“How’s your ear?” asked Zhang as he waved Mao closer and patted the space to his left on the sofa.
Mao meekly sat beside him. “I can’t hear out of it yet, but I’m okay. I can work anytime… if you still want to use me.”
“What happened to your usual spunk?”
“I screwed up the operation.” A weak smile floated on her face. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you abandoned me.”
“You didn’t screw up. That was my fault. I failed to see through Akane’s scheme.” Zhang let out a carefree laugh.
“But if I had killed that brat Nikaido, you wouldn’t need to give up the factories in Guangxi.”
“I gave her those to repay a debt. She saved my son and his family. It’s not such a bad deal since she agreed to give the society a share of the profits. Besides, if Ms. Nikaido were killed, then that dragon of hers would surely come after us. Do you know of anyone who can match the man who defeated Zhi Zhu?”
Mao fell silent, a troubled frown on her face.
A shade of melancholy darkened Zhang’s tired eyes.
“A part of me wants to take vengeance against Shikimi for killing my old friend, but I also understand that the one who truly deserves to receive this anger is Akane.”
“…I’m sorry, Boss.”
Zhang sighed. “For what?”
“If I hadn’t asked you to take Akane in, none of this would’ve happened.”
“I would’ve made a deal with her even if you hadn’t said anything. It was the best move at the time.”
“I swear I’ll find that bitch and make her pay.”
“Then you’re in luck. I called you for that exact reason. Akane is in China.” Zhang handed Mao a slip of paper with an address.
“Are we finally going back?”
“No, you are. I still have some business to take care of here in the US. I have a plane ready for departure tonight, if you are up for it.”
Mao’s eyes burned with determination and eagerness. “Leave it to me. I won’t betray your trust again.”
“You never betrayed my trust even once, Mao.” Zhang gently touched her cheek and combed a stray tuft of hair over her ear.
“W-What are you doing, you perverted geezer?”
“Nothing. I was just thinking that I never got to introduce you to my son. You two would’ve been good friends, maybe even close siblings.”
It really is a pity.
I never saw my treasures side by side.
“S-Stop being sappy. It’s giving me the creeps.” Mao pushed his hand away and stood up. “I’ll leave tonight. I’ll definitely bring you good news when I get back.” She displayed an exaggerated smirk.
“That’s my girl. I’m looking forward to it.” Zhang smiled and watched her leave the hotel suite.
Goodbye, my little Mao.
A few moments later, someone knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said Zhang.
Chen entered the room and approached him. “Are you sure about this?”
“Not giving a proper farewell.”
“That was the best I could do. Anything more and she’ll know something’s up. That girl is unexpectedly sharp. And stubborn. She’d never listen if I explained it to her.”
“She’s become a fine woman. A model of loyalty.”
“That she is. That’s why she mustn’t find out. She’ll definitely insist on staying with me until the end.”
“Right. Only us relics should shoulder disappear in this foreign land.”
“No, you will leave with Mao tonight.”
“Your jokes are as unfunny as always, Boss.”
Zhang chuckled with a laid back expression. “It’s an order. Don’t make me repeat it.”
“With Zhi Zhu gone, no one else can support the triads except you. And I need someone to keep an eye on my kids. Take care of Mao and Mei Xing. Give them the freedom to do what they want with their lives. Let this horrible father at least rest without worries, my friend.”
Chen’s face wrinkled in anguish, as if he had been stabbed in the gut. “Boss, we can still try to get away! Please rethink this!”
“It’s impossible. We have no people, and I’m in the middle of their nest. The only reason they haven’t moved yet is because they don’t feel the urgency to do so. Besides, even if by some miracle I successfully escape, they won’t let my trespass go unpunished. If I go back home, I’ll be dragging more people into this mess I caused.” Zhang slumped on the couch, drained of energy. “I willingly stomped on the dragon’s tail. I alone should suffer the consequences.”
“…Are you sure you won’t regret this?”
