“Fine. I’ll leak that brat’s buyout plan to Servo,” said the woman on the screen. “If their management preempts NGC’s propaganda, then the shareholders won’t sell their stock, at least not at a reasonable price.” She sneered.
“Thank you, Nishino-san,” said Akane with a nod. A proper bow would have looked more sincere, but she thought this situation required her to show strength over candor.
“I’ll do the same with Decimware,” said Yamahashi. He stroked his ashen beard. “Warn them to move quietly. We don’t know how far that little lady’s ears reach.”
The corners of Nishino’s red lips curled down. “To be honest, I didn’t think you’d cooperate. You were really pushing Saionji.”
“Can you blame me? It was an ass really worth pushing.”
Nishino rolled her eyes. “What a simpleton. Did you really think you’d get some booty if she became CEO?”
“Couldn’t hurt to try. No one else was fit for the seat anyway. If only Makita just took over-”
“You’re still saying that? That fool is supporting this stupid takeover plan. Senility must have gotten the better of him.”
“Nikaidou probably blackmailed him,” said Akane. “The conservative Makita-san would not do something so bold otherwise.”
“It doesn’t matter why he’s doing it.” Nishino closed her eyes and shrugged. “Even if that were true, he’s no less of an idiot because he fell for such a ploy in the first place.”
“Indeed. As expected of Nishino-san, you-”
“Spare me. Buttering me up is useless. I still don’t think you deserve a place in the board.”
Yamahashi held out his hand. “Now, now, Kyoko-”
“How many times have I told you not to call me that, Ya-ma-ha-shi?”
Yamahashi looked away from the camera. Akane pursed her lips to trap a chuckle.
So the rumor about these two having a past together was true.
“Anyway,” said Nishino. “I don’t like you, Kogami, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. But we have bigger fish to fry.”
“She’s a little small if you ask me,” said Yamahashi.
A grim look showed on Akane’s face. “Please do not let Kaika Nikaido’s appearance deceive you.”
“I know, I know,” said the old man while waving a hand. “She did get rid of her entire family.”
Akane felt her temperature rise but kept her composure.
“That’s right. She’s a danger to NGC,” said Nishino. “Most of the directors are only following her orders because they think her plan will fail. A good portion of her wealth is going to be appropriated in this scheme. She’ll likely lose majority if it falls apart.”
“Do you really think she’ll gamble that?” asked Yamahashi.
“Her plan won’t work otherwise. I bet the other members are waiting like hyenas, nipping at her heels as she blindly walks on.”
“We’re no different.”
“Of course not,” said Nishino with a mocking tone, as if the old man had declared the earth’s roundness.
Yamahashi laughed. “You got me there. Looks like this matter is settled. I have to go. Still have other things to do.”
Nishino snorted. “A new woman?”
“Correction, ‘women.’ Hm, maybe ‘girls’ would be more appropriate? Ciao.”
Yamahashi’s perverted grin blipped out on Akane’s screen. She noticed Nishino’s eyebrow twitching but decided not to say anything about it.
Akane focused on Nishino and faked a determined look. “If all goes well, NGC will return to more deserving hands.”
“Oh, please. You don’t care about that at all.” Nishino looked at Akane curiously. “You really hate that brat and Saionji, don’t you?”
“That’s why I keep calling you green. You should’ve calmly denied that. Your motive reveals your heart, and that’s something you should never show anyone.”
Nishino’s wise, albeit backhanded, advice surprised Akane. “I thought you hated me?”
“I do, but I remembered that I hate some other people more.” Nishino covered her mouth and stifled a yawn. “Be careful with Yamahashi.”
Nishino ended the call.
What a wily woman.
Akane pondered whether Nishino’s concern was sincere or not. Unable to decide, she shelved that thought and stood from her chair. She took off her grey suit jacket, revealing a maroon camisole. Her subtle cleavage was visible just above the silk garment’s low neckline. Only black lace panties covered her lower half. She had not bothered to wear anything else because only her face and shoulders fit in the frame of the video call.
