Mao looked down from the rooftop while squinting her eyes. Her target was a middle-aged man wearing a fedora hat and a brown coat. A few streetlights lit the main road, but the moonless night still made it easy to lose track of her prey if she did not pay attention.
She spoke softly, as if talking to herself. “Ying, can you see the target?”
“Yes. I’m on the highest balcony across the street from you.” The reply came from Mao’s earpiece.
The device was one of the gifts Kaika Nikaido provided the Soaring Serpent Society as a show of goodwill. The tiny gadget required only a light tap to turn on or off, allowing Mao to operate it using the blunt part of her claw, a feat impossible with her old equipment. Back then, even her girlish sneezes got transmitted to everyone on the team, making her lose what little face she had in the organization. She felt reluctant about Mei Xing’s partnership with the unreadable Nikaido girl, but she appreciated anything that made her job easier.
Mao took a peek at the other building and found Ying crouched on the penthouse balcony, just as described. Unlike her dead twin brother, Ying was easy to handle. She always followed orders and kept a cool head. This was Ying’s third mission since returning to the field. Mao was impressed how quickly she had recovered, both physically and mentally. The teenager had lost the person most important to her. Mao understood firsthand how difficult a hurdle that was to overcome.
Continuing to track her prey, Mao leapt to the adjacent rooftop. Her miniskirt qipao and long braid fluttered in the wind behind her. She had asked Mei Xing if she should change her outfit to something more combat efficient, but he had shaken his head. He had not given a reason, but Mao thought that part of him was similar to his father. That perv.
The target suddenly turned a corner and headed into a dimly lit alley. Keeping her body low, Mao dashed along the rooftop to follow him. Ying was across the street and would require time to catch up. She could not afford to lose sight of the man.
Her worry turned out to be unnecessary. The target stopped soon after entering the dark backstreet. Four men in similarly shady attire were waiting for him. Mao pressed her body flat on the rooftop and looked over the edge, her ample breasts shifting beneath her. She did not recognize the other men, who were likely from subordinate triads. Straining her ears, she listened in on their conversation. Luckily, the building she was on only had three floors, allowing her to catch their words.
“What took you so long?” asked a man from the welcoming party.
“Making sure I wasn’t followed,” said the target.
Mao stifled a snort. The target had been rather careful, but he had not paid attention overhead. She could not blame him. Following someone by jumping from building to building was not something just anyone could do. He probably thought such a feat was impossible.
“What do you have for us this time?”
“That bastard Mei Xing is planning to go to Tokyo in early November. It’s not much, but it might be a good chance to set up an ambush. I’ll give you the exact date as soon as I get it. What about you? Anything I should pass on to the bosses?”
“We’re still gathering allies from other groups. Progress is slow. We have to be careful.”
That exchange was enough to confirm betrayal. Mao noticed Ying land on the rooftop across the alley. She made eye contact with her and nodded, signaling the start of their attack.
Mao hopped off the roof and kicked the wall mid fall, propelling herself across the alley. She grabbed onto a fire escape ladder on the other building to reduce her momentum. While kicking the nearby wall for another jump, she cut off a chunk of the rusty metal ladder with her other claw. The metal fragments fell to the pavement, drawing the men’s attention. Hardly making a noise, she landed behind them and stabbed the closest enemy.
A weak groan seeped out of his lips as Mao pulled her claws from his back. Before his comrades could turn to her, she slammed a roundhouse kick on another enemy, throwing him to the side. His head collided with a metal drainage pipe, producing an audible crunch.
That sound meant he was a goner. Mao needed one of the four men and the traitor alive for interrogation, so she had to restrain herself against the remaining enemies.
The traitor immediately ran off the way he came. As Mao recovered from her kick motion, the two remaining men slipped past her and ran the other direction. They did not even try to fight back.
“Get the traitor!” she said. “I’ll take care of the other two.”
“On it,” said Ying.
“Don’t kill him.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Mao chased after the two men. A metal fence blocked the end of the alley, separating it from a main road. One of them jumped on a dumpster and flipped over the fence. Mao made a mental note that one or both of his legs were cybernetic. The other began climbing the fence in a frantic rush, but Mao would reach him well before he could get over the top.
