“So, did the person we’re meeting pick this place?” asked Ageha.
“I chose the venue,” said Kaika. “Dissatisfied?”
“No, it’s fine.”
They were seated beside each other on the tatami floor of an inn’s communal dining room. The space, enclosed by paper dividers, was large enough to fit about twenty guests. Saya and Arashi formed a line with them on one side of the room. Saya held a perfect seiza without a hint of fatigue. Arashi, oblivious to manners, sat cross-legged.
The constant buzz of pouring rain filled the gaps in their conversation.
“Just seems like a bit of a waste,” said Ageha. “Staying at a Japanese-style inn after coming all the way to China.”
Ageha had endured a long drive to get to the inn. He felt a little disappointed to see such a familiar setting.
“What? Don’t you know this place is secretly famous for its amazing food? You’re so out of the loop, Ageha.”
“What does ‘secretly famous’ even mean?”
“How should I know? I’m just quoting a food blog I read a few days ago.”
“Don’t brag about info you just skimmed off the net!”
A voice came from behind the sliding door. “Please pardon the interruption. Your visitors have arrived.”
“Come in,” said Kaika.
Ageha turned to the room entrance. The paper door opened soundlessly, revealing a kneeling woman in a simple black kimono. Her hair was neatly bound in a bun behind her head. Wong Setsu, the inn’s manager, carried herself in an elegant and formal manner that rivaled even Saya. Her round eyes and pleasant face made her appear quite young, but the mature timbre of her voice suggested she was older than the butler. Despite her Chinese surname, she spoke perfect Japanese.
The door opened further. Ageha jumped to his feet upon seeing the person standing next to Setsu.
“Long time no see, Ageha,” said Valeriya. The right sleeve of her purple kimono hung loosely at her side.
“Kai, what’s the meaning of this?” asked Ageha.
Kaika raised her head to meet his gaze. “Just to be clear, I didn’t lie to you. You just never asked who we were meeting.”
That was true. Ageha tried not to involve himself in the political side of Kaika’s operations. Still, he felt a little irked at being blindsided. In contrast, Valeriya seemed to know he would be there and calmly entered the room.
Ageha knew Kaika was still linked to Valeriya in more ways than one. Even if Kaika had made peace, he had not forgiven the Russian’s betrayal. After the final match months ago, Valeriya had reported Ageha to the arena officials and asked for his capture. Her actions had placed the gravely wounded Saya in mortal danger. That courtesy had not yet been repaid.
Valeriya raised her left hand, signaling him to stop. “Please wait.”
Ignoring her plea, Ageha stepped forward. He prepared his alloy muscles for motion. While Valeriya was technically no match for his enhanced body, she was still a dangerous fighting prodigy. He would not underestimate her again.
Something black peeked out from behind Valeriya, gluing Ageha’s feet to the floor.
What’s she doing here!?
With her trademark arrowhead pout, Mitsuki glared at Ageha from behind her mother.
Valeriya made a pleading smile. “Please?”
Ageha took a deep breath and jerked his head towards the far door. “Outside.”
“Ageha,” said Kaika with a concerned tone.
“I understand. I’ll listen first.”
Kaika stood up. “I’m going too.”
“Mitsuki, stay here with these ladies for a bit,” said Valeriya. “Don’t forget to introduce yourself properly, okay?”
The raven-haired micro-nadeshiko looked at her with worry. “Where are you going?”
Valeriya pressed her index and middle finger together, as if holding an imaginary cigarette. “Just outside for a short break.”
Ageha shot her an accusatory look. “Didn’t you quit smoking?”
“Who said anything about smoking? I’m just going to suck a loli.”
“A lollipop. That abbreviation makes it sound illegal, especially coming from you.”
Valeriya closed her eyes and shrugged her shoulders. “Snarky as always.”
The Russian parted from her daughter, giving Mitsuki full view of the other people inside the room.
“Arashi!?” shouted Mitsuki. “What are you doing here?”
The teen with unkempt hair focused on Mitsuki, her face lighting up. They jogged towards each other and began chatting.
Seeing this, Valeriya frowned at Kaika.
Kaika shook her head. “I’m just as surprised as you are.”
Ageha was similarly dumbfounded.
How do those two know each other?
Saya gave him an appeasing look. “I will handle things here. Please go.”
Ageha nodded and sought agreement from Kaika and Valeriya with his eyes. The two bosses nodded and followed him out of the room. Sandwiched between Ageha and Valeriya, Kaika looked like a tiny house in the shade of skyscrapers, but she acted the most composed among them. They exited the building and faced off on the inn’s porch.
“Talk,” said Ageha.
As he expected, the rain muffled his voice enough to prevent eavesdropping.
Valeriya lowered her head. “I’m sorry for betraying you that night. I let my emotions get the better of me.”
“Saya almost died because of what you did. Then again, that was your aim, wasn’t it?”
Still bowed, Valeriya turned her head to Kaika. “You told him that?”
“I didn’t want to, but I had no choice,” said Kaika. “Don’t ask, it’s complicated.”
Valeriya straightened her body. “I can’t deny that, but that was then. I don’t hold any ill feelings towards Saionji anymore.”
“I’m planning to establish a partnership with Ria. It’s necessary for the next phase. Saya is aware of this, and she did not object.” Kaika implored Ageha with her eyes. “Can you put aside your anger for now?”
In truth, Ageha did not hate Valeriya. Although she had attempted to kill Saya, no permanent damage had been done. If Saya herself was willing to work with Valeriya as Kaika said, he had no reason to stubbornly reject the Russian. If he kept hating every person who had tried to hurt either him or those he held dear, there would be no end to it. Arashi, Kaika, and even Saya fell into that category. It would be unfair to forgive them but not Valeriya.
“Understood.” Ageha glared at the Russian. “But you owe me one, Ria.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Then we’re good.” His face relaxed.
Valeriya sighed in relief, while Kaika revealed a satisfied smile.