“I have nothing but regrets. I have yet to find my wife’s killer, get revenge on Akane, see Li Xue grow up, or make peace with my son. Just imagining Mao’s face when she finds out makes me want to rip this old heart out.” Zhang was on the verge of tears, but he quickly hid his weakness with a carefree grin. “But the die is cast.”
Chen stared silently at the carpet, his jaw clenched.
“Can you leave me alone?”
“Yes, Boss.” Chen turned for the door.
“And do not return. Take Mao and go back home.”
Chen rubbed his eyes with his sleeve and left the room.
Zhang lowered his eyelids and let the strength leave his body.
This is fine.
He let fatigue take over and dozed off.
It was his deepest sleep in years.
The repeated vibration of his mobile eventually woke him. He checked the display.
There were several missed calls and a message from Chen that read, “We are boarding the plane in a few minutes.”
The latest timestamp told him it was just past midnight.
That was a good nap.
He felt refreshed, and the worries weighing on his mind had vanished. While stretching his arms, he searched for a song on his terminal and sent it to the room’s centralized speakers.
The Last Wolf Suite.
It was his favorite orchestra piece. The melody started off slow with a foreboding medley of strings. It slowly built up as beat and bass blended into the harmony.
As the tempo sped up, Zhang stood up and headed towards the veranda. It was not his style to take fate lying down. If there was an inevitable destination, he would march to it with his own feet.
The tune reached its climax as he grasped the balcony curtains. The rushing melody roused his heart and filled him with courage. As if welcoming a new day, he spread open the covers.
But there was only darkness outside.
The fulfillment of a grand finale was nowhere to be found.
Why did it come to thi-
A bullet through the heart silenced his thoughts.
“He decided not to put up a fight, huh?” said Kaika as she walked down the Nikaido mansion hallway. “Thanks for the update. Continue observing how things go over there.” She cut the call with her informant in the States and pocketed her mobile terminal.
Zhang is gone.
It was the expected result. Even she had no confidence surviving a manhunt by the US military on American soil.
But I don’t like this one bit.
Ageha cared about Mei Xing. He had insisted on flying to China and protecting him himself, after all. Kaika had lost the desire to kill Zhang after realizing that.
Mei Xing disliked his father, but that could change in the future if he found out how much Zhang had loved him. She did not want to sow any seeds of conflict between Ageha and his friend.
By stopping Akane’s plan to kill Mei Xing, she had planned to put Zhang in her debt. The triad greatly valued reputation and honor, so the dragon head would be left with no choice but to give her Guangxi. Zhang had done exactly that.
Everything had gone according to her scheme except for one thing: Someone had given Zhang false information, fooling him into thinking his son had been killed.
As expected, the father had gone berserk and attacked Kaika in US territory, not caring for the consequences. That action led to his death by the hands of American peacekeepers.
Mei Xing had been robbed of the chance of ever making peace with his father.
But in reality, this was the best outcome for Kaika. Dealing with a less capable and less stubborn leader would make managing her affairs in China much easier. Starting a new relationship with a new partner was better than leaving an important base of operations in a former enemy’s hands.
The ideal conclusion to the incident had confirmed her suspicion about a certain secret, one she wished she never realized.
While mulling over what she should do with that knowledge, Kaika arrived at Arashi’s door and opened it without knocking.
The scruffy-haired teen, who was holding a mobile to her ear, glanced at the unannounced visitor.
“I gotta go, Mom. Kai… is here.” Arashi’s mouth formed a subtle smile. “Yes, I will. You take care too. Bye.” She ended the call.
“Sorry, did I interrupt you?”
“No, Mom was about to… head out anyway.”
“How is she?”
“She’s doing great! She’s on an overseas trip right now.”
I know, I’m paying for it.
“Really. Too bad you couldn’t join her.”
Arashi shook her head. “I like being here… with everyone, the most.”
“You’ve gotten better at talking recently.”
“I’ve been practicing… by calling people with this.” Arashi showed Kaika her mobile terminal.
