moment before looking at her face again. “Was it guilt?”
Valeriya laughed but stopped herself when the girl on her lap squirmed. “Do I look like someone who cares about that?”
That’s you, Ageha.
“Then is it because of her talent?”
“That’s the logical guess, huh? True enough, Mitsuki is a prodigy that surpasses even me. I can’t compare to her ability to imagine and execute movements flawlessly. She was made for athletics.” Valeriya made a teasing smile. “Remember that move I used to beat you? I got that from her. She used it on me the night we first met.”
“Are you planning on dragging that out forever? One hit doesn’t count as a proper win.”
“It is if you agreed to such a rule, and you did.”
Ageha clicked his tongue.
Valeriya chuckled. “I didn’t expect you to get up though. I got you clean on the chin.”
“I had a concussion, you know.”
“Did you get that checked out?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Thanks for not killing me back then, by the way. You looked like you really wanted to.”
“…A promise is a promise.”
Valeriya showed a worried expression. She liked Ageha’s stubbornness. He was like a tree that could only grow straight up, never yielding to the wind. However, people like that would eventually break. It was not a question of possibility but a matter of time.
“Seems we got sidetracked. Why I took her in, right? It wasn’t because she’s a genius. I mean, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about her talent at all. But even without that, nothing would’ve changed.”
“Have you looked at her? She’s unbelievably cute.”
“I wouldn’t have taken that answer seriously if you weren’t undressing her right now. Actually, stop that.”
Valeriya was in the middle of removing Mitsuki’s robe, exposing her swimsuit-clad body.
“It’s okay, isn’t it!? I see her naked in the bath all the time! It’s the same thing!”
“Then why bother?”
“A swimsuit is different!”
“You just contradicted yourself.”
“Don’t be such a miser! I’ve been looking forward to this all day! I even rushed the cleanup of the Kudo group just to make it in time. Look, I even wore my swimsuit underneath my clothes.” Valeriya wiggled out of her loose kimono. Her white string bikini struggled to contain her bountiful bosom.
“So that’s why you got to the pool so quickly after I called.”
“The Kudo HQ’s defenses were surprisingly thin. We finished even faster than expected. From the looks of it, they sent a bunch of their men to the pool. If I’d known they went after Mitsuki, I would’ve tortured their leader a bit longer.”
“That’s a nice story and all, but your hand isn’t stopping.”
Mitsuki’s swimsuit straps were already rolled down to her upper arms.
“Tch. Why do you even care? She’s my daughter. You’re nothing but a stranger.”
“That’s the problem. It’d be one thing if you two were alone, no wait, that’s not good either. Anyway, I don’t think Mitsuki would be okay with me seeing that.” He looked pointedly at the girl’s bare parts.
“Oh my god!” Valeriya hurriedly covered up Mitsuki’s exposed shoulders with the robe and hunched over her as if protecting her from Ageha. “You perv!”
“That’s my line!”
“Just because you saved her once doesn’t mean I’ll let you have her!”
“I never wanted her in the first place.”
“There must be something wrong with you then!”
“Make up your damn mind.”
Valeriya raised her index finger. “Wanting and having are completely different things. You must want her, but you can’t have her.”
“That’s so ridiculous I don’t even know what to say.”
With a pout, she pointed at Ageha’s hands in turn. “Just keep your paws off my daughter.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. She obviously hates me anyway.”
That’s probably not true.
This girl can be pretty hard to understand.
“As long as you get it.” Valeriya tried to pull her disheveled kimono over her shoulders but had considerable difficulty because Mitsuki’s head was weighing down the cloth. “Can you give me a hand?”
“You want me to take Mitsuki?”
“Do you have a deathwish?”
“I didn’t think so.” Ageha scooted over to them. “Why don’t you get one of these?” He glanced at his alloy forearm as he fixed Valeriya’s clothes.
She shook her head. “I hate pain as much as I love cuteness.”
Ageha smiled and gently straightened up Valeriya’s empty right sleeve. “You’re amazing.”
“Whoa, creepy. What’s with that all of a sudden?” Her face contorted in disgust.
“It’s a compliment. Shut up and take it.”
She knew he was referring to how she had allowed Mitsuki to cut off her arm despite her extreme aversion to pain. In truth, she appreciated his praise because she considered that to be one of her greatest achievements. Ageha did not need to know that, though.
