[mission accomplished ageha is hurt]
The text message from Saya seemed rushed.
Kaika found herself speeding up while repeating that line in her head. The thick heels of her sandals clacked loudly on the hotel’s marble floor. Two bodyguards in black suits followed behind her.
She had just received good news from Japan before that message came. Her mood had peaked and then hit rock bottom in the blink of an eye.
She sharply turned a corner as she continued to convince herself, not noticing the right shoulder strap of her sundress slip down her arm.
Ageha is a monster.
Even if he had gotten injured, he would be up and about in a few days, just like when he was shot almost a year ago.
Kaika did not want her escorts to hear Saya’s report because it contained sensitive information, so she had them wait a few doors away from her destination. She jogged to a locked hotel room, inserted a card key, and opened the door.
Her entire body reacted even before her mind completely processed what she saw. Every part of her burned: the center of her chest, the pit of her stomach, her parched throat, the back of her eyes.
What is this?
Ageha was on the bed.
He was completely still, like a mannequin.
There was a white handkerchief, dotted with blood, draped over his face.
A weak laugh leaked from her lips.
This must be a joke.
Desperate to deny the reality in front of her, Kaika scanned the room.
Saya was sitting on a chair by the wall. Her usual perfect posture was nowhere to be found. She was bowed down, elbows on her knees, with half her face buried in her hands. Tears streamed down her closed eyes.
Arashi was sitting on the floor beside the bed, hugging her legs with her head buried in her knees. Kaika could not see her face, but Arashi’s jerking shoulders clearly told her the teen was crying.
Kaika looked back at the body on top of the white sheets. Her feet moved on their own, taking her to him. She could not see his face because of that despicable white cloth, but the suit, the body, and the smell were all definitely Ageha’s.
Kaika gingerly extended her fingers and touched his arm. It was unnaturally cold. Her deathly pale face turned completely blank as countless tears ran down her cheeks.
“You liar. Aren’t you going to kill me once I reach my goal?”
Trembling faintly, she climbed on top of the bed and mounted his stomach.
Saya said something, but Kaika could not understand it. It did not matter anyway. Nothing did.
“You liar..! You promised..!” Clawing at his shoulders, Kaika tightly pressed her body onto his.
His frigid corpse robbed her body heat, but the burning within her did not weaken in the slightest.
Then she broke down.
Letting loose the supernova contained within her tiny body, she exploded.
She screamed. She wailed. She crumbled.
Saya held her shoulders, but she ignored it.
She cursed. She squealed. She choked on her own tears.
Her breakdown escalated, with no end in sight. A billion thoughts raced, collided, merged, split, and dispersed in her head, leaving an infinite and incomprehensible mess.
One by one, her countless overlapping masks peeled away. Each torn layer left her smaller, weaker, more fragile.
Her raw self, vulnerable to destruction at the slightest touch, was about to be laid bare.
Something cold and heavy gently landed on her head.
It was a large hand.
“Sorry, I didn’t think it’d actually work,” said a voice.
In an instant, the chaos within her head reorganized itself.
An overwhelming sense of relief engulfed her.
An excruciating dread swiftly followed.
Her face remained pressed against Ageha’s chest. “Saya and Arashi were crying. Were you all in on this?”
“I was just stopping a nosebleed,” said Saya. “I tried to clear my nasal passages of clotted blood, but my nose started bleeding again. I teared up because of the pain.”
“What about Arashi?” asked Kaika without lifting her head. “Her shoulders were twitching.”
“She was trying to get rid of the hiccups when she fell asleep. I only noticed the cloth on Ageha’s face after you got on top of him. I did not understand what was happening at first. When I tried to stop you, you would not listen.”
Ageha took off the white cloth covering his face. “I was using this to clean my busted lip when I heard your footsteps. I put it on my face on a whim. I didn’t expect you’d fall for it. Saya obviously wouldn’t take me to a hotel room if I was seriously injured.”
“B-but your body was so cold,” said Kaika.
“I’m mostly alloy, remember?”
“S-Saya sent me a text message! It looked really rushed, panicked even…”
“That was Arashi using my mobile,” said Saya. “I was carrying Ageha on my back, so I asked her to send you a report saying we were fine. What exactly did it say?”
“…Forget it. It doesn’t matter.”
Kaika would normally never fall for such a trick, even with all those misleading coincidences. Ever since Rin became hospitalized, there were hints that something was wrong with her. This event confirmed that possibility. Still, her pride would not allow her to openly admit such weakness.
A different kind of heat spread within Kaika.
The flame burned the center of her chest, the pit of her stomach, her parched throat, the back of her eyes, and her blazing cheeks.
Then she burst out laughing.
“I got all of you!” she said as she raised her body up. “Of course I knew it was a prank! Did you really think I’d fall for such a simple trick?” She puffed out her chest and flashed a cocky grin. “I just pretended to because I wanted to see your reactions! And they were totally worth it! I’ll never forget those shocked faces!”