“You two get along really well,” he said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were old friends.”
“Friends?” Valeriya laughed. “Far from it. We’re fated enemies. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.”
“Did you two plan this behind my back?”
Kaika had even gotten Saya’s permission to ally with the Russian in advance. It felt too premeditated.
“That’s a mean way to put it. I simply asked Kai for advice on how to make up with you. I had a couple things in mind, but she insisted that a straight apology would work best. She was right. Guess I’m no match for your true mistress.”
“I feel like I’ve been duped.” Ageha sighed and slightly slumped his shoulders.
“Don’t sulk. Well, that’s cute in its own way.” Valeriya approached him and reached for his hair.
Before she could make contact, her sleeve got pulled downward.
“Hands off my property,” said Kaika.
“But nothing beats a possessive loli!!!” Valeriya wrapped her arm around Kaika and hugged her tightly, pressing the girl’s face into the bottomless valley between her breasts.
“MMffgh! Hggh! Age-fuh!!! Hel-pughhh!”
“You didn’t lie, but you hid the truth,” said Ageha. “Think of this as punishment.”
After Valeriya had her fill and Kaika caught her breath, the three of them returned to the dining room. A dangerous atmosphere greeted them, as if a single spark could cause an explosion.
“Ageha-sama.” Saya smiled at him, but her eyes had lost their shine. “Mitsuki-san has been telling me about your strip, I mean, trip to the pool. And your close relationship with Arashi.”
“Calm down,” said Ageha. “We weren’t a couple yet when I went to the pool with Mitsuki. And you know very well what kind of relationship I have with Arashi. Are you really getting jealous over a bunch of kids?”
“I am worried precisely because they are kids.”
“Don’t say things people will misunderstand.”
“Seems we’re fated not to get along,” said Valeriya while shaking her head. “I can’t be friends with the competition.”
“Don’t group me with you, you pervert.”
Ignoring Ageha’s comeback, Valeriya approached Arashi. “So you’re Kai’s bodyguard, huh? I’ve seen videos of you before, but the real thing always looks better. Judging from Mitsuki’s reaction earlier, you must be the one who helped her during the summer festival.”
Arashi meekly nodded.
“I have one thing to say to you.”
Ageha and Saya stopped bickering and pricked their ears, waiting for Valeriya’s next words.
“I won’t return Shinocchi even if you ask!!!”
Arashi, along with everyone in Kaika’s party, tilted their head.
“She’s talking about the anime figure you won at the festival,” said Mitsuki. “Sorry, Ria placed it in her display room the moment she saw it.”
“Keep… it,” said Arashi.
“…You won’t take that back?” asked Valeriya.
“You have an interesting mother,” said Saya.
“Isn’t she amazing?” With a proud smile, Mitsuki watched the Russian parade around the dining room, dragging the languid Arashi by hand.
“Uh, you are amazing too.”
The chaos continued until Setsu and a few female staff brought dinner. Bearing witness to the ruckus, a certain sentiment was cemented within Ageha.
Women are noisy.
Everyone eventually settled down after trays of food were laid in front of them. A vibrantly colored appetizer decorated their plate.
“I was prepared for rude service and unsanitized utensils when I came to China,” said Kaika. “I even studied how to wash my plate and chopsticks with tea. I certainly didn’t expect a kaiseki for my first meal here. I’m almost disappointed.”
Setsu, while kneeling on the tatami, bowed deeply. “I apologize if it did not meet your expectations.”
“No no, I wasn’t criticizing the meal. Pardon my careless words.” Kaika lifted a piece of her appetizer and gracefully placed it in her small mouth. “…Excellent. I haven’t had anything this good since…” Trailing off, Kaika glanced at Ageha.
Ageha took a bite.
This isn’t a Japanese dish.
A flavorful sauce topped the cold slice of beef shank wrapped around thinly shredded seasoned jellyfish. A small flower with petals made of paper-thin pork was also on the plate. The attention to color and appearance reflected Japanese sensibility, but the flavors used were predominantly Chinese. The dish was an ingenious rearrangement of a Chinese cold cuts course.
“Very good,” he said.
Kaika made a stupefied face. “Did you just praise someone else’s cooking wholeheartedly? I must be hallucinating.”
“I’m just telling the truth.”
“Thank you for the praise,” said Setsu.
“Who made this?”
“That would be my husband. He is our head chef.”
“Why does he serve Chinese food in a Japanese-style inn?”
“This inn was originally established by my parents to cater to tourists and locals who wish to experience a traditional Japanese inn. We originally served Japanese food, but when my husband took over the kitchen, the menu was changed. He specializes in Chinese cuisine. The mixture of styles may be a little unusual, but our regular guests are a big fan of his meals.”
“If possible, I would like to meet your husband later. Oh, but I don’t know Chinese.”
“That is not a problem. He can speak Japanese quite well. I taught him after we got married. My mother was Japanese so I naturally picked up the language as a child.” A proud smile surfaced on Setsu’s face. “I will introduce you when you have finished your meal.”
“No need to rush. I can go when he’s done with work.”
“He should be done by then. We have no other guests tonight. The entire inn has been reserved for your group.”
“Then I’ll take you up on that offer.”
The meal continued without a fuss, except for Arashi asking for seconds of each course. Setsu happily obliged, as if she herself was being praised.
After everyone finished their meal, Valeriya asked Mitsuki to go play with Arashi in a different room.
“Can’t I stay with you?” asked Mitsuki.
“Sorry, but you’re still too young for our conversation. Can you do it for me? Pretty please?” Valeriya puckered her lips as she pleaded.
“Disgusting,” whispered Kaika.
Ageha, the only one who heard her, nodded.
Mitsuki shyly pointed at Kaika. “But isn’t she a kid like me?”
Valeriya wagged her index finger. “You musn’t get tricked. Despite her looks, she’s a reincarnated witch and an immortal vampire.”