Blaring gunfire echoed from behind Mao. The noise sounded fairly far away. The source was likely her partner.
Please Ying, don’t kill him…
The man with enhanced legs pulled out a handgun, forcing Mao to concentrate on her own fight. She lowered her running posture as much as possible and raised her claws in front of her to block the bullets. He unloaded two shells in her direction, but they bounced harmlessly off her claws. Realizing it was futile, he pointed the gun at his comrade and shot twice. The bullets hit his chest, knocking him off the metal fence. He fell on his back without so much as a groan.
Now she had to capture the enhanced man alive, a task easier said than done. The shooter gave up on attacking and ran away. Without dropping her speed, Mao dove towards the fence headfirst. Before she slammed into it, she extended her hands and slashed at the barrier. Her body slipped through the resulting opening with no space to spare. She rolled on the ground once and immediately resumed the chase.
Mao felt a slight chill on her chest and looked down. The metal fence had torn the fabric around her left breast, exposing her skin to the night air. The damaged qipao was a gift from Zhang Wei Long. It was one of many, but that did not make it any less valuable. She clenched her teeth, her fangs peeking from her lips.
You’ll pay for that!
She soon caught up to him. Their speeds were vastly different, suggesting he only had one cybernetic leg. He turned around and emptied his clip in her direction. Guarding her face with her claws, Mao randomly sidestepped the gunfire. Her alloy thighs were hit a few times, but the handgun did not have enough stopping power to trip her.
He drew a large combat knife from his jacket and blocked her first strike. His resistance pissed her off even more. Mao rushed forward and aimed at his left leg. He took the slashing attack without moving and countered with a downward elbow strike. Mao rolled to the side to avoid it. Her attack had been ineffective because the leg was alloy.
She launched a barrage of slashes aimed at his arms and torso. He dodged the first two and blocked the next three, but the last strike sliced his right hand, disarming him. He tried to get some distance, but his back hit a brick wall.
Mao relaxed after wounding the enemy. She slowed down and waited for the paralysis poison to kick in. But that carelessness gave her opponent an opening. He went on an unexpected offensive and raised his alloy leg for a high kick. Mao raised her arms to block, but it was a feint. He used his human leg to kick her in the gut. Saliva flew from her mouth as she reeled from the blow. The man drew another handgun with his uninjured hand.
She was too close to dodge. Guided by her instincts, Mao swung her claws at him as he took aim. She would hit first, but the reflexive counterattack had no restraint. The blow would kill him.
A single gunshot rang out. She felt an impact on her right hand. Her claws rended something, but it was not his flesh. The metal tips scratched the surface of the brick wall just behind him. Strands of his hair floated down in front of her.
The man was moaning on the ground, holding his bleeding knee cap. His unused pistol lay beside him. Mao kicked the weapon away and turned to the source of the support fire.
“I thought we were supposed to keep them alive,” said Ying, holding a semi-automatic in her right hand and a mini revolver in her left. Smoke rose from the muzzles.
Mao thought she had heard one gunshot, but it was actually two. Ying had fired both handguns at exactly the same time. One bullet took out the man’s knee cap. The other hit Mao’s claw, redirecting its trajectory.
“Skip the sarcasm. Thanks for the backup.”
“No problem.” Ying holstered her weapons.
“What about the traitor?”
“I shot his legs and dragged him back to the alley. It might be a good idea to bandage him up to stop the bleeding.”
“Get to it then. I’ll take care of this guy.”
Ying did as ordered.
Mao had been worried that losing her twin brother would destroy Ying, but the complete opposite happened. The teen had become even more dependable and mature. Mao could see a sense of purpose within Ying’s gaze, one she did not have before.
The paralysis poison soon took effect, stopping the wounded man from moving. After bandaging the man’s knee, Mao checked the tear on her clothes. She felt that fighting would be easier if she had smaller breasts, but that thought was quickly overshadowed by the face of the young dragon head who quite liked her assets.
Nah, these are fine as is.