Ageha, still lying underneath her, awkwardly looked away. Kaika turned to Saya, but the butler avoided her eyes with an uneasy expression.
“…Not working, is it?” asked Kaika.
“Well, your acting is as perfect as always, Ojousama. But…” Saya shut her lips tightly in hesitation.
Arashi, who woke up from the commotion and had no idea what was going on, stared at her mistress innocently. “Kai… why is your whole body… bright red?”
Kaika froze. Then she trembled like a volcano nearing eruption.
“Forget everything that happened in this room!!! That’s an order!!!”
The faint sound of running water buzzed from the bathroom. Saya and Arashi had gotten into the shower, leaving Kaika and Ageha alone in the hotel room. They sat beside each other on the queen-sized bed.
“I’m sorry,” said Ageha.
“I told you to forget about that.”
Kaika sighed. “It’s fine. I’m sorry too.”
“What did you do this time?”
“That reply kinda pisses me off, but I’ll let it go today.” Kaika stared at the floor. “I’m apologizing for the time I faked Saya’s death. I didn’t know how much it hurt… how much I hurt you, until just now.”
A part of him had wanted to get back at Kaika for that time. But after seeing Kaika’s outburst, he regretted it.
“I guess we’re even,” said Ageha.
“Are you sure? What I did then tortured you much longer.”
“Were you crying for real earlier?”
Kaika turned away without speaking. Her reddish nape was a sufficient answer.
“Then it’s fine,” he said. “If you forgive my prank, I promise to forget about that time with Saya.”
“Only if you forget about what just happened, too.”
He smiled. “I’ll try.”
“I guess that’s good enough.” She smiled back, barely showing her teeth. “So, what happened at the drug facility?”
Kaika’s expression turned grim. “Explain.”
Ageha told her about the operation, providing as much information as he could, especially about Zhi Zhu.
“I was lucky he had trouble prying my paralyzed fingers off his ankle. Arashi made it just in time. They fought for a few seconds with Zhi Zhu dominating. Saya joined the battle soon after, but he still managed to keep them at bay using a handgun. Good thing he panicked and escaped when Saya told him Zhang was killed.”
“What a troublesome guy. Can you win?”
“Not as I am now. The world’s a big place.”
“Zhi Zhu and Mao will probably come to us for revenge.” Kaika stared at the floor, her eyebrows scrunched together. “I have an idea, but that can wait. First, I have something very important to tell you while we’re alone.”
“What is it?”
“Rin woke up.”
Ageha grabbed Kaika’s shoulders. “Is that true!?”
“You know I can’t lie to you anymore.”
“Then Rin… she really…”
“Yes. She is still under observation, but aside from some nerve damage, she’s okay.”
His grip on Kaika gradually loosened.
She rubbed her left shoulder. “It’s gonna be a pain hiding these bruises from Saya.”
Ageha noticed the red marks on her skin. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I almost choked on a sesame ball when I heard the news myself. The private jet is ready. We can go tonight if you want.”
“…I can’t, not yet.”
“I have to talk to Mei Xing first. In person.”
“The look on your face says I can’t stop you. Fine, but at least take Saya.”
“No need. I’m just going there to talk.”
“I don’t like to be kept waiting. Let her drive and finish that errand quickly. I’ll stay with Arashi in a lodging near the private airport.”
“You can go ahead and see Rin first.”
Kaika shook her head. “No, I’ll wait for you.”
Ageha sensed the trepidation in her voice. “Okay. I’ll be back soon.”
Saya carefully cleaned the gash on Arashi’s shoulder and washed away the soapsuds using the shower nozzle.
Ojousama cares for him that much.
Maybe more than she does for me.
Maybe more than I do for him.
“Saya?” asked Arashi, covered only in lather.
“Huh? What is it?”
Arashi rotated to face Saya. “Are you… hurt?”
“No, I am fine. Worry about yourself.”
“You look like… you’re in pain.”
“It is just your imagination.”
Saya looked at her naked self in the bathroom mirror.
It’s just your imagination.
Mei Xing was about to go shopping for ingredients when he saw Ageha lurking outside the inn.
“Good morning,” said Mei Xing. “What brings you here?”
“I killed your father,” said Ageha.
“…That’s a very odd greeting.”
“It’s the truth. Zhang Wei Long is dead.”
“You don’t look surprised.”
“I knew you weren’t a normal person from the start.” Mei Xing shrugged his shoulders.
“Remember when we shook hands? I noticed your palms were unnaturally smooth for a chef. That means they’re probably cybernetic. Amputees with ARMS are quite common, so I pretended to be in pain when you squeezed my hand. Your reaction told me you knew your artificial hand could hurt people. Normal cybernetics have limiters making that very hard to do by accident.”
“And you concluded I was a mercenary.”
“You could’ve been a bodyguard, but those guys don’t go around killing mafia bosses. Did you come here to kill me too?”
“No. I have nothing against you. It’s the opposite. You helped me before, but I returned it with treachery. I wouldn’t call it atonement, but I deserve some form of retribution from you.”