Arashi, mouth agape, stared at Kaika.
Kaika stood up and slapped Arashi’s head. “Don’t believe her!” She turned to Valeriya. “And if you’re gonna make up some random backstory, at least choose only one! That setting is too convoluted! How can someone immortal get reincarnated in the first place!?”
Ignoring Kaika’s protests, Valeriya patted Mitsuki’s head. “Go on. I’ll call you back when we’re done.”
Mitsuki obediently went to the other room, pulling Arashi by the hand.
“Saya, order us some alcohol,” said Kaika. “About this much.” She raised a few fingers.
“Understood, Ojousama.” Saya stood up and left the room.
“Hey, shouldn’t we be calling it ‘juice?’ You know, to avoid trouble,” said Valeriya.
“With everything that’s happened so far, calling a drink by its proper name is the least of our worries.”
Ageha also left his seat and headed for the exit.
“Wait, you don’t have to leave too.” said Kaika. “Oh, sorry, if you’re following Saya and do something you can’t talk about, don’t let me stop you.”
“I’m just going to meet the chef.” Ageha closed the door behind him.
Upon reaching the lobby, he spotted Setsu giving directions to the inn staff and asked her to introduce him to her husband. She readily agreed. They entered the kitchen and approached a slightly lanky man wearing a black apron. He looked a few years older than Ageha.
“Dear, one of our guests wanted to meet you,” said Setsu. She then stepped aside and motioned towards her husband. “This is my husband, Wong Mei Xing.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Mei Xing. He stood about an inch or two taller than Ageha, not counting the raised end of the black kerchief covering his head.
“Mei Xing?” mumbled Ageha.
“I guess a Japanese person would notice. Or do you perhaps speak Chinese?”
“No, I don’t speak Chinese, but I have worked with a few Chinese people in the past. Isn’t Mei Xing a female name?”
“You got me there.” Mei Xing’s thin eyes turned into straight lines as he laughed.
“This man is Shikimi Ageha-sama,” said Setsu. A slight irritation could be heard in her voice.
“Nice to meet you,” said Ageha. “And Setsu-san, I meant no disrespect. I have a rather feminine name myself, so I found the similarity interesting.”
“Looks like he got you too, Setsu,” said Mei Xing. “I’m happy you’re so eager to defend me, but you shouldn’t be rude to a guest. Your parents would roll over in their graves if they saw that just now.”
Contrary to his words, Mei Xing’s tone was cheerful. Ageha understood he was playing the situation off as a joke to save his wife from embarrassment.
With an almost invisible blush on her cheeks, Setsu bowed. “I apologize for my behavior. I just-”
“Please raise your head, it was my fault for saying something inappropriate,” said Ageha.
After they exchanged apologies, a waitress approached Setsu and whispered a few words.
“Dear, I’m going out to buy drinks for our guests. It seems we may not have enough in stock.”
“Alright. But will you make it?” Mei Xing checked the wall clock. “The shops in town are about to close.”
“Hm, you’re right. I can call ahead, but keeping them open for a long time would be-”
“Please do not worry,” said Saya as she approached them. “I can drive you to the store. I guarantee we will make it in time.”
“We could not possibly impose such a thing on one of our guests.”
“I am Ojousama’s aide before I am a guest. She has instructed me to procure drinks, so I am merely doing my best to fulfill her command.”
“Please take her up on the offer,” said Ageha with a smile. “She’s more stubborn than she looks.”
Setsu peeked at her husband, as if communicating with her eyes. They nodded at the same time.
“I humbly accept your offer,” said Setsu. “Dear, please keep Shikimi-sama company in the meantime.”
The two ladies departed, leaving their partners alone in the kitchen.
“So, was there anything of concern with the meal?” asked Mei Xing.
“No, it was delicious. Actually, I wanted to ask about you.”
“Me? I’m afraid I’m not that interesting.” He waved his hand, as if dismissing Ageha’s interest.
“What are you doing in a place like this?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” Mei Xing scratched the back of his head with a smile.
“I think you do. Someone of your caliber shouldn’t be wasting your time here.”
Mei Xing stopped his hand, but his smile did not falter. “Who are you?”
“A chef like you.”
Mei Xing’s eyebrows jerked up. “Oh, so that’s it.” A faint sigh of relief escaped his lips.
Who did he think I was?
Ageha pondered for a bit but decided to shelve that line of thought.
“Then where do you think I should be?” asked Mei Xing.
“With your skills, you could be working at the top hotels or restaurants in the country, no, the world. I hate to admit it, but you might even be better than me at my best.”
“‘I’m grateful for the praise,’ is that what you thought I would say?” Mei Xing’s smile never broke, but his tone changed ever so subtly. “To answer your question, I’m here because my wife and daughter are here. I’m afraid I have nothing more to say to someone who can’t understand that much.”
Ageha lost his words.
“I know you meant no disrespect,” said Mei Xing, “but words speak much louder than intentions. As for the motive behind your question, were you perhaps asking yourself the same thing?”
Mei Xing’s words were polite, and his voice contained no malice, but each syllable hammered Ageha’s core. Ageha had unconsciously voiced an opinion almost identical to his father’s. The inherent value of recognition was more ingrained in him than he had realized.
Ageha blinked a few times. “You have something… more important than recognition.”
The stiffness in Mei Xing’s smile disappeared. “Indeed. I’m glad you understand. Are you perhaps in a similar situation?”
“…You could say that. It’s nothing as admirable as yours, though.”
“Don’t be modest. She seems like a fine lady.”
“You mean Saya?”
“Wasn’t she your reason?” Mei Xing scratched his hair again. “Odd, I was sure you two were a couple.”
Ageha had immediately thought of helping Kaika as his reason for quitting Sapore. But Mei Xing was correct. The main reason he worked for Kaika was to protect Saya. Protecting the little devil herself was a close but second priority.
“We are, and you’re right.”