Mao and Ying brought the men back to headquarters and left them in the interrogation room. Elder Chen, second-in-command to Zhang Wei Long and now serving the same position for Mei Xing, took charge of getting information out of them. After cleaning up and getting changed, Mao went to Mei Xing’s office and gave him a detailed report.
“Ying did?” asked Mei Xing. “That’s amazing. Please tell her she did a great job for me.”
Mao felt a pinch of annoyance. She had done her best as well. Mei Xing glanced at her face, so she quickly shifted her gaze to the side.
“You did great too. You practically took out all of the enemies yourself.”
“Don’t force yourself.” Mao continued without looking at him. “I screwed up. If not for Ying, our only info source from the other groups would be dead.”
“I’m not. I commended Ying in particular because she did exceptionally well this time. If I praised you every time you exceeded expectations, I’d have no time left for my duties.”
“…Can you stop making passes at me? It’s annoying coming from a married man.”
Mei Xing chuckled. “Too bad it didn’t work.”
Knocks came from the door.
“What is it?” asked Mei Xing.
“Boss, they spilled the beans.”
“That was quick. We’ll be right down.”
Mei Xing and Mao entered the interrogation room. Inside, the two captured men, hands bound behind them, were forced to kneel despite their wounded legs. Chen and several other triad members greeted the dragon head with a bow. As soon as the door closed, Chen began his report.
He mentioned several names, some of them mid-level leaders in the Soaring Serpent. Mei Xing’s gentle face turned sour as Chen continued. The traitors were loyal followers of his father, but their devotion waned with his death. They thought Mei Xing was unworthy of the top seat and was a puppet at best. Mao seethed with anger upon seeing Mei Xing’s shoulders slacken in disappointment.
Don’t blame yourself.
It’s their fault for not seeing your potential.
Chen finished his report and asked, “So, what do we do?”
“Gather everyone whose name was mentioned in this room,” said Mei Xing.
“Yes, Boss!” Chen left the room.
Mei Xing waited in silence. Everyone else, afraid of treading on the dragon’s tail, kept just as quiet. The dragon head did not sit down, his sleek eyes narrowed enough to look closed. Mao could not tell what he was thinking. They simply had not known each other long enough to do so.
About an hour later, Chen arrived with seven other men. Upon seeing the two traitors kneeling on the floor, some of them turned white in fear. No one made a run for it because that would not only confirm their betrayal but also lead to their certain death. Chen’s personal squad followed them. He probably sent for them in case things got rough. The last man who entered closed the door and locked it.
Chen stepped forward. “Boss, some of the people mentioned are away on business. This is everyone in the headquarters right now.”
“That’s unfortunate, but let’s get started anyway.” Mei Xing walked over to the group of traitors and then glanced at the two prisoners. “Gentlemen, these two have mentioned your names as part of the faction that intends to overthrow me.”
He just dove right in.
Mei Xing kept surprising Mao ever since she began working for him. That included his ruthless treatment of the limbless Akane Kogami, who was still being kept alive like an experimental fetus somewhere.
“Lies! I would never betray you, Boss!” said one of them.
The others quickly tossed their own excuses and oaths of loyalty into the fray. They were obviously lies. The two prisoners were questioned separately but gave the same set of names with few exceptions. The information was valid.
Mei Xing raised a hand in front of him, silencing the group. “There’s no need for excuses.”
Mao clenched her alloy fists, pumping adrenaline into her body. Even without her claws, she had to be ready in case the traitors made a move.
Mei Xing took a step closer to the group of men. “I don’t trust the words of these two anyway. At least, not more than I trust each of you. Their confessions are surely a trap set by our enemies to cause internal strife within our society.”
What did he say?
“And even if you did plot to overthrow me, I’d completely understand. I’m new to the underworld and untrustworthy in your eyes. Please forgive me for not being dependable enough to earn your loyalty.” Mei Xing bowed, an unthinkable act for the dragon head.
Mao quickly stepped in front of him and pushed his shoulders up. “Please stop! You can’t do that!”
“I can. Chen, this matter is over. No one will be punished. Tell those who are not present the same thing. I expect everyone involved to keep working with me towards strengthening our organization.”