She made her way to the toilet. Without bothering to close the door, she lazily pulled down her panties and sat on the toilet seat. Thoughts of how to sabotage Kaika’s plans cycled through her head.
Akane enjoyed thinking while passing water. The deflating sensation cleared her head, allowing her to come up with better ideas. Focusing on the trickling sound also fended off intrusive worries. Before any bolt of inspiration descended, a bout of sleepiness assailed her. She closed her eyes, scratched the back of her head, and yawned.
Something cold was jammed into her open mouth.
“Scream and I’ll kill you.”
The voice was devoid of emotion. If one ignored the words, it did not sound intimidating at all. However, that contrast terrified her. She felt as if a bored grim reaper had come to take her soul to meet a daily quota. She opened her eyes and saw a masked man in a black suit. She realized the cold object was a knife as he pushed it against the corners of her mouth. Blood started to bead onto the blade. She had just emptied her bladder but felt the urge to go again. Paralyzed by fear, Akane could not even close her spread thighs.
“Nod if you understand,” he said.
While trying to control her rapid breathing, she willed herself to nod.
“Where is Jin Mishima? You can talk through the blade.”
She considered possibilities for escape. The masked man blocked the only exit. Her panties restrained her ankles. A knife was in her mouth. Impossible.
“I don’t know!” she said. Her tongue touched the metal. She was uncertain if the metallic flavor came from his blade or her blood.
“Really. Oh well.” The man casually pulled the knife away from her face and pressed it against her throat.
Akane realized she was about to die. “Wait! Please! I can find out! Don’t do it! I beg you..!” Her voice trembled even more than her scantily clad body. Mascara-laced tears dribbled down her cheek.
“What is your relationship with Jin?” he asked.
“He approached me! He wanted to work for me. I didn’t think he could be trusted, so I declined!”
That was a lie, but she herself no longer thought that. Her mind had spun into overdrive, focusing solely on survival.
“Did he say anything else?”
“He said he was like me, that he wanted revenge… I don’t know anything else. He left me with just a number. That’s right! I have his contact info! I can set up a meeting!”
The masked man remained silent for a few moments. “That’s better than nothing. Do it as soon as you can and send me the location.” He gave her a generic email address. “I only want that man. If you do as I say, you’ll never see me again. I think that’s in both of our best interests.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll do as you ask!” She nodded emphatically.
“Don’t even think about setting a trap. Never works, trust me. Trying will only prolong your suffering on my next visit.”
“I won’t! I swear!” She meant it. Mind-numbing fear had left her no other option.
“Alright then. Good night.” He wrapped his free hand around her neck.
“N-no! Please wai- Urgh!” She choked on her own words as he applied pressure.
“Don’t worry, you’ll wake up in a few hours,” said the masked man with a reassuring tone.
Akane could do nothing but succumb to the creeping darkness.
“Good evening, Saya.”
Saya, seated at the bar of an exclusive lounge, turned her head towards the voice. Seeing the person she was waiting for, she stood up and made an elegant bow. “Good evening, Masato-san.” The long skirt of her violet dress grazed the floor. She straightened her back but could not look at his face directly. “…I did not think I would receive such a pleasant greeting.”
“Why not?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. Masato’s hunched posture cheapened his designer suit.
“Are you not here to condemn me?”
Her friend, Masato Kuribayashi, displayed his usual lackadaisical smile. Though their bond had been forged to sabotage Kousuke Nikaido’s attempt to partner with Excell, it was still valuable to Saya. Her friends could be counted on one hand, after all. But she had still betrayed him.
“You came to meet me thinking that?” He grabbed the drink menu on the bar and scanned it with a contemplative expression. “Do you want to be condemned?”
“…No, not by you.”
“That makes me happy, assuming you’re telling the truth.”
Saya felt the thorny vines wrapping her heart tighten. She unconsciously placed a hand on her chest and looked down. “I… am sorry.”
Masato slapped the top of her head with the laminated menu. “Don’t apologize.”
“But I deceived you!” she said with a pained expression.
“And I got deceived. In this world, the majority of the fault lies with the victim. I don’t blame you.” He took a seat and gestured for her to do the same. “Please.”