Valeriya took out a small perfume bottle from her purse. “You stink.” She sprayed fragrant mist in Ageha’s direction.
“You do know it’s Mitsuki’s vomit that’s on me, right? She should stink more than I do.”
“No way. Didn’t you know that little girls smell like sugar, spice, and everything nice?”
“That’s supposed to be what they’re made of, not how they smell.”
“Did you get hit in the head or something? Of course they smell like what they’re made of.”
Ageha went back to his seat and rubbed his temples. “I give up. Please just drive me home.”
“Going home, Rin-chan?” asked Yama.
“Yes. Are you getting off soon? I can wait if you want to leave together.”
“I’ll pass. I don’t wanna have to watch my back in the kitchen. Too many knives.”
Rin’s shoulders shook as she giggled. “No way! Ageha loves you, Yama-san.”
“Not as much as you. At least I hope not.” He made a troubled smile while scratching his head.
She squinted at him and said, “Don’t go getting any funny ideas now.”
“Not in my wildest dreams.” His face became deadpan. “Really.”
They shared a laugh.
“Good work today. Tell Ageha I hope he feels better. On second thought, tell that lucky bastard to die.”
“I’ll definitely tell him.”
“Wait, Rin-chan. I was joking, okay? Please don’t tell the sous chef about that last bit.”
“Hmm…” She grinned mischievously. “What should I do?”
“…How about a cake buffet?”
Yama’s eyes sparkled. “You mean you wanna go with-”
“My boyfriend, of course.”
Like a landed fish, the light in his eyes faded. “Figures. …Okay, deal.”
“Thanks, Yama-san!” She saluted him with her right hand. “See you tomorrow!”
“Women are devils,” he mumbled with his arms crossed.
Rin skipped out of Sapore’s service door and closed it behind her. She then heaved a big sigh and slumped her shoulders.
I’m sorry, Yama-san.
She did not feel apologetic about blackmailing him. What she felt sorry for was acting like she was on cloud nine even though she felt the opposite. Ageha had not gone to work today. She had told their coworkers that he caught a cold, but even she did not know the real reason for his sudden errand.
I hope he’s okay.
A blend of worry and suspicion whirled inside of her. Ageha had been coming home really late recently. She wanted to trust him, but it was clear that he was hiding things from her. Ageha was probably doing it to protect her, but that was not what she desired. She wished to be his partner, his equal, and his support. Being kept safe in a castle tower was no different from being caged. She was sick of feeling helpless.
Embroiled in her anxiety, she hardly noticed the commute and found herself in front of Ageha’s apartment. She placed a hand on the doorknob.
Her mood brightened. It was rare for him to arrive earlier than she did. She quickly opened the door.
Ageha stood near the entrance. It seemed he had only just arrived. Though his topless back distracted her, she still noticed Ageha hide something behind him as he turned around.
“Rin, you’re back,” he said, his pitch slightly higher than usual.
Ageha rarely got flustered. Something was wrong.
Rin shut the door and approached him. She tipped her head back an inch and whiffed the air.
She trusted his fidelity, but with all the signs dangling in front of her, she had to ask. She fully expected him to flatly deny it.
“Are you cheating on me?”
“Wait! I was joking! Don’t cry!” Ageha dropped what he was hiding and hurriedly embraced her.
Her childlike sobbing subsided. “…Joking?”
“Yeah, you asked such a ridiculous question so I just couldn’t help it.”
Rin opened her mouth and tried to chomp off a piece of Ageha’s chest, but before her lips touched his skin, he stepped back and kept her at arm’s length.
“Don’t. You’ll hurt your teeth.”
“You jerk! You jerk! You jerk..!” She did not try to hit him. Rin just stood still, her trembling fists balled up. Tears poured down her cheeks.
Ageha approached her and gently planted his forehead on her shoulder. “Bite here.” He tapped a part of his neck connected to his jaw. “That’s flesh. If you do it hard enough, you can probably kill me.”
“As if I’d ever do that! You jerk! Jerk! Jerk!!!” She embraced his neck.
“I’m sorry, Rin.”
“Then make it up to me,” she said.
“Now you said it.” Rin released him.
“…You were acting?”
Of course not.
It was taking everything she had to stop her tears, but she could not waste this chance.