“But Dragon Head-”
Mei Xing cut off Chen’s restless words. “Please do as I say.”
“Boss, they’re traitors!” said Mao. “You can’t just let them off. It’ll be seen as weakness by both friends and enemies!”
“There’s no proof.”
Mao thrust her finger at the kneeling prisoners, who were barely conscious from the torture. “But these two named them!”
“The testimony of two traitors isn’t reliable enough.”
“What about them?” asked Chen, referring to the captured pair.
“Treat their wounds and detain them.”
“Wait, Boss!” said Mao. “They’re confirmed traitors! They have to be executed!”
“It may be presumptuous of me, but I agree with her.” Chen shot a look of disgust towards the prisoners. “Showing mercy to traitors is unwise. It will encourage others to go against you.”
“No. Please do as I say, Chen.”
“…Yes, Dragon Head.” Chen bowed and issued orders to his men.
As the accused leaders left the room one at a time, Mao made another desperate appeal to Mei Xing in an attempt to salvage his teetering reputation.
“Mei Xing, please listen to me. Your father would never let these people live. Letting them go unpunished will make you lose face completely!”
“Sorry Mao, but I’m not him.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “You need to learn the meaning of mercy. Strength isn’t the only thing needed for a leader.”
“This isn’t right! Listen to me-”
“Mao, that’s enough,” said Chen. “You are speaking to the dragon head.”
Reminded of their respective positions, Mao shut her mouth.
“I’ll be in my office.” Mei Xing followed the other leaders out of the room.
Mao stared at his back in disappointment. She had forgotten that Mei Xing was a civilian just a few months ago. He had been able to exact vengeance on Akane because she killed his father, but he lacked the cruelty to kill enemies in cold blood. He innocently believed that giving them a second chance would make them change their ways and earn their trust. He was mistaken. The underworld was not such a kind place.
If she left Mei Xing to his own devices, the society his father built would crumble to the ground, taking him and his family with it. Zhang Wei Long was no longer around to protect them.
Then I just have to protect them in his place.
“How does this look?” Mashiro pressed the tube top over her body.
“Stop choosing summer clothes. Winter is coming.” Makoto grabbed the garment and put it back on the store shelf.
“But it’s on sale!”
“Of course it is. It’s out of season. And do discounts even matter with your bank account?”
“That’s Father’s money. It’s not for my personal use.”
“He probably won’t care.”
“I care. People are free to spend money where they please, and that’s true for me too. There are other things I can use it for. Millions of people are in desperate need of financial aid. Some African countries have a GDP per capita cheaper than a single designer dress! Despite the land being rich in natural resources, extensive corruption keeps a significant chunk of the population under the poverty line. For example, Ghana and Malawi-”
“Don’t jump topics on me.” Makoto shrugged. “Weren’t we talking about your clothes?”
“Ah, sorry ‘bout that.” Mashiro made an apologetic smile. “Since you keep complaining about my wardrobe choices, why don’t you go and pick one for me?”
“Me?” Makoto looked a little flustered. “I don’t know anything about fashion.”
“Just pick anything you like. I’ll wear it even if it’s just a piece of string.”
“W-W-Who the hell would choose something like that!”
“…That didn’t sound convincing.”
“I’m the one always asking you to cover yourself up, you know!”
Mashiro enjoyed teasing Makoto. Despite his gruff exterior, his reactions were cute and innocent. She found him adorable, but strangely enough, she had not heard of any romantic stories from him. It was hard to believe girls would leave him alone.
“Hey, don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“…What did you say?”
“Aren’t you going out with anyone?”
Makoto frowned. “Again with the random topics.”
“Just answer already. No secrets between us, right?”
“…You really have no idea, do you?”
“About how dense you are.”
Ah, he must be unpopular.
That was a really insensitive question.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“Judging from your expression, you don’t get it at all.” Makoto walked over to a shelf with warmer clothes. “That’s so like you.” He grabbed a woven sweater and offered it to her.
She took it and pressed it over her upper body. After checking herself in the mirror, she nodded. “This does look nice. Good eye, Makoto. I should let you pick out my clothes from now on.”
“Spare me, please. I’m a bodyguard.”
“Still not your bosom buddy.”
“Eh!? But you’re my best friend.”
“That term usually refers to two women. I’m a man, in case you’re forgetting.” Makoto turned away and mumbled, “And I don’t intend to be your best friend forever.”
“Hey, that’s a little mean.”
“Only because you didn’t get it. Anyway, go try that on. The fitting room’s that way.” He grabbed her shoulders, turned her around, and gave her a push.
“Okay, okay. No need to be so pushy.”
“You have no sense of humor.”
“You’re the one who said it!”
Mashiro laughed as she jogged away from him. She thoroughly enjoyed their weekly shopping trips. The outings relieved stress accumulated from continuous politicking.
After doing some more budget shopping, they had a late dinner at a twenty-four hour chain restaurant. Their conversation went on longer than expected. It was already past midnight when Mashiro checked the time. They boarded the SUV and headed for Mashiro’s suburban residence. The driver took an exit ramp, leaving the city streets behind.
After a few minutes on the empty freeway, Mashiro noticed Makoto taking glances out the rear window. “What’s wrong?”
“We’re being followed.”
Mashiro twisted her body and saw two headlights behind them. “Aren’t you being paranoid?”
“As a precaution for tails, the chauffeur significantly changes speed every few minutes. It’s weird for a car to keep following us for this long without changing lanes.”
“I noticed that as well, sir,” said the driver. “It has been behind us since we left the city. I thought it was my imagination at first-”
The van in front of them suddenly slammed on the brakes.
“Hold on!” Their driver followed suit and turned the wheel, barely avoiding smashing into the van.
The SUV swerved to the right of the van. Before the driver could sigh in relief, the van slammed into them from the side. Mashiro got a good look at the vehicle. With reinforced plating, it looked much heavier than their standard size SUV. She never bothered getting an armored vehicle because she thought no one in their right mind would attack the U.S. SecDef’s daughter. She was wrong.
The collision pushed the SUV into a spin. That was the last of Mashiro’s memories inside that vehicle.
When she opened her eyes, she found herself in an unfamiliar room. Wood floor. Grey damask wallpaper. No furniture in sight.
The taste of iron spread inside her mouth. A throbbing headache forced her to shut her eyelids again. She tried to move her arms and heard a jangling sound. Cold metal cuffs bound her hands in front of her.
She looked around while waiting for her blurry vision to focus. Several men were talking near her. Her fuzzy head had trouble making out the details of the conversation. She silently shifted her body to check the rest of the room. That was when she noticed a bloodied young man kneeling on the floor, hands behind his back.
One of the men jumped then turned to face her. “Shit, you scared the hell outta me!”
She recognized him. He was the cretin she berated during Max’s pre-engagement party.
He clicked his tongue. “I was hoping you wouldn’t remember. I could’ve smacked you if you didn’t.” His mouth twisted into a maniacal grin. “Whatever, I’ll do it anyway.” Donald grabbed her by the hair and slapped her face, knocking her to the floor.
A shrill ringing sound grated on her ears. Sharp, stinging pain followed. The cuts inside her mouth reopened, coating her tongue and lips in red.
Donald cackled as he watched her squirm. “I had you investigated. They call you a genius, right? Guess I don’t have to explain what’s happening.”
“You’re either stupid or insane. If you know that much, then you should know my father.”
“Ah, Secretary Butler, a fearsome man. But that means nothing if he doesn’t know I’m involved.”
Mashiro studied Makoto’s condition as she sat up. “Dumbass. There’s no way he won’t find out. His men are on the way here right now.”
“Stop with the bluffs, it’s embarrassing! We left your car on the highway and disposed of your belongings. Your mobiles and GPS trackers are gone.”
This is bad.
There was no way for anyone to find them. In fact, no one might have even realized they had been abducted. Just as she felt despair creeping in, she noticed Makoto wink at her.
He’s planning something.
I need to distract these guys.