Mei Xing heaved a sigh. “You scared the hell out of me. You look like you’re about to commit murder or something.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
Mei Xing had misinterpreted the guilt on Ageha’s face as malice. He had been feigning calmness while trying to figure out Ageha’s motives. With no combat skills whatsoever, Mei Xing had been prepared to give up. He knew he could not escape. But if Ageha’s goal was to hurt his family, Mei Xing would have exhausted every single cell in his body to stop him, no matter how futile it was.
“If it’s about my father, forget it. He has nothing to do with me anymore. I don’t want to be involved with the mafia or anything illegal. Please leave.”
Ageha winced, as if he stepped on a nail. “…Understood.”
Mei Xing sensed a familiar loneliness in the young man’s reply. It reminded him of himself from before he met Setsu.
“Did you know who I was when we first met?” asked Mei Xing.
“No. I found out a while later. I knew when I killed your father though.”
Ageha did not seem to be lying. He had no reason to. Someone who had killed Zhang Wei Long could easily end Mei Xing’s life, but instead, he had come to show penitence. When Mei Xing had rejected his reparation and told him to leave, Ageha looked disappointed. Mei Xing tried to understand why.
Could it be…
He considers me a friend.
And didn’t want to lose that?
“I changed my mind,” said Mei Xing. “I have something I want you to do.”
“Work for me for today.”
“What kind of work?”
“What else?” Mei Xing pointed his thumb behind him, indicating the inn.
“…Does it have to be today?”
“You have somewhere you need to be?”
“Perfect. It wouldn’t be retribution if it was easy, would it?”
Mei Xing noticed something odd in Ageha’s expression but paid little attention to it.
“Then let’s go shopping. I was about to call on the guys, but I’ll let you do the heavy lifting instead. How many sacks of rice can you carry?”
“It depends on the size of each sack, but by weight, around a ton or so?”
Ageha looked completely serious.
“Uh, okay, I don’t need that much.” Mei Xing scratched his head. “Wait here, I’ll go get the pickup.”
“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to volunteer a driver.”
“A driver? Not you?”
“Yeah, Saya is waiting in the car. I’ll give her a call.”
Minutes later, they arrived in town.
“I’m driving on the way back, okay!?” said Mei Xing.
“It’s just scary at first. You’ll get used to it,” said Ageha.
“I don’t want to get used to feeling like the co-driver of a rally car!”
Mei Xing remembered the time he rode shotgun with Setsu at the wheel. His wish to never experience something like that again had apparently fallen on deaf ears.
“Please do not worry,” said Saya. “I have never been in an accident. A wreckless driver, you might say.” She giggled and flashed a proud grin.
Is she proud of her terrifying driving or her horrible pun?
“Both,” said Ageha, reading Mei Xing’s baffled expression.
The group split up upon reaching the market. Saya went to buy fresh produce while the men procured the rice and meat. Ageha stacked four large sacks of rice on his shoulders with ease, drawing the gazes of everyone around him.
“Are you sure this is all you want?” asked Ageha.
“Yeah, that much rice should last for a week or so.”
“Not that. I meant this errand thing. You could ask for something more.”
“Like I said, it’s not a big deal. The only one who seriously considered me as a successor to my father was the man himself, and now he’s gone. It should be okay if I just lay low like usual.”
“Don’t you care about him at all?”
“I wouldn’t say that. But he got what he deserved.”
“What makes you think I’m not the villain?”
“Would a villain carry around sacks of rice for the victim?”
“Please don’t remind me how silly this situation is.”
They bought various meats at several shops. Mei Xing haggled the prices really low using expert bargaining techniques and bluffs. He gave Ageha some tips on haggling, but the latter failed horribly when he tried. Part of the problem was his lack of Chinese proficiency, but the main issue was his inherent desire to achieve fair trade. When haggling, the buyer had to go at it intending to bankrupt the store. Even then, the merchant would end up with a profit anyway.
“What should I do after this shopping trip?” asked Ageha.
“I’ll have you work in the kitchen until closing.”
Again, Mei Xing saw something strange in Ageha’s expression.
“Didn’t you have to rush off somewhere?”
“Yeah, as soon as I’m done with the work you gave me.”
“Then why do you look relieved?”
Ageha’s right hand gravitated towards his face but stopped an inch short. “…I do?”
Despite claiming to be in a rush, Ageha seemed unconsciously apprehensive about going to his other appointment, whatever it was.
Seems to be worth hearing out.
Mei Xing gave the back of his head a scratch. “On second thought, can I ask you for one more thing?”
“Stay at the inn tonight. You’ll need the rest after I work you to the bone in the kitchen.”
“But I have to go-”
“And join me for a drink after hours. Maybe it’ll clear your head a little. Setsu and Li Xue will be happy to see Saionji-san again. My little girl took a liking to her.”
Ageha blinked several times before showing a look of understanding. “You’re a good guy.”
“Only to family and friends.”
Ageha paused, but Mei Xing continued forward without looking back.
The younger chef took speedy steps until he caught up. “I can understand that.”