Holding her skirt, Saya sat on the bar stool and crossed her legs. Masato asked the bartender to refresh Saya’s margarita and ordered a martini for himself.
“You look beautiful, as always,” he said.
Masato ran his eyes from her bare shoulders to her open-toe heels, but she did not feel uncomfortable. Saya could easily imagine him gazing at a flowerbed the same way.
“Thank you. You also look quite dressed up.”
“I figured I’d wear this expensive suit at least once before I retire.”
Saya almost fell out of her seat. “What!? What do you mean?”
“I’ve been wearing shabby ones to match my fake persona, right? Those targeting Excell wouldn’t come to me otherwise.”
Masato was an expert at weeding out those who wished to take advantage of his company. Kousuke was only one of his many victims, or rather, victories. As far as Saya knew, he loved and took pride in his post despite its distasteful image. She could not understand why someone like him would step down.
“Not that. You are retiring?”
“Oh that. Technically I was fired, but that sounds better for the company.”
It’s all my fault!
“Don’t make that face. That pains me more than getting an early start at retirement. The smile you wore last time we met fits you much better.”
The smile he was referring to was completely fake. Was he telling her that she was fit to be a traitor?
She recalled their meeting two weeks ago. After her visit to Kureha’s grave, she met with Masato and asked him to prepare an immense amount of merchandise for NGC’s ARMS manufacturing. For expediency, the supplies were produced before the agreement was put on paper. That was a common arrangement between the two companies, made possible by the trust between her and Masato. However, Saya backed out of the deal at the last minute. Excell’s enormous overstock led to large financial losses and a severe decline in shareholder trust.
The bartender served their drinks.
Masato took a sip of his martini. “Have you ever heard of wolfsbane?”
“Yes. Specifically, its exquisite purple flower. I couldn’t help but think of it after seeing you in that dress. The color matches almost perfectly.” He played with the olive in his drink. “Do you know how it got that name?”
Saya shook her head.
“It was once used as a poison to kill wolves. How fitting for an old wolf like me to fall in the same manner.” He made a bitter smile. “The most beautiful flowers are the most dangerous. I thought I knew that, but I happily drank your poison. I got what I deserved.”
Saya dipped her head. “I am so sorry.”
“Are you apologizing because you pity me?”
She gasped. “No! That is not-”
“Then stop. There’s nothing more insulting to the defeated than the victor regretting a good move.”
Saya gripped the dress covering her thigh. While staring at her untouched cocktail, she wracked her brain for a solution, a way to salvage her relationship with her friend. An idea popped in her head. Without thinking it through, she turned to Masato and said, “Excell will soon be under NGC’s control. I can have you reinstated-”
“One of the reasons Excell folded so easily is because NGC was willing to keep the management. Except me, that is. The directors made my removal a condition for selling. They must really hate me for causing this entire fiasco.” He chuckled.
“Then how about a post in NGC?”
His eyes sharpened. “I don’t need charity.”
She recalled how much pride this man had and scolded herself for trying to trample on it.
“…I really did not want to deceive you. I hated every second of it.”
“You had no choice, right?” he asked, his expression changing to a gentle one.
As if confessing to a priest, Saya admitted to her sins. “It is my fault. I made a mistake. This was the only way I could think of to make up for it. This is all because of my immaturity.”
Control of Excell, their power cell supplier, meant substantial savings in NGC’s large-scale ARMS production, an inevitable phase in Kaika’s grand design. The gains made up for the extra expense from the loss of the mine. Even though her mistress had smoothed over that failure with the board, the fact that they needed money had not changed.
“Did you know that wolfsbane has many names?” asked Masato.
The sudden question caught her off guard. “No.”
“One of them is Devil’s Helmet. That’s another reason why I think you resemble that flower so much. Flowers are beautiful, and that’s why so many wish to pluck them. Poison is sometimes necessary for survival.” He finished his martini in two large gulps. “You did it for the Nikaido lady, didn’t you?”
Masato knew all about her inseparable relationship with Kaika. He would definitely forgive her if she nodded now.