“I’m glad you’re putting it to good use.”
“Thanks for getting this… for me, Kai.”
While the main reason Kaika bought Arashi a mobile terminal was to prevent another misunderstanding like Ageha’s “death,” she genuinely enjoyed spoiling the cute mute.
“It’s nothing. Anyway, we’re going out. Saya’s busy and I need to buy some, uhm, supplies.” Kaika’s words faded into a mumble. “They’ve been running out strangely fast recently…”
Arashi nodded and followed her mistress out the door.
Mao, drenched to the bone by the rain, dragged her feet down the road. Her waterlogged braid drooped down her hunched back. She was still wearing her clothes from yesterday. She had not changed since departing for the address Zhang gave her. The room had been empty, but that was to be expected.
It was a lie, after all.
A lie so typical of her boss.
A kind lie.
“Boss Zhang is dead.”
She could not believe it when Chen had said those words a few hours ago.
She did not want to believe it even now.
But she knew it was true.
Zhang’s awkward farewell that night was undeniable proof.
Why did I leave?
Why wasn’t I by his side?
Why couldn’t I protect him?
Why can’t I protect anyone?
Chika’s and Shouko’s faces, half-eaten by rats, had haunted her mind for years. Now, Zhang’s carefree grin had joined them.
He had given her the power of choice, but that power was not enough for her to choose a future with him.
Even revenge felt too troublesome to her current self.
Mao had nothing left.
The only thing driving her feet was Zhang’s whimsical wish.
“I was just thinking that I never got to introduce you to my son.”
She reached her destination. A few steps in front of her stood the inn where Mei Xing lived. Chen had readily given her the location when she asked.
Mao looked at her dripping dress. She would make a mess if she entered the building in that state. Unsure what to do, she just stood there, blankly staring at the signboard above the doors. Rain continued to batter her body, but she barely felt a thing. The combination of weariness and despair had robbed her of such trivial sensations.
“Excuse me,” said a familiar voice.
Mao turned to see who it was.
A tall man holding an umbrella smiled at her. It was a nostalgic carefree smile, one that she thought she would never see again.
“I knew it. You’re that girl from that one time at the pancake shop,” he said. “Did you forget your umbrella?”
So that’s why he caught my eye.
It’s because he looked like you, Boss.
“Thank you for helping me out that time, Zhang Mei Xing.”
Mei Xing’s body tensed. But that only lasted for a moment.
“Would you like to come in?” he asked. “I can at least give you a towel to dry off.”
“…Are you always this careless? I might be here to kill you, you know.”
“You wouldn’t make such a face if you came here for that.” He reached out and brushed away the wet hair sticking to her cheek.
How can you be so similar?
Mao felt like her heart would crack.
Mei Xing opened the door and gestured for her to enter. Her first few steps were reluctant, but she eventually gave in.
She removed her waterlogged shoes at the entrance and used the slippers Mei Xing placed in front of her.
Mei Xing spoke to the woman at the front desk. “Can you get me a towel? A friend of mine got caught in the rain.”
“Right away, Boss.”
“They call you ‘Boss?’” asked Mao.
“Well, we got into some trouble a few days ago. A bunch of masked men took over the inn and tied up my employees. I’m guessing you know about it.”
Mao nodded. “But we… I wasn’t involved.”
“That’s good to know.” He flashed her a smile. “Everyone found out that I’m related to the triad because of that. I thought they’d all leave. Some did, but the crazy bunch that stayed behind started calling me ‘Boss.’ Doesn’t fit me at all, right?”
“Fits you perfectly.”
“I don’t know about that.” He laughed.
A staff member handed Mao a towel. She unbound her long braid and dried her hair with the cloth. Mei Xing led her to the guest area of the inn, telling her not to mind the trail of rainwater she left behind.
“There are very few guests right now because of the attack, so we should be fine here. Please take a seat.” He lowered his hips on a rather comfy-looking sofa.