“If you kill us, my father will never let this go. He’ll won’t stop until he finds you. Getting revenge on me over our little spat isn’t worth it. If you let us go-”
“It’s definitely worth it! This is about respect. No one talks like that to me. Some genius you are if you can’t even understand that much.” Donald crouched in front of Mashiro. “That face tells me you don’t get it at all. No wonder. You’re just some peasant who became an old man’s sex pet. Your pervert father is going to find me? He can go ahead and try!”
Mashiro recognized the unnerving gleam in his eyes. It reminded her of the wild beasts she had encountered during some onsite work in Africa. He was an animal, devoid of reason and driven by desire. The most dangerous animals were the strong and the stupid because neither acted with much regard to their own safety. Donald clearly belonged to the latter, but that made him no less of a threat.
Makoto locked eyes with her. He was ready. The only thing she could do to help was to draw attention.
“Respect? You think someone like you deserves respect?”
“Why, yes. I’ll have you know that my men wanted to ravage you while you were unconscious, but I stopped them. I’m a gentleman. Rape isn’t something I’d allow.”
“Why, thank you very much, my benevolent kidnapper.” Mashiro spat out blood. “I’d rather be raped by a pack of dogs than listen to your narcissistic drivel one more second.”
Donald grabbed her hair and smashed her face on the floor. He then pulled her head up and whispered into her ear. “What was that? I didn’t hear you.”
Blood dripping from her nose, Mashiro stared into his eyes and smirked. “I said… you can shove your men’s cocks up your ass while singing your own praises.”
“You filthy bitch…” Donald raised his arm, trembling in anger.
Everyone in the room focused on what he was about to do.
He lunged at the nearest enemy, tackling him to the floor. A hammer punch to the nose knocked the man out instantly. Makoto snatched his pistol and rolled forward, twisting to face his next target. Three rounds to the chest dropped the still bewildered man. Two men near the back wall drew their weapons, but Makoto shot them down before they could fire.
Half-open handcuffs dangled from his right wrist. Mashiro did not know exactly how, but he had secretly picked the lock during the time she bought him.
Only two enemies remained, the rotten, spoiled brat and his last bodyguard. Makoto aimed at the dumbfounded Donald. The bodyguard, encased in some sort of metal armor, blocked the line of fire. Makoto unloaded three shots, but the bullets bounced off the metal plates covering the man’s arms. Changing his target to the head, Makoto pulled the trigger again, but a crisp click signaled his lack of ammo. Tossing the handgun aside, he charged the armored enemy.
Mashiro gazed at his figure and recalled the time he saved her at Kunimoto’s house. As Makoto thrust out his fist, his desperate yet dashing face overlapped with his younger self, taking her breath away.
Makoto was her hero.
The reason why she could do what she did was because she knew he had her back.
She knew she was not alone.
The armored man grabbed Makoto’s wrist and broke his arm.
“Gaaaaaaaaah!!!” Makoto fell where he stood, clutching his right elbow.
The enemy kicked his head, knocking him out. Donald pulled out a handgun and shot Makoto in the back until he ran out of bullets.
Mashiro stared blankly, not comprehending the sight before her.
Her hero had fallen.
Still. Silent. A pool of blood slowly spread beneath him.
“Little bastard!” Donald hurled his empty handgun at Makoto’s body. He walked around the room, stomping his feet. “Hey! Get up, you useless shits!”
The men Makoto had taken out stirred and slowly got up, like zombies resurrecting from the dead. Some grasped their torsos, while others leaned on the walls. All of them were injured and in pain, but they were alive.
“Surprised?” asked Donald. “Bulletproof gear. A few shots won’t kill ‘em.”
Mashiro looked at Makoto.
Unlike Donald’s men, he was not getting up. With a broken grin plastered on her face, Mashiro pinched her cheek. It hurt. Of course it did. This was reality.
Mashiro crumpled to the floor and unleashed a heartrending cry. Her countless tears soaked the wooden floorboards.
“Sorry to disturb your little scene, but I don’t have all night.”
Hearing Donald’s arrogant voice, Mashiro curbed her sobs. Her heart felt shattered, but she could not break. No matter what, she had to go on. Giving up would be the greatest disrespect to the man who protected her with his life.