Ageha’s doubts about his own decision had surfaced when confronted by Mei Xing’s situation. He felt ashamed for pushing his own insecurities onto someone he just met. Putting aside their skills as chefs, he had completely lost to this man’s resolve.
Ageha bowed deeply. “I’m sorry.”
“Forget about it.” Mei Xing extended a hand towards him.
Ageha raised his head and accepted the handshake.
“Ouch, you have a strong grip,” said Mei Xing, wincing.
“Sorry!” Ageha released his hand. “I’ll be going now. Sorry for bothering you.”
“Wait, can we chat some more?”
“I don’t mind, but I don’t want to get in the way of your work.”
Ageha had no male friends, at least not anymore, so speaking with Mei Xing was a rare experience. Still, he did not want to intrude.
Mei Xing took off his kerchief and ruffled his sweaty hair. “If Setsu finds out that you walked off after I said such impolite things, she’d kill me. Doesn’t matter if she was rude to you first.”
Ageha laughed and corrected a certain sentiment within him.
Women are noisy and scary.
“Sorry about this,” said Setsu as she coddled her four-year-old daughter. “Li Xue can be a little spoiled sometimes.”
Only Saya, in the driver’s seat, wore her seat belt. Setsu rode shotgun with Li Xue on her lap. Earlier, the little girl had seen her mother about to leave the inn and insisted on tagging along.
“I do not mind at all. How could I complain about having such a cute passenger?” Glancing at Li Xue, Saya completed another drift as she plunged down the twisting mountain roads.
Li Xue tucked her face into Setsu’s armpit, as if hiding from Saya’s eyes. Only her short pigtails and red ears were visible in that position.
“She likes to tag along when I go on errands.”
“Do you drive often?”
“Not at all. I’m a horrible driver. My husband stops me whenever he sees me reaching for the keys.” Setsu chuckled softly. “But there are times when there’s nobody around to drive me or watch Li Xue, so I sneak out and drive with her in the backseat.”
“That is… interesting.”
Saya had heard of China’s aversion to seatbelts and carseats, but taking a child along despite being a terrible driver bothered even her uncommon common sense.
“I have to say, your driving is amazing. You’ve probably broken the speed record for this mountain pass, but Li Xue is perfectly fine. She usually gets a little sick when I’m at the wheel.”
“This is easy compared to not spilling a cup brimming with water.”
“Sorry, I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Please do not mind it. I am just a little energetic after having such an excellent meal. Your husband is very skilled.”
“Thank you. I will be sure to pass on the compliment.”
“Do you cook as well, Setsu-san?”
“I married my husband because of his cooking. Does that answer your question?” Setsu giggled.
Saya laughed. “More or less.”
“Whoever said ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ clearly doesn’t know anything about a woman’s heart. Or her appetite.”
“I can understand that.”
“Oh? Is Shikimi-sama a good cook?”
“W-What do you mean?”
“Were you actually trying to hide your relationship? It was obvious from the way you look at each other.”
“You don’t have to be so surprised. That’s normal between lovers. Anyway, is he skilled in the kitchen?”
“Ageha was a sous chef at an Italian restaurant.”
“He resigned just a few weeks ago to work as Ojousama’s personal chef.”
Setsu made a teasing smile. “You’re so loved!”
“It is not like that. He simply chose the more lucrative job.”
“No need to be humble.”
“I… I am not.” Saya focused more intently on the road, her face forlorn.
Saya knew Ageha’s resignation was partly driven by his guilt over Rin.
“Seems like there’s a bit more to it. I can lend an ear, if you’d like.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I cannot possibly bother someone I just met with something like that.”
“Isn’t it better because we hardly know each other? Some things are easier to share with passing strangers than to family. I may not look it, but I have a lot of experience in these types of things. The staff at the inn come to me all the time with all sorts of worries. Think of it as thanks for driving me.”
Saya hesitated, but she decided that it would not hurt to share her and Ageha’s story as long as she omitted certain dangerous details. She told Setsu about Rin, Ageha’s guilt, and her own inability to help him through it.
Setsu tightly shut her eyes, her brow crumpled. “That’s a very delicate situation. Guilt can be very hard to let go. The more you want to, the more it spreads its roots. I told you about how I married Mei Xing because of his cooking, right?”
“That was actually true. A few years after my parents opened this inn, business started declining. The Japanese menu wasn’t popular, and our chef wasn’t that skilled. We even considered closing down. That was when Mei Xing visited the inn by chance during his travels. He took a liking to me, and we became friends.” Setsu gently stroked the sleeping Li Xue’s head. “He wanted to impress me and borrowed the kitchen to make me breakfast. One bite and I knew he was our inn’s last hope.” Her kind smile turned slightly bitter. “I… I didn’t actually love him at that time, but I accepted his feelings and we got married. Business boomed after he took the helm at the kitchen.”
“That is not surprising considering his skill. I believe he would do very well even in world-class restaurants.”
“That’s partly why I felt guilty. First, I married him with impure motives. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I soon fell head over heels for him.”
While expertly steering out of another drift, Saya smiled to dismiss Setsu’s concern. “That much is obvious.”
“And second, I kept him from spreading his wings in a larger world. I… trapped him here.” Setsu took a deep breath and smiled. “But that’s all in the past. Now we have Li Xue, and it’s almost scary how happy we are. Shikimi-sama’s case is quite different from mine. I don’t think I can be of any help.”
“Please do not worry about it. I am satisfied hearing such a heart-warming story.”
“It’s too early to give up. I’ll talk to my husband when we get back. He might be the perfect person for it.”
“…Why are you going so far to help us?” Saya could not help but show a wary look.
“I was a little rude to Shikimi-sama earlier. It’s the least I can do.”
“I’m surprised you brought your daughter along,” said Kaika, sitting cross-legged on the tatami. “I appreciate the trust, but don’t you think it’s a little dangerous to get her involved?”