“But I’ll get it wet.”
“Chairs exist for sitting, not decoration.”
Convinced by his simple rebuttal, Mao took a seat. It was warm, surprisingly so.
“So, what brings you all the way out here?” asked Mei Xing.
“Uh… Well… He told me, well not exactly told me, but he kind of mentioned that I should meet with you, and I, I…”
Mao had difficulty explaining herself, as if she had returned to good old Braids.
Mei Xing’s pleasant expression disappeared. “I thought he finally understood that I want nothing to do with him.” He wrinkled his eyebrows and shook his head. “Is this about me succeeding him?”
“No, that’s not it.”
“You don’t have to hide it. That cold blooded bastard has nothing else on his mind but his organization.”
“Stop saying such things! He isn’t like that!”
“Spare me. It was probably his fault that my family was attacked.”
“No! That was my… my fault. He was really angry about it.”
“Bullshit. I bet he didn’t even bat an eyelash. Actually, he might be the one behind the whole thing. Did he plan to kill my family to make me go back to him? He’s probably pissed off it didn’t go so well, huh?”
“He was killed yesterday, betrayed by someone he saved.”
“…So that’s why you look like that. I’m sorry. It seems you cared about him a lot, but we’re different. I’m glad there’s one less scum like him in the worl-”
Mao stood up and slapped him. The blow had no power behind it. It was similar to a mother’s affectionate spank.
“He loved you!!! More than he ever cared for me or anyone else! He always said you were the last treasure his wife left him! How can you not understand that!?”
Mei Xing stood up, his face a mess of angry lines. “Loved me!? Treasure!? What a joke! He didn’t even come to my mother’s funeral! All because of his stupid organization! That kind of father is nothing but trash! Trash!”
“That was a lie!” Mao buffed away the tears running down her cheeks with her wrists. “It was… a kind lie. That’s so like him.”
“A lie? What are you talking about?”
“Do you know why your mother died?”
Mei Xing replied in an icy tone. “How can I not know? She died protecting me in a car crash.”
“I asked why, not how!” Mao grabbed his collar and pulled his face down to her eye level. “That wasn’t an accident! The car you were riding in was forced off a cliff!”
“…Let go of me. I have no time for this nonsense. If you have nothing else to say, please leave.”
“It’s the truth! Boss didn’t go to your mother’s funeral because he was frantically trying to find the culprit!”
“Then why didn’t he tell me that?”
“Because it was your mother’s wish to give you freedom! Didn’t you ever wonder why Boss never tried to force you into joining the triad? If he really wanted to make you his successor no matter what, do you think he’d let you travel around the world or stay at this inn for so long!? He knew that if you found out the truth behind your mother’s death, you’d join the underworld to get revenge. But your mother wanted you to choose your own path. Boss respected her wish, so he lied to you even if you hated him for it!”
Mei Xing stared into her eyes, as if trying to see through to the truth within them. “…How do you know all this? How do I know you’re not lying?”
“Because you’re the child I could never be! Do you know how much it hurt each time he told me stories about you and Li Xue!? Do you know how envious I was when he told me what I told you just now!?” Mao’s face crumpled, sadness screaming from every crease on it. She bumped her forehead to his chest. “He loved you more than anything else, so please… please don’t insult him anymore… Please don’t make me feel even more pathetic and worthless! Please don’t make my desperate efforts to take your place meaningless! Be a son worthy of your father!!!”
“You’re… telling the truth…” Mei Xing lost strength and fell back onto the couch, pulling Mao, who was firmly gripping his shirt, on top of him. “Then that means, all this time… Father has…”
“He’s been protecting you. Watching you with a smile on his face. Waiting for you to introduce his granddaughter to him. He… loved you… your mother, your family… I wasn’t even a proper replacement..!”
“Then the neighbors that were killed during that attack…”
“They were triad members Boss sent to guard you from danger. They died doing their duty. Boss put family above everything else. He even took care of someone like me..! And now, he’s… he’s gone..!”