But she shook her head. “I did it for myself. There is something I must get back.”
Masato’s eyes went wide. “Well, that was unexpected. The entire conversation was going exactly as planned until now.” He casually pointed at Saya’s nose. “What’s most surprising is the regret all over your face earlier just disappeared. Is he that valuable?”
“Yes.” Immediately realizing she had been tricked, Saya blushed.
She had never mentioned Ageha to Masato before. It was uncouth to speak about a gentleman when in the company of another. However, Masato had clearly referred to her “something” as “he,” and she unwittingly confirmed it for him. She tried to come up with an excuse but only succeeded in waving her hands around in panic.
Masato laughed wholeheartedly. “Now we’re even.”
Saya looked away from Masato in embarrassment. She picked up her margarita and drank half of it in one go in an attempt to dampen her shame. She had no words to deny it. Getting Ageha back was her number one goal, and in order for that to be possible, there had to be a place for him to return to. Kaika’s plans had to succeed to meet that condition.
“Seeing you like this has already made this meeting worth the trip. But I do have one more thing left on the agenda. Think of it as payment for your adorable performance.”
“It is not a performance!” said Saya with a childish pout.
“You’ve changed a lot since I first met you. You’ve become more expressive, more ruthless, more magnetic.”
“I do not know if I agree with the last one.”
“You’re definitely more entertaining now.”
“…Everyone except me certainly seems to think so.” Saya felt somewhat dissatisfied.
“Akane Kogami is planning something with the other NGC directors.”
Saya’s loosened cheeks tightened up. “Is that information reliable?”
“She approached me, but I told her I’m not playing with Kazuki’s hand-me-down. Unfortunately, that means I don’t have any more useful information for you.”
“Why are you telling me this? I do not deserve your help.”
“Don’t get hung up over such a trivial thing.” Masato smiled kindly. “Isn’t it normal for the defeated to root for the victor? I don’t want you losing to someone so dull after beating me.”
Saya covered her mouth with her fingers and laughed lightly. “This isn’t the koshien, you know.”
“What’s the difference? We’re all just a bunch of kids trying their best to get a chance in the spotlight. Honestly, I’m thankful I got kicked out of that world. Glory is glorified.”
“I agree completely.”
“You never did strike me as someone who cared about that. What you do care about, though, makes me very curious.” He smirked with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
“I thought we were over that!”
“No, no, no.” He wagged his finger in front of her. “I have tons of free time now. I’ll have you accompany me til morning!” He ordered another pair of drinks for both of them. “So, tell me about this important person of yours. Father won’t approve of just anyone!”
“Since when did you become my father?” asked Saya with a giggle. Masato really did feel like the father she never had.
Of course, that made telling him about Ageha all the more embarrassing.
“Right on time,” said Akane.
Jin walked out from an alley. “What is it? You said it’s urgent.”
A day before, Akane sent Jin a message asking him to meet her at the place they first met. It sounded suspicious, so he observed the decrepit bar’s surroundings for a while before making his appearance.
“Something unexpected happened. It’ll take a while to explain. Before I get into it, do you have anything new to report?”
Jin beckoned Akane into the back alley. “Better avoid attention.”
She obediently followed him. “Seems you have something worth hearing.”
“I aim to please.”
Akane looked irked. “You understand why I’m not jumping for joy. After that mishap in Manila, I considered dropping our deal completely.”
“We’ve gone over that. Kusarigama working for Nikaido was well beyond anyone’s ability to predict.”
I thought Ageha killed those two.
He’s always useless when you need him.
Akane heaved a sigh. “Yeah, whatever. So, what do you have for me?”
“A gambling buddy of mine got a hit.” Jin moved closer to Akane and lowered his volume. “Kaika has been visiting the arena.”
“Arena? You mean that underground combat sport?”
“Sport? That’s sugarcoating it, but yeah. She seems to be gambling on the match turnouts and raking in cash. According to my source, she’s sponsoring a contestant in an ongoing tournament. Bets on her fighter every match.”
Akane’s eyes narrowed.