Valeriya, alone with her in the dining room, pulled a grape lollipop from her mouth, making a smacking sound. “I’m not caring for a lamb. I’m rearing a lioness. That was the choice she made.”
“The apple refused to roll away of its own accord?”
“I can’t say I didn’t influence her somewhat, but the final decision was, and still is, hers to make. How about you? You seem to be having fun with that girl Arashi.”
“It’s a little odd raising someone older than myself, but it isn’t boring.”
“How’s her mother?”
“…Where did you hear about that? No, I can guess. Gossip is inseparable from showbiz, after all.”
“Don’t blame her. The value may go up or down, but a price tag, once put on something, is permanent. It’s just a matter of who’s buying.” Valeriya stared into Kaika’s eyes. “You don’t look too worried.”
“As long as Ageha is here, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“True. I intend to leave her alone, for now anyway.”
Kaika pondered what to do next. Valeriya had taken the first move. Negotiations hinged on leverage, and leverage only mattered if both parties were aware of it. She had to even the playing field, even if it cost her one of the stronger cards in her hand.
“How’s Sakuya?” asked Kaika.
“…I gotta say I didn’t expect that.”
“Psychiatrists are a liability. That’s why I never visit one.”
“I should’ve made Ageha promise to keep quiet about Mitsuki’s past.”
“And he would’ve kept it. With that clue, I tracked down her doctors and the rest was easy. I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but that was fairly careless of you.”
“The entire thing between Mitsuki and Ageha is a careless mistake.” Valeriya shook her head. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you said you planned it.”
“I planned it.”
Valeriya’s eyes grew wide.
“What?” Kaika raised an eyebrow. “Why do you look so impressed?”
“I was really careful not to underestimate you, but I guess I failed to account for your rapid growth. Intellectually, I mean. Your body is perfect the way it is.” Valeriya licked her lips before re-inserting the lollipop.
Kaika shrugged off the sexual harassment. “To be more accurate, I didn’t plan it. I predicted it the moment I heard Ageha landed on your doorstep. He has a soft spot for kids, and vice versa. It was only a matter of time.”
“You make it sound easy. It took me months to conquer Mitsuki. Ageha just took advantage of her maidenly heart.”
“And he didn’t kill her father.”
Valeriya bit into her lollipop to finish it off. “There’s that too. In any case, I’m glad you haven’t lost your edge. If anything, you’re sharper than ever.”
“If you’re satisfied with your tests, then let’s get down to business.”
“How impatient.” Valeriya flashed a childish pout as she unwrapped a strawberry sucker. “Go on then.”
“I want to gain control of the metal processing plants in Guangxi. Zhang isn’t being cooperative.”
Guangxi was a Chinese autonomous region. That meant it had the cheap labor and relatively lax laws. The large area included a convenient coastline that would allow NGC to process and transport massive quantities of alloy via sea. Control over that area was essential to her plans.
“I know all that. What exactly do you want from me?”
“Your organization has significant pull with the Chinese triads. I’m going to meet Zhang in a few days. I need something that can convince him to sell his influence over Guangxi to me.”
“It’s true that my organization has been allied with the triads even before the wars ended, but that makes me wonder all the more why you think I’d betray them to help you.”
“I’m not asking you to betray the triads. I’m asking you to help them. Zhang and his society have everything to gain and nothing to lose from my proposal, but he has constantly refused meetings until Colonel Liu stepped in. Zhang’s illogical stubbornness is hurting his own people.”
“Even I don’t understand why he’s taking such a stance in this matter. Having the financial backing of NGC would ensure his society’s top spot among the triads.”
“Right? The way I see it, I have two options: One, to remove Zhang from his seat of power, or two, to somehow succeed in negotiating with him. I was hoping you could lend your aid with either of those.”
“And what would I get in return?”
Kaika faked the most adorable face she could muster. “Can’t you do it for me?”
“Guh!!! Gotta look away!” Valeriya covered her eyes with her kimono sleeve and turned to the side. “How cheap!”
“Tsk. Didn’t work.”
“Did you actually expect it to work!?”
“It was worth trying.” Kaika shrugged. “Kidding aside, I heard that you recently invested in extending power grids to the rural poor in less developed countries. Even with unlimited energy from fusion reactors, it’s pointless without power lines. Establishing a power network for numerous small communities scattered in faraway locations isn’t cost effective. It would be better to use solar power and the like for those. However, since the fusion energy revolution, research and implementation of other energy sources has practically halted. That makes your goal of building self-sufficient power plants for those straggler communities very difficult.”
“Your information network is impressive as always.”
“NGC is willing to lend you the expertise of our power cell researchers and invest in making your goal a reality.”
“…Can you even do such a thing?”
“Aside from cybernetics, I have a practical monopoly over alternative energy research and development. Your power and funding in the underworld are vast, but those have great limitations when used legally. Money doesn’t grow on trees, after all. Much less from orphanages. I, on the other hand, can easily throw cash around in the daytime without worrying about the consequences. More freely than you, anyway.”
“Very attractive.” The Russian held her chin and closed her eyes. “But I don’t think I can answer your expectations.”
Kaika’s gaze sharpened. “I don’t have time for jokes.”
“I wish I was joking. Even if it’s for the sake of the children in those impoverished villages, I can’t do what I can’t do. The Soaring Serpent Society, representing all of the Chinese triads, has cut ties with my organization.”
“I only heard about it on the way here. I don’t know what Zhang is planning, but he seems to be intent on isolating the Chinese triads from other organizations, including yours.”
Kaika did her best to read Valeriya. The Russian was telling the truth.
Valeriya idly twirled the lollipop in her mouth. “It wasn’t a hostile affair. They paid their dues, in respect and in cash, before announcing their separation. I can’t go after him anymore.”
“Does he want to be the sole ruler in his own little kingdom?”
Valeriya shrugged. “Who knows?”
Kaika stared at the floor and gripped her skirt tightly, causing countless creases to form.