Mei Xing leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling while Mao continued to cry into his chest, as if a dam of despair within her had burst.
He shut his eyes tightly, squeezing out his budding tears. “What have I been doing..?”
“Actually, I’d like to ask that myself,” said a clear, feminine voice.
Mao released his shirt and hurriedly stood up. A woman carrying a sleeping girl was watching their embarrassing display.
“Setsu,” said Mei Xing. “I don’t think I can stay here anymore.”
“Don’t tell me you were having an affair?” asked Setsu, her face as calm as a mountain lake.
“No, this is-”
“I was joking. What’s on your mind?”
“I… misunderstood my father. I owe him a debt I can’t repay if I stay here.”
“So you’re going to where he is?”
“To where he was. He was killed.”
“Are you going to get revenge?”
“Boss wouldn’t want that!” said Mao. “I didn’t come here to drag you into our world!”
“I’m not going to do something so pointless. I’m just going to follow my father’s footsteps.”
“That’s what I’m talking about! Didn’t you hate the triad? That’s why you ran away and hid here, right!?”
“Don’t misunderstand. I never hated the triad itself. I hated my father for not going to my mother’s funeral. I hated him because I thought he didn’t love her, or me. But thanks to you, that misunderstanding has been resolved.”
“But he wouldn’t want you or your family to be in danger!”
“‘Be a son worthy of your father.’ Those were your words. I’ll heed that advice as thanks for showing me the truth. Think of it as my gratitude for telling me I lost family just yesterday.” Mei Xing stood up and approached Setsu. “I’ll tell you the details later, but that’s what I’ve decided.”
“Okay, I’ll go pack our things. I’ll find a manager and a chef to take our place here as soon as I can.”
“It’ll be dangerous.”
Setsu made a wry smile. “I think it’s too late to say that after our forest outing the other day. Li Xue is probably safer surrounded by burly men than by waitresses.”
“But what about the inn? You love this place.”
“I do. To save my parents’ inn, I married you for your cooking. But it wasn’t your cooking that I fell for.” Setsu gently put a hand on his chest.
Mei Xing’s laid back expression returned. He wrapped his family in his arms and gave Setsu a kiss on the lips. After spending a few seconds sharing each other’s warmth, Setsu stepped back.
“When do we leave?” she asked.
“As soon as we can.”
“Then I’ll leave you two. I have to prepare for our departure.”
Mao, still shocked by the turn of events, could only nod with her mouth slightly ajar.
Setsu shot her husband a playful frown. “I don’t mind if you mess around with that girl, but don’t keep it a secret from me, okay?”
“Sure,” said Mei Xing.
What’s wrong with this couple!?
Setsu carried the sleeping Li Xue upstairs.
“The hell’s with ‘Sure,” you dickhead!” shouted Mao, her cheeks pink.
“What a change in attitude.” Mei Xing laughed. “By the way, what were you to Zhang Wei Long?”
Surprised by the sudden question, Mao blinked her eyes several times before answering. “I was his bodyguard.”
“Not your job. How did he treat you?”
“I… think he saw me as a foster daughter. At least I hoped so.”
“Then I shall treat you as my sister, my family, from now on. Putting that aside, I leave the protection of me and my family to you, hmm, what was your name again?”
“Mao. Wait, what the hell are you ordering me around for!?”
“Weren’t you the dragon head’s bodyguard? It’s only natural you protect me, along with my family who are part of me. That includes you too, so you are henceforth forbidden to die.” He locked eyes with her. “Mao, I will give the life you lived with my father meaning. In exchange, you will become my fangs and claws.”
Despite Mei Xing’s cheerful smile, the gravitas flowing from his words permeated her flesh and shook her core.
Dragons give birth to dragons.
That had been one of Zhang’s favorite Chinese proverbs.
“Now tell me about the one who betrayed and killed my father.”
Mao’s lips twisted into a half-sarcastic, half-grateful smirk.