“I’ll leave that to your imagination,” she said with a sly smirk.
He sighed. “You win.”
Rin focused her thoughts. Ageha always kept his word, no matter what.
“Then tell me the truth. Don’t hide anything.”
Ageha frowned. She hated that expression. Just seeing it tempted her to take back her words, but she endured.
He nodded his head.
Rin took a deep breath. She had been ready for anything ever since she saw him at Mount Takao. How bad could it be?
“Where did you go and what did you do tonight?”
Ageha closed his eyes for a short while and said, “I defeated a middle schooler in a freestyle race at a pool, juggled tattooed men in the air, got barfed on by a traumatized kid, and fixed a Russian’s kimono.”
“Take this seriously!”
“…I understand your reaction, but it’s all true.”
Rin inspected Ageha’s face. She could not tell if he was lying. “Please explain. In a way that I can understand.”
“I’ll have to start from the beginning.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“You may come to hate me after hearing it.”
“Not happening. You can count on me.”
He stared into her eyes for a while and then sighed. “Alright.”
Rin unconsciously held her breath and braced herself for his answer.
“I kill people.”
“I know that already. It’s part of your job, right? It’s not like you have a choi-”
“Listen to me, Rin. I kill people.”
And he proceeded to tell her what he had done, what he continued to do, what he was.
“You’re lying,” she said.
“It’s the truth.”
“You… even Chef Matsunaga…”
The missing secondo chef that had gotten along so well with Ageha.
The blood on him when he descended Mount Takao.
And many, many more.
She recalled Jin’s words during her torture. Was he right? Was the Ageha she had been chasing an illusion? Her eyes swam. Furrowing her eyebrows and biting her lip, she tried to make sense of everything she knew about the man in front of her.
Seeing Rin’s state, Ageha extended his hand to her shoulder to calm her down as he always did. He touched her tenderly, with even more care than usual.
And in the briefest of moments, Ageha’s face was stricken with sorrow. Like a lone meteor, it disappeared a millisecond later, but she had definitely seen it.
What have I done?
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Why are you apologizing?
“I’m really sorry.”
He smiled. Recently, she could no longer tell whether he was lying or not. But she was certain that smile was a lie, a very kind lie woven especially for her.
“I’ll go take a shower.” He turned and took three steps away from her before stopping. “I won’t blame you if you’re not here when-”
“I’ll be here.”
That was all she could say.
“I see.” Ageha walked into the bathroom without taking anything with him.
Rin looked at where he had been standing. The thing he dropped earlier was on the floor. It was the shirt she bought for him just a few days ago, but it already looked filthy and tattered. She picked it up and noticed blood blotting the dark brown cloth.
Ageha had been perfect at hiding everything from her until now. But there it was, a solid piece of evidence lying in plain sight. Was it because he had already confessed?
He had hidden everything to protect her. Her heart was wounded and fragile. Visions of violence were the last thing she wanted to see, and he knew that. Then why did he not hide this?
The reason was simple.
He was hurt.
Hurt enough to forget something so obvious.
Hurt by her.
She had forced him to flay open his heart and had shunned what she saw.
Rin sank to the ground and cried into his shirt, not noticing the mixed scent of blood, bile, and perfume. All she could taste was the salt in her tears and the bitterness of her betrayal.
“I can’t give you my support. When we discussed your plan, you said to the entire board that you’ve secured a low-cost metal source. Without that, we won’t have enough funds to support your planned production rates even if we do somehow buy out the other companies.”
Kaika’s eyes narrowed as she stared at Makita’s wrinkled face on a display. Her sleeveless violet dress was barely within the camera frame, but she had dressed up anyway. In politics, clothes were not mere decoration. A dress could be more protective than any armor and more potent than any sword. But more importantly, it set a woman’s mood, a critical element in any performance.
I expected him to be smarter than this.
Then again, if he had guts, he wouldn’t have settled for being my father’s patsy.
“Losing the mine is a minor hiccup. If we tighten our belts in other areas, we’ll have enough surplus to compensate. We can still get relatively cheap raw materials from China.”
“And whose belt do you suggest we tighten? Everyone is scrambling to meet the quota you set, and we still aren’t anywhere near the target. It would be different if we could get KyberCorp, but you haven’t told us anything about how that’s going.”
“Everything is going fine.”