“I have a different proposal,” said Valeriya.
Kaika looked back up. “I’m listening.”
“Get rid of Zhang. Of course, you’re welcome to try to negotiate with him, but if that fails, just take him out. You have an overpowered team of assassins on your side. That much is doable, right?”
“Another leader will just take his place.”
“That part you can leave to me.”
“So you’ve had your eyes on him from the start.”
“That man is too charismatic. The previously clashing triads started coming together quickly since he took the top. Once he’s gone, my organization can simply support a different society to take the place of the headless Soaring Serpent. Then you’ll have your processing plants.”
“You make it sound easy, but I’m the one shouldering all the risk. Even Ageha isn’t immortal, and a war with the triads is the last thing I want. I’ll consider that option as a last resort. A peaceful resolution is ideal.”
“That won’t be easy.”
“I’m Kaika Nikaido.”
Both of them fell silent. Although Kaika was not able to get what she wanted, the meeting was not fruitless. She had obtained information about her opponent, allowing her to see his motivations a bit more clearly. An idea popped into her head.
It seems Ria doesn’t know that other detail about Zhang.
I can work with this.
“Let’s end the business talk here.” Kaika took the bottle of baijiu on the table and poured some into Valeriya’s cup. “Please.”
“Mitsuki doesn’t like it when I drink.”
“Don’t be such a stiff. Saya and the manager are off buying more bottles. Let’s empty this one before they get back.”
“Like I said-”
Kaika raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Could it be that you can’t hold your liquor?”
Valeriya’s cheek twitched. “Are you already drunk? I’m Russian. I drink vodka for breakfast.”
“Then let’s have a drinking contest. First one to quit or drop loses.”
The Russian unveiled a confident grin. “Sure, I’ll take you on.”
I may have bitten off more than I can chew.
Kaika possessed relatively strong tolerance thanks to her upbringing under Karasuma, but she could not shake the feeling that Valeriya had roped her into this contest. There was also the disparity in their body size, which was a significant factor in alcohol tolerance. Her opponent was five foot ten, a full foot taller than she was.
The blonde filled Kaika’s cup with transparent distilled liquid. The stench of ethanol seared Kaika’s nostrils.
This is stronger than I expected.
I’ll have to carefully pace myself.
Without showing hesitation, Kaika raised her ceramic cup. “A toast to our continued friendship.”
Valeriya raised her cup as well.
They emptied their cups in one go.
And Valeriya flopped down on the floor unconscious.
Kaika stared in shock at her defeated opponent.
A strange sound came from Valeriya’s lips. “Uguuu~”
The sliding door to the dining room slammed open.
“Ria!!!” Mitsuki rushed over to her mother with beast-like ferocity.
Kaika reflexively shuffled backward, still on her bottom.
“You!” Mitsuki glared at Kaika. “You made Ria drink, didn’t you!?”
“Uh, we were supposed to have a drinking contest, but we just had one toast…”
“What’s that sound..?” asked Kaika.
“Ria makes it whenever she’s in trouble, like when she drinks alcohol or gets sick. I heard it from the other room so I rushed over here. Why did you do this to her?” Mitsuki bared her teeth like a hungry lion.
Ageha calls this brat “Sensei.”
Kaika quickly scanned the room. None of her bodyguards were around.
This might be a little dangerous.
“It was a proper match, and she lost. You have no right to complain.”
As if she swallowed a bitter pill, Mitsuki wrinkled her cheeks. A moment later, she whipped her index finger at Kaika. “Then I’ll continue the drinking contest in Ria’s place!”
“Pointless. I may be shorter than you, but I’ve been drinking alcohol much longer than you can imagine.”
Mitsuki crossed her arms and formed a smug grin. “That doesn’t make sense. If you’re an exception, what makes you think I’m not? You’re making assumptions about your opponent. Who do you think has been secretly drinking in Ria’s place during formal parties and organization meetings?” She sat down beside her sleeping mother and poured liquor into the two cups on the table.
Kaika’s competitive spirit was lit up.
“Fine, I’ll take you on.”
Arashi took a seat on the side of the table. “I will… judge.”
Both girls jerked in surprise at her sudden appearance but quickly recovered and took hold of their respective cups.
Mei Xing returned to the kitchen with a large bottle of liquor in each hand. He and Ageha had been chatting about random things when Setsu returned and called him out for a few minutes.
“Where’s Saya?” asked Ageha.
“She went to deliver the rest of the bottles to Nikaido-sama. Setsu says she’ll keep her company after that. Seems your friends will be having a drinking party.” Mei Xing placed the bottles on the kitchen counter and sat on a stool across from Ageha. “This is for us.”
“I don’t really drink.”
Ageha remembered the time Kaika drank him under the table on a bet. With barely any human parts left, he was really weak to alcohol.
“C’mon, just a few.” Mei Xing took out two cups and placed them on the counter.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about.” He quickly opened the first bottle and filled the two small cups to the brim with clear liquor.
“You like drinking?”
“Only second to my wife and daughter.”
“You don’t look like the type.”
Mei Xing smiled, his thin eyes disappearing into lines. “I get that a lot. People tend to think that drinkers are either people who love to party or want to forget. I’m neither.” He pushed a cup towards Ageha and raised his own. “Gan bei.”
Ageha clinked his cup to Mei Xing’s and downed the contents. He coughed when the potent liquid singed his throat.
Mei Xing placed his cup on the counter with a sharp tap and chuckled. “Strong, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Well, it’s never too late to learn.” Mei Xing filled the cups again.
Ageha decided to make conversation to slow down the pace. “Why did you become a chef?”
“I liked cooking ever since I was a kid. My mom was a really good cook, and she taught me a few easy recipes at first. I’ll never forget how happy she was when she tried my first dish. I guess that was the trigger. How about you?”
“…My father is a famous restaurateur. He insisted that I follow his footsteps. It’s not like I hated cooking, but thinking back, I never really had a choice.”