“What’s with that look?” asked Jin. “That’s valuable info, you know? It should be a lot easier to set up an ambush near the arena. The only other place she’s frequently at is her mansion, and that’s teeming with guards.”
A sinister smile surfaced on Akane’s face. “Good work, Jin.” She fixed her glasses with her middle finger.
“You used your left hand to fix your glasses. You always use the right.”
Akane stared at Jin wide-eyed. “Looks like you’re not as useless as I thought.”
Jin immediately realized that something was wrong.
Before he could move a step, someone grabbed him from behind and covered his mouth. Jin struggled, but the arms binding him were much stronger than his.
“I guess noticing my signal is worthy of some credit, but it’s pointless if you get caught anyway.”
Several men filed into the alley behind Akane.
But there was no one around when I checked!
“Why so surprised? You underestimate my people too much. It’s easy to hide from someone you know is coming. And you were so punctual too.”
“You look like you want to say something. Let him talk,” said Akane.
The large man released his mouth.
Jin steadied his ragged breathing and glared at Akane with hatred. “What the hell is this about!?”
“It’s simple. Your services are no longer needed.”
“What the fuck does that mean!?”
“You’ve outlived your usefulness. Your failure in Manila was too expensive.”
Jin noticed Akane subtly gulp. “It’s Ageha isn’t it? He got to you, rattled you.”
Akane dropped her calm facade. The bridge of her nose crumpled as her eyelids flared in anger. “Yes, that’s right! He showed up in my house! In my bathroom! I almost got killed because of you! This is all your fault!”
“W-Wait, you’re not thinking of something stupid, are you?”
“Like getting rid of you myself? I thought about it, but I have no idea how he’ll react to that. He told me to hand you over. It sounded like he wants to kill you himself.”
Jin made the most relaxed face he could muster. “Think about this calmly. The best solution is to team up and kill him. Now that he knows about you, you’ll never be safe. Do you really think he’ll obediently leave you alone if you hand me over?”
“I can’t say for sure, but that sounds better than keeping fresh meat on my lap while a wolf is on the loose.”
Jin glared at her. “If you do that, I’ll tell him everything I know about you. If he finds out you tried to kill his boss, he’ll go after you next.
Akane scrutinized Jin’s face. “Didn’t you tell me those two split up?”
Jin believed that as well, but he had to say otherwise in order to convince Akane. “All I said was that he was no longer her personal chef. Who knows how they’re tied up behind the scenes. Are you willing to take that chance?”
Akane’s lips bent into a wicked grin. “I never intended to hand you over in the first place. I told him I rejected your offer to work for me. If he finds out I lied about that, he might kill me too. You’re the one who kept telling me how much of a monster he is.”
“Then tell this guy to let me go.” Jin cocked his head towards the man restraining him. “Face it, Kogami. You have no choice but to help me kill that bastard.”
“You’re right… or so I thought. Before coming here, I wasn’t really sure what I should do with you. But fortunately, you gave me some good info.”
Jin recalled the smirk Akane showed after hearing about Kaika’s gambling hobby. Dread choked his heart and warped his face.
“That look tells me you guessed right,” she said. “I’ll use you as a ticket to the arena. I hear they keep expendable people like you and use them for sideshows. I’ll tell them you owe me money and throw you in there.”
Jin knew that people who messed with powerful individuals occasionally got donated to the arena as entertainment material. A woman he scammed before had disappeared for that reason. Though not a requirement, these donations made it easier to gain entry to the arena because they ensured that the donor stood on the wrong side of the law.
“I can kill two birds with one stone. I’ll tell Shikimi that someone you pissed off threw you in there. That should get him off my back. The best thing about this is he can’t get to you because you’d be surrounded by arena security. Even if by some miracle he does, you two won’t have the time to leisurely chat about me.”
“Are you crazy!? I’m gonna die either way!”
With a raised eyebrow, Akane tilted her head. “Exactly?”
One of Akane’s men smashed a fist into his face. His knees buckled, but he was held up by his arms. He glared at Akane’s back as she walked away. That last attempt at rebellion quickly ended as a rather methodical beating began.