If I can get out of this room…
Donald had thrown away his gun, his men could barely stand, and no one stood directly blocking the exit. If she could find an opening, maybe she could escape.
“You’ll pay for this.” Mashiro glared at her captor while putting her mind in overdrive.
There has to be a way.
“You still haven’t given up? Help isn’t coming, in case you’re wondering. This room is completely soundproof. I use it for my private activities.” Donald placed a hand on the armored man’s shoulder. “How do you like it? This is a U.S. military armored suit prototype. Packs a punch, right? This model was actually scrapped for a better one, but I’ll take what I can get.”
Mashiro observed the thing that killed Makoto. A thin exoskeleton ran along the outer part of the man’s arms and legs. Metal plates covered the frame, providing basic protection. Like Donald said, it did not look like a finished product. Despite that, the man wearing it easily overpowered and defeated Makoto, who trained his art for years.
“Where did you get that?”
“Pops bought it from a military buddy of his. It cost a pretty penny, but it was totally worth it.” Donald raised an eyebrow. “What? Did you really think this dog could save you?” He tapped Makoto’s shoulder with the heel of his shoe.
“Don’t insult him. If it weren’t for that thing-”
“‘Then we would’ve escaped.’ Is that what you wanted to say? Maybe you thought you’d have a chance if you made it out of this room?” Donald burst into laughter. “Did you really think this is the only armored suit in my house?”
Despair loomed its head once again. Escaping from one of those things was difficult enough. Any more would be truly impossible.
Donald gleefully walked towards the door, almost skipping in excitement. “Let me show you what’s waiting right outside. Maybe then you’ll understand why I don’t give a shit if your father comes after me.” With annoying flamboyance, he pushed open the double doors.
Mashiro stared blankly at the scene outside. She could see four men equipped with exoskeletons.
Three of them lay on the bloodstained carpet, mangled and motionless. One hung in the air. A masked man in a matte black form-fitting suit held him by the neck with one hand.
The masked man turned his eyes to the people inside the room. Then he shrugged his shoulders and crushed the armored man’s throat like a soda can.
“Who the hell are you!?” shouted Donald.
Without bothering to answer, Ageha dropped the dead enemy and drew the dual knives sheathed at his lower back. He flung the blades at the two farthest foes, who were weakly leaning on the back wall for some reason. The knives stabbed into their necks, spraying blood all over the hardwood floor.
Ageha’s knife throwing had always been usable, unlike his shooting skills. Recently though, the combination of his bionic eyes and some unintentionally amusing training from Arashi had raised his accuracy to Saya’s level.
A single enemy with the strange exoskeleton remained. The mechanical armor resembled the training machine in his grandfather’s storehouse, but it amplified speed and power instead of guiding the user’s movements. The armored man stuck close to Donald, the ultimate target of this operation. Two others were still standing. Ageha decided to get rid of the fodder first.
Before the closest enemy could draw, Ageha dashed in and drove an uppercut into his gut. The impact floated him, but Ageha grabbed his shirt, preventing him from flying away. Ageha then spun around and threw the limp body at his next target. The man sidestepped to avoid the human projectile, planting his back to the wall. Before he could recover, Ageha slammed a turning kick into his chest. Sandwiched between an alloy leg and a concrete wall, the man’s body burst like a bubble, painting an abstract red blossom on top of the wallpaper’s rigid floral design.
Donald screamed in terror and fled to the corner of the room. Despite losing all his allies, the armored man still took a fighting stance. He hopped on his toes while moving in a circle around Ageha.
Ageha casually walked over without putting his guard up. The boxer waited for him to get in range and launched a jab. Ageha tilted his head to the side, dodging by a hair’s breadth. The boxer followed up with a left hook as Ageha moved his right arm to intercept the blow.
The boxer remained calm, expecting him to block. But Ageha never intended to do such a thing. He swung a backfist at the boxer’s unprotected inner forearm, shattering his bones.
The exoskeleton only gave basic protection to the outer area of the user’s limbs. Ageha had easily disposed of the four units outside by exploiting this weakness.
The armored man lurched forward in pain. Ageha launched a kick into his chest, punting him to the ceiling. The boxer’s body broke the ceiling lamps before crashing to the floor.
Ageha looked around the room. No threats remained. A familiar young woman sat on the ground nearby, staring at him in a daze.
Though he felt grateful to her for defending Saya at the party, he had no business with her at the moment. He ignored her and approached the shaking Donald.
With nowhere left to go, Donald tried to jam himself as far as possible into the corner of the room. “What the hell are you!? Why are you doing this!?”
Ageha felt tempted to answer his questions. In fact, he had planned to tell him everything about this visit. He was looking forward to seeing Donald’s dread.
You’re going to die.
It’s only fair that I tell you the reason.
This is personal.
I’m going to kill you because you grabbed Saya Saionji’s arm.
Don’t worry, it will only be moderately painful.
But he swallowed the words. Mashiro was in the room and would hear everything. His satisfaction did not outweigh the risk.
Ageha grabbed Donald’s left arm and crushed it. A pathetic screech echoed off the walls.
That should be enough.
While holding Donald up by his crumpled arm, Ageha wrapped a hand around his face.
Ageha looked behind him and saw Mashiro on shaky knees. She aimed a pistol at him.
“Judging by those handcuffs,” said Ageha, “I saved you just now.”
“Yeah, and I’m grateful, but I can’t let you kill a defenseless man.”
“You think I don’t know that!?” Grief and anger soiled her face.
“Yes. You can babble about idealistic bullshit like that because you don’t know anything. This guy deserves to die.”
“Maybe, but you don’t get to decide that. Let him go. I’ll make sure he pays for his crimes.”
Mashiro was a bird in a cage. She did not know how rotten the world was, which was why she could preach ideals without hesitation. However, that also meant she could not pull the trigger. She was no threat and could be ignored.
“This is quicker.” Ageha applied pressure to Donald’s skull.
A slight impact hit his waist as a gunshot rang out. The bullet grazed his alloy muscle and lodged itself in Donald’s flank. The rich brat squealed like a pig.
“Uh, nice shot. I guess?”
“I was aiming at your legs, dammit!”
And I thought I was a horrible shot.
But that was to be expected. From the way she gripped the gun, Mashiro had probably never held a weapon in her life. Hitting him on her first shot was practically a miracle.
Seeing him unhurt, she raised her aim higher. “Please stop. I don’t want to shoot you.”
He could tell Mashiro was serious. Behind her lofty ideals was a firm resolve. However, that had nothing to do with his vengeance. His fingers began cracking the bones in Donald’s neck.
“I want to kill that bastard much more than you do!” shouted Mashiro, stopping his hand. “But that would mean validating what he did to me… What he did to Makoto!” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
Upon hearing the familiar name, Ageha scanned the room more thoroughly. There was one body he was not responsible for. The spiky-haired man resembled Mashiro’s escort from Kaika’s party.
Ageha inadvertently dropped Donald to the floor.
This young woman was trying to protect the man who killed her lover. Not only that, she was determined to stop Ageha, a veritable monster, despite knowing she could get killed at any moment. She did all that for the sake of her justice.
She was everything he had failed to be, everything he could never be.
Blinded by an invisible brightness, Ageha unconsciously narrowed his eyes as he stared at her.
You’re a hero.
“I’m sorry for earlier,” he said. “I have no right to belittle your ideals.”
“Huh? I don’t really mind.”
But I’m no hero.
Ageha stomped on Donald’s face, crushing it.
Mashiro’s handcuffed hands fell limply in front of her. “Why? Why would you do something like that?” Her fingers lost power and let go of the pistol.
Ageha did not answer and collected his knives. Before exiting the room, he glanced at the bloodstained, bronze-skinned, pure-white lady one last time. “Your friend is still alive. It’s faint, but he’s breathing.”
Mashiro scrambled towards Makoto. She burst out in tears after confirming his pulse.
“There’s a phone in the living room.” Leaving those words, Ageha withdrew from the suburban estate.