“I can understand that.”
“Didn’t your mother support you?”
“She did, unlike my father. He runs the family business and wanted me to succeed him. Like you, I didn’t really hate the idea at first. I wanted to pursue cooking, but I was fine even if that didn’t work out.”
“But here you are.”
“Well…” Mei Xing played with his cup. “An accident happened. Since then, I rebelled against my father. I left home and studied culinary arts. I even went around the world to hone my skills. In the end, I settled here, back in my home country.”
Ageha, who had continued to tread the rails his father set despite the tragic incidents in his youth, was intensely curious about what had triggered Mei Xing’s rebellion.
Mei Xing raised his cup brimming with baijiu. Ageha’s cup was only about half full. It seemed the Chinese chef was politely pacing Ageha’s drinking for him. They emptied their cups and lightly slammed them on the table at the same time.
“My mom and I got into a car accident. The car went out of control, shot through the barrier on a mountain road, and fell down the cliff. She died protecting me with her body.”
“I’m glad you didn’t apologize. Seems you’ve had your share of troubles too.”
Mei Xing laughed. “Maybe. Anyway, my father never went to the funeral. Too busy with work, he said. I tried to understand his position. I knew he shouldered a lot of responsibility. But I couldn’t forgive him. It’s pathetic, but maybe the reason I worked so hard to become a chef was to get back at him.”
A thin fog slowly crept into Ageha’s mind. The liquor was already taking effect. Not knowing about that, Mei Xing filled the cups again.
“I think I’ll pass,” said Ageha.
“Don’t be such a killjoy. What’s wrong with getting drunk every now and then?”
“No, I really can’t.”
“Because you don’t want to forget?”
Ageha felt his chest throb. Mei Xing’s words had stabbed directly into his heart.
“First, let me apologize. Setsu actually asked me to accompany you for a few drinks. She heard about your cooking slump from Saionji-san and asked me to help. Of course, I’m doing it because I want to.”
“…I appreciate the concern, but it’s not a big deal.”
“A chef that can’t cook is a big deal. I heard some of the details from my wife.” Mei Xing’s thin eyes spread open and stared at Ageha, as if peering into his soul. “Are you trying to punish yourself?”
Normally, Ageha would just ignore the probing and walk away, but his slightly buzzed state loosened his tongue.
“I deserve that much.”
“…What did you say?” Ageha scowled at him.
“I said you’re naive. You’re just trying to run away from your problems.”
“No! I’m carrying the burden even now. I won’t forget about it and go on as if nothing happened.”
“And that’s why you won’t drink? That’s why you won’t cook? You’re going about punishing yourself the wrong way.” Mei Xing flashed a sardonic smile. “You’re taking the easy way out.”
“What part of this is easy!?”
“Because it’s a quick death.”
Ageha’s temper cooled from the unexpected reply.
Mei Xing pushed the half-full ceramic towards Ageha. “Drink.”
Again, they emptied their cups.
“I said I don’t drink to forget or to have fun, right? That’s because I drink to remember.” Mei Xing filled their cups again. “When my mother died, I fell into depression. If she didn’t try to save me, she’d still be alive. That’s what I thought. I believed it was my fault and wanted to punish myself.”
“But that was an accident.”
“Are you seriously saying that?”
Ageha clenched his jaw and looked away. Guilt did not adhere to logic. Even he knew Rin’s fate was not his responsibility. She had made her own choice to step into their world, and the person who actually tried to kill her was still out there. But that knowledge did nothing to lessen the crushing weight on his shoulders.
Without waiting for Ageha, Mei Xing drank from his own cup and refilled it. “I tried to ruin myself after that, much like what you’re doing now. But eventually, I realized I was just escaping. Destroying myself was easy. It takes so little time, you know? You can’t sleep. You can’t work. How long do you think you’ll last? A year? Two? Then you’ll either forget, or you’ll die.”
“I won’t forget.”
“You will. Humans are made to forget things that overwhelm them. Once you break down from hurting yourself, you’ll escape from your sins one way or another. I know that because it almost happened to me.”
“Then what do you want me to do?”
“Live, remember, and suffer.”
Ageha instinctively understood what Mei Xing was saying. He reached for his cup and gulped down the contents.
“There you go.” Mei Xing emptied his own cup as well before replenishing both. “Dying from a gunshot to the head or drowning slowly, it’s obvious which one is worse. What you are doing right now is the former. You just want to be put out of your misery. And once you’re gone, what happens to you sins? Do they disappear? That’s no different from forgetting. That’s why I drink. To not be crushed and to never forget.”
Ageha could not help but laugh. “You’re terrible. You’re actually telling me to suffer more.”
“That’s a misunderstanding. What I’m telling you is that there’s something beyond that suffering. Have you met Li Xue?”
“Who?” Ageha’s speech had become more relaxed, or rather simple, because his mental faculties had slowed down.
“My daughter. Setsu and Li Xue are my world, my reward for enduring for so long.” Mei Xing raised his cup again.
Ageha hurled the contents of the small cup down his throat. The burning liquid crawled down to his chest, giving feeling to his numbed core. Weakened by the liquor, the walls built around his heart began to creak.
“It’s not over yet, Ageha.”
“It… isn’t?” His voice cracked.
Ageha saw the hope, the future, that he had lost in Mei Xing.
He clasped his hands and rested them on the kitchen counter. Bowing down, he placed his forehead on his entwined fingers. Teardrops seeped into the artificial skin on his hands. With each jerk of his shoulders, the titanic weight on his back crumbled down piece by piece. Mei Xing said nothing as Ageha wept for a few minutes.
“Sorry, but looks like you have visitors,” said Mei Xing.
Ageha quickly buffed away the saltwater on his face and raised his head. Before him was Arashi and Mitsuki, the latter’s face as red as a ripe tomato.
“What’re you guys doing here?” asked Ageha. He resisted the tempting drowsiness taking over his body.