“Then show us some proof! If you can at least do that, the other directors would be much more cooperative.”
“They would be a lot more cooperative if you voiced your full support of my plan. Besides, I have to keep anything related to KyberCorp under wraps. I can’t risk an info leak, even among the directors.”
“How can you expect me to support something I don’t even understand? You ask for trust but give none in return. I’m starting to regret ever believing this pipe dream of yours.”
This geezer is testing my patience.
“Speaking of dreams, I hear your granddaughter Sora recently got the lead role in a popular ballet. Kaleido, was it?”
The aggression in Makita’s face gave way to wariness. “…Yes. She was ecstatic. What business is it of yours?”
“I just wanted to say congratulations.” Kaika grinned, displaying her pristine teeth. “Sora definitely deserves it, especially with all the hard work she put in.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “You should warn her to be careful under the spotlight, though. It’d be a shame if certain rumors made their way to the press. Her sweat and tears would end up amounting to nothing more than, what were the words, a pipe dream?”
Makita’s face turned red, his nose flaring. “You little-”
“Be careful, Makita-san. Words have power, but you shouldn’t mistake one for the other.”
The old man fell silent. With a disgusted expression, he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, as if releasing steam. “Okay. I’ll give you my full support in the board meeting. Don’t let this get to your head. There won’t be a next time.”
That’s so cliche it’s almost amusing.
“I’ll see you in three minutes then,” said Kaika, her pink lips stretched in a thin smile.
“You really are your father’s daughter.” Makita reached towards the display.
Her smile vanished. “Wait.”
“What else do you want?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Don’t tell me you’re not aware? You’re just like Karasuma, a wolf in sheep’s clothing waving around veiled threats.”
“True? And what makes you different from him? I’m sick of this. I’ll do as you asked, so just let me be.” Again, the old man extended his right hand to end the call.
“I said wait.”
Makita paused after glancing at his monitor.
Kaika wore a solemn expression. “…You’re right. Doing something like this makes me no different from my father.”
He was unable to hide his surprise.
She continued, “Forget what I said earlier. Your granddaughter will have no problems. In fact, I’ll quash any rumors that surface about her myself.”
“Don’t patronize me. You got your win. Let’s move on.”
“You don’t understand, Makita-san. I am indeed my father’s daughter. And that’s why I’ll never stoop to his level. Thank you for reminding me of that.”
“If you think saying something like that will convince me to support you, then-”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not stupid. You can say whatever you want in front of the board. I’ll just find a way to move forward despite that. I didn’t get this far just to stumble over something so insignificant.” Kaika tilted her neck and shrugged. “It’s unfortunate that we ended up as enemies, but I appreciate your honesty. It’s hard to find someone who dares to speak their mind if you own everyone around you. Goodbye.”
Kaika ended the call.
She stood up from her chair, walked to her bedside cabinet, and opened the bottom drawer. After making sure no one else was around, she took out a bag of cookies and popped a piece into her mouth. While happily chewing on a crunchy baked dolphin, she raised her arms and stretched.
Satisfied after popping her back, she walked back to her desk and operated her terminal.
She smiled brightly and said, “Good afternoon, everyone.”
The numerous faces on her display responded with similar greetings.
“Let’s begin with a report on the progress of your assignments.” Kaika focused on the lady with wisps of silver in her hair. “Nishino-san, if you don’t mind.”
“…Of course. Servo resorted to the poison pill. It’s going to cost us a lot more than anticipated to buy them out.”
“Only if their shareholders go along with that plan. Attack the reputation of their board. If we make Servo’s directors look like corrupt money-mongers and add a reasonable price incentive, the investors should sell. Focus on the shareholders who aren’t politically savvy.” Kaika sent an email to Nishino. “That’s a list of candidates. Do a second pass and prioritize the ones most likely to sell.”
“…U-Understood.” Nishino looked befuddled by the dense stream of information.
“Servo’s poison pill bylaws are pretty flimsy. They probably didn’t want to deter institutional investors. Let’s make them regret that decision, shall we?” Kaika flashed a cruel smile but quickly replaced it with a stern look as she focused on another board member. “Next.”
The meeting continued in similar fashion until Akane’s turn came. She had not been assigned to do anything due to her adamant opposition of Kaika’s plan. Kaika knew including Akane in the meetings was a major risk, but the woman’s position as a board member had to be respected. Besides, Akane could not move freely because she was a mere puppet of the investors she represented. The moment she did anything that did not align with their interests, she would get fired. But of course, she would not take everything lying down, either.
