“Congratulations.” Mei Xing clinked his glass against Ageha’s.
“Says the guy who bagged Mao.” Ageha took a swig of his brandy. “I’m not sure if it’s something to celebrate. Feels like I’m taking advantage of Saya and Arashi.”
“So, what are you planning to do?”
“…I’ll accept their feelings. I see Arashi as a little sister, but that’s because I’ve been trying to, considering our age difference and all. But she’s cute, you know? Dedicated too. And that ass…”
Mei Xing laughed. “Yeah. I’m actually surprised you declined their initial invitation. I mean, the bits about the operating room and the paralysis were weird and all-
“Actually, those parts got me excited too.”
Mei Xing guffawed while slapping the bar table. “This coming from the guy who couldn’t get my relationship with Setsu!”
“I still don’t get it, especially Setsu’s… preference. But that doesn’t matter. People deserve a little freedom.”
The two men sat side by side at the otherwise empty bar as soft jazz played in the background. The dim lights made it hard to recognize faces, perfect for a quiet night of drinking.
A few hours ago, Mei Xing received an invitation from Ageha, who seemed to be troubled by something. Ageha was tight-lipped about his worries at first, but a few drinks and tales of Mei Xing’s own relationship changes loosened his tongue.
I was hesitant to talk about Setsu and Mao.
But if it stops Ageha from judging himself, it was worth kissing and telling.
Not like either of us will tell anyone else.
Mei Xing swirled the contents of his glass. “I was worried about you, but I guess you’re doing fine.”
“You… tend to treat yourself like a machine, but you’re not. You can and should make mistakes, especially fun ones. You’ve changed. For the better, in case you’re wondering.”
“I guess so. Not as much as you though.”
“Me? I’m still the same old man.”
“You tricked Mao to trap your enemies. Kaika did something like that to me before. Actually, she does that even now. The current you reminds me of her.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. You were more… at peace before you became dragon head.”
“That’s because you didn’t know me enough back then. I’ve been suffering silently for years because I thought I killed my mother. I punished myself for it. I punished my father for not caring. Thinking back, I wasted so much time and energy. Now that I know she was murdered, I can direct that hatred at the right person.”
“You’ve avenged your father, so your mother’s killer comes next?”
Have I avenged him?
Mei Xing remembered Chen’s testimony about Saya’s involvement. Setsu warned him to be wary of her.
Should I tell Ageha?
I can’t worry him over the ramblings of a cornered man.
Not when he finally has a chance at some happiness.
Mei Xing sipped his liquor and savored the tingling sensation in his throat. “You disapprove?”
Ageha shook his head. “The opposite. Once you find her killer, I’ll help you get revenge. I promise.”
But testing the waters can’t hurt.
“Should you be making promises like that? We still don’t know who it is. What if it’s Saya?”
“Then I’ll break my promise,” replied Ageha without hesitation.
Mei Xing briskly ruffled Ageha’s hair. “That’s why you have no friends.”
The younger chef showed a rare shy smile. “Thanks for showing up tonight. I know you’re busy.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. And I’m not as busy as you think. I just have a few meetings here in Tokyo. Your boss is gonna be there too. You coming?”
“Saya and Arashi will go with her. I have to visit my orthopedist.”
Mei Xing topped up their glasses with dark amber liquid. “Age catching up to you?”
“Price I pay for not taking care of myself.”
“Then do.” Mei Xing raised his glass.
Ageha clinked it with his and downed his drink. “I’ll try, Mei. I’ll try.”
“Let me introduce you,” said Kaika. “This is General Cole Walker of the United States Army. This is Zhang Mei Xing, dragon head of the Soaring Serpent Society, the top triad in China.”
Mei Xing squinted at Walker, his thin eyes practically closed. “I was under the impression that I was meeting a buyer for processed metals.”
“You are.” Walker extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Zhang. I knew your father. He was a great man.”
Until your men killed him.
Naturally, Kaika did not speak those words. It was in her best interest for the meeting to proceed as smoothly as possible.
Mei Xing quickly regained his calm and took Walker’s hand in a firm grip. “The pleasure is mine.”
The three leaders seated themselves at the roundtable. Their respective bodyguards, Saya for Kaika, Mao for Mei Xing, and an armored soldier for Walker, stood a few feet behind them.