“Found you!” shouted Mitsuki. “We’re here to defeat you, you two-timing bastard!”
Mei Xing crossed his arms. “Seems like your problems are much more complicated than I thought.”
“There’s an explanation for this, probably,” said Ageha.
“Don’t worry, I won’t judge you. I’m not against polygamy. You just have to handle it better. They’re a bit young though.”
Mitsuki pointed at Ageha’s face, her finger inches from his nose. “Arashi and I can’t beat you separately, but it’s a different story if we fight together! Prepare to take on one of Ria’s most powerful combination techniques!”
Hearing the mention of Valeriya, Ageha stood up from the stool and raised his alertness. Although she appeared to be wasted, Mitsuki was still a genius, and the sober Arashi looked completely eager to come at him. The alcohol in his blood made it hard to focus, but adrenaline cleared his head a little.
The two girls took some distance between each other, both of them still facing Ageha. Mitsuki stretched her arms to the left. Arashi mirrored all of her movements just a split-second behind. Then they shuffled sideways towards each other while slowly making an arc over their head with their extended hands. Mitsuki continued this movement until her hands pointed at Arashi. The moment their fingers almost touched, they whipped their arms across their bodies while closing their fists and raising one leg.
Ageha, despite having trained in various martial arts under Mitsuki and Valeriya, could not comprehend what kind of technique they were performing.
The teens held their poses for a second, as if gathering power. With the speed of a cracking whip, they raised both hands above their heads, their index fingers pointing to the sky, and then bent their torsos sideways towards each other. The instant their index fingers touched one another, they shouted.
Ageha considered himself lucky that he stood up to face their technique. He would have fallen out of his chair otherwise.
Arashi lifted Mitsuki up and placed the girl on her shoulders. With their combined height, they surpassed Ageha’s stature by a few inches.
With a cocky grin plastered on her face, Mitsuki posed with her hands on her hips. “How do you like our ultimate form!?” She hiccuped.
Though Arashi did not smile, enjoyment was clearly sparkling in her wide-open eyes. It seemed even she understood that this was mere play.
“Looks like they’re wasted,” said Mei Xing.
“No, the one on the bottom is completely sober. She’s just nuts by default.”
With a sigh, Ageha grabbed Mitsuki by her collar and lifted her off Arashi’s shoulders. The micro-nadeshiko, looking more like a puppy than the ideal Japanese female at this point, began punching at his arms, but there was no force behind her blows.
“Sorry bout this. I’ll take her to her mother,” said Ageha.
“Take your time.”
Mei Xing winked, or at least Ageha thought he did. It was hard to tell with the Chinese chef’s paper-thin eyes. Ageha, carrying his rambunctious package, headed to the dining room. Arashi quietly followed.
What greeted him was the aftermath of a chaotic battle. He questioned his sanity, or more accurately his sobriety, as he surveyed the scene. Valeriya was sprawled on the tatami, her blond hair undone along with most of her clothes. Upturned cups and glass bottles were strewn across the floor. He found Kaika sitting curled up in a corner of the room, timidly hugging her knees.
“What the hell happened here?”
“Mitsuki… won,” said Arashi.
Ageha put two and two together. He could not believe it, but it appeared that the girl in his hand managed to defeat that Kaika in a drinking contest. She had gotten piss drunk doing so, but it was still an impressive achievement.
He walked over to Valeriya and tapped her marshmallow-soft butt with his foot. “Wake up.”
Valeriya quickly reacted to the stimulus. Without bothering to fix her kimono she sat up and looked around. “What happened?”
“That’s my line. Here, take this.” Ageha gently dropped Mitsuki in Valeriya’s lap.
Valeriya looked back and forth between her daughter and the young chef, who had a faint blush on his cheeks. “What did you do to her?” Her tone dove under sub zero.
Ageha noticed something pulling at his shirt. It was Kaika, her face bright crimson.
“I wanna be carried too.” She looked up at him, her demeanor bashful and hesitant.
Kaika had once tried to act like that months ago, but it had only triggered a gag reflex in Ageha. However, he could tell that her current state was not a product of her thespian talents. She sincerely wanted to be carried.
And she was ridiculously cute.
“G-Guess I have no choice,” said Ageha. He carefully picked her up by her armpits and held her like a princess.
Kaika rubbed her cheek on his shoulder like a cat. “Mmm… Feels good.”
“I-I see. That’s good then.”
He then felt another tug. It was Mitsuki.
“T-That’s unfair. Me too.” She raised her arms, palms open, asking to be carried.
Well, gotta be fair.
Ageha’s brain was completely addled by ethanol.
“Sure.” He shifted his hold on Kaika and carried her in one arm like a small child. He then bent down a little and picked up Mitsuki with his other arm.
Valeriya rose to her feet, her blonde hair flowing down her half-exposed breasts. She glared at Ageha. “I knew it. You really are my sworn enemy.”
She dashed towards him, her hand aiming for his throat. “I’M SO JEALOUS, YOU HAREM BASTARD!!!”
But her godlike reflexes failed her due to the liquor in her system. She tripped over her own foot and fell forward. Her hand automatically grabbed the closest thing in reach.
She slid down his leg along with the item in her grasp.
“Ugh, this damn drunk,” he said.
Ageha, now in his briefs, tried to figure out a way to lift his pants back up. With a girl in each arm, the task seemed insurmountable.
“Arashi, can you help me with my pants?”
What the hell am I saying?
Oh who gives a shit.
Arashi looked surprised for a moment but obediently approached him from behind. She crouched and grabbed his pants with both hands, but she could not lift them back up because Valeriya, who had fallen asleep again, had a good grip on them.
He heard the voice of death from behind him. “Ageha-sama.”
She gives a shit.
He wanted to turn around but could not move with his arms occupied and his legs ensnared.
“Just so you know, I’m drunk,” he said.
“What fitting last words.”
That night, Ageha learned to drink in moderation.