“I hear that you were not able to secure the metal source for alloy production,” said Akane.
Here it comes.
Without batting an eyelid, Kaika said, “Yes, but that’s a small setback. We can compensate if we rethink our dealings with other companies.”
“Or so you say, but we haven’t heard anything about your dealings with KyberCorp. Absorbing it is the most critical part of your strategy. Even if everything else works out perfectly, it’s all over once KyberCorp slips through.”
She knows how to hit where it hurts, at least.
Akane brought up the same problems that Makita raised in their call earlier. She was not a complete fool.
“As I said from the beginning, leave KyberCorp to me. I guarantee success on that end.”
“Like you guaranteed success with the mine? How can we trust the promise of someone who just broke her word?” Akane pushed up her glasses with her middle finger. “Your takeover scheme is too ambitious. We should stop now and cut our losses.”
“And wait for KyberCorp to overtake and swallow NGC? That may be fine for you, who is in that seat because someone died, but the rest of us have a legacy to uphold.”
“At least I worked to earn my position, unlike those who were only born into it.”
Looks like she’s grown a little since last time.
Kaika had expected Akane to lose control the moment Kazuki’s death was mentioned, but she had maintained her cool and even countered.
“I was talking about motivation, not entitlement,” said Kaika. “No one cares if you or I deserve to be here based on our past deeds. The question is whether we deserve to be here based on what we are going to accomplish.”
“But the risk-”
“You speak of risk as if it only lies in our current direction. Have you even considered what will happen if we do nothing? NGC is powerful, but hardly absolute. We’ve been slowly deteriorating for years now.” Kaika closed her eyes and gently shook her head. “Letting the possibility of defeat scare us into inaction is the height of foolishness. The certain doom awaiting cowardice is far more terrifying.” She lifted her beautiful long lashes, exposing the fire in her black irises. “The time to strike is now, while our fangs are still lethal.”
Akane tried to rebut but could not find the words. After a few moments, she said, “I must admit, you are good at rhetoric, much better than I am.”
“But I believe the people in this forum are realists. Words will not move them. Only facts do. And here are the facts: You failed once already, and KyberCorp is still not within grasp.”
Most of the faces on Kaika’s display nodded in agreement, except for one.
“I think we should stick to the plan,” said Makita.
Akane’s calm expression quickly soured. Kaika did her best to keep a grin from showing.
“We can’t run away each time we hit an obstacle. Not only would we not get anywhere, we’d be falling behind faster than ever.” Makita showed his clenched fist on screen. “I think it’s time we stop sitting on the fence and put some real effort into our respective tasks. We all agreed to this plan. It’s not just the CEO’s responsibility to make it work. It’s on all of us.”
The directors looked surprised by Makita’s statement. They knew he had always been quite conservative.
What they did not know was that he had always been Karasuma’s yes man. Makita acted like he respected, even loved, the former NGC CEO, but in reality, the latter had strong-armed him in every decision. Makita’s opinions had not mattered to Karasuma or Kazuki. He had no real experience in exerting influence within the corporate leviathan. That was why he did not have enough confidence to take the CEO chair himself. But no one alive knew any of that.
Because Karasuma had told her all about the man called Makita.
It had not been part of her education. To Karasuma, Makita had just been a funny joke to entertain his beloved daughter.
Makita harbored the illusion that he held true influence over Kaika. She had listened to his criticism, after all. She had even allowed him to make a decision that swayed the fate of NGC, of hundreds of millions of people. But most importantly, Kaika hated Karasuma as much as he did. At least, that was what he believed. Considering all that, it was impossible for him to side with the rest of the board, who had been using him as a megaphone to speak against the current CEO.
If Kaika had coerced Makita through blackmail, he would not have tried as hard to defend her position. Worse, he could have abandoned his granddaughter and fought her out of spite. She had simply chosen the most effective method, which she happened to excel at and love. Power was enough to move people despite their will. Moving the will itself, however, required finesse.
With Makita’s support, Akane’s misgivings were drowned out. Control of the conference fell back into Kaika’s hands. The CEO ended the meeting early enough to grab another cookie before heading out.