Walker clasped his hands and rested them on the table. “I apologize for bringing weapons to this meeting, but an unarmed soldier is no match for your escorts.”
“I can’t blame you.” Kaika glanced at Saya and Mao in turn. “As beautiful as they are, these flowers have sharp thorns.”
“And deadly poison.”
Kaika understood that shot was directed at both Saya and Mao, but Mei Xing did not know about Saya poisoning Kazuki Nikaido and took it personally.
“You seem to know a lot about me.” Mei Xing snuck a peek at her.
“Rest assured, Ms. Nikaido didn’t tell me anything. It’s only natural to investigate a potential business partner.”
“Something only possible if you know that partner’s identity. A privilege I was not given, I’m afraid.”
“Information is something gathered, not given.”
“And trust is something earned, not demanded.”
“Gentlemen, no need for a pissing contest. We’re all adults here.”
Walker cleared his throat. “I beg to differ, Ms. Nikaido. In terms of age, you’re undeniably a minor.”
“He’s got you there, Kaika.”
She crafted an adorable pout. “A technicality.”
The Chinaman chuckled, while a smile broke out on the American’s stern, chiseled face.
Kaika faced Mei Xing and bowed her head. “I apologize for keeping General Walker’s identity a secret. I had no choice. This meeting must proceed with utmost secrecy.”
“Assuming there’s a deal at all. There needs to be a certain level of trust between parties for a partnership to exist.”
Kaika sent Walker a pleading glance.
He nodded in response. “Very well. We’re planning to mass produce armored suits for military use. Something like this.” Walker motioned to his bodyguard.
“By we, you mean the U.S. government?” asked Mei Xing.
“I’ll leave that to your imagination.”
“I can yield that much.”
“Thank you. We need special lightweight alloys, similar to ones used in ARMS. Ms. Nikaido informed me your factories in China are booming after getting rare metal ore mines controlled by other triad groups. We are aware she gets the lion’s share for NGC’s production, but we would like to acquire the surplus.”
“All of it.”
“So your goal is not just securing supplies, but also stifling competition.”
Walker’s eyebrows twitched ever so slightly.
Mei Xing smiled. “Apologies. You don’t need to answer that.”
He already did.
Mei Xing has really grown into his position.
Perhaps too well.
“We’re prepared to offer this much per pound.” Walker held up a few fingers.
“Hundred? That’s way too cheap.”
“…Your country is too rich.”
“I never said my country is paying for it.”
“To be clear, we don’t want raw alloys. We need plates ready for manufacturing. Ms. Nikaido implied that you’re able to meet this demand.”
“That depends on the design complexity, but judging from your friend’s suit, it can be arranged. How soon?”
“ASAP. Do we have a deal?”
“To be honest, this is where I’m supposed to play hard to get and jack up the price, but your offer is more than generous enough. Most importantly, Kaika introduced you. I can’t dishonor her by acting like an opportunist.” Mei Xing reached across the table and offered the general his right hand. “It’s a deal.”
Walker took his hand and shook it once. “I’ll have my subordinate send you the details later.”
“That went much faster than I expected,” said Kaika.
Mei Xing flashed her a cocky grin. “That’s how it goes in a negotiation between men. We’re creatures of swift action and few words.”
Gen. Walker deeply nodded in agreement.
Kaika smiled sarcastically. “True. Men are just overgrown kids, after all.”
Saya and Mao stifled laughs at the same time.
“Ms. Oogi, you have missed calls from Ms. Nikaido again,” said Tina, Mashiro’s temporary secretary.
“I really don’t wanna ask, but how many?”
“Can’t you just block her number?”
“Believe me, I tried, but she switches to a different one each time. Wouldn’t it be better to just meet with her and get it over with?”
Mashiro could not blame her for saying so. Tina had no idea Kaika was after her employer’s life.
“You also missed a call from Mr. Rodin. Should I call him back?”
“Yes, and route it to my office. Thanks Tina, and sorry for the trouble.”
“Just doin’ my job.” Tina gave her a lazy salute.
Mashiro copied the motion as she entered her windowless Tokyo office. She flopped onto her chair and sighed. The sight of guards scurrying around the building always sapped her of energy, but it was unavoidable. She held evidence against the most powerful person in Japan. No precaution was too much.
Her phone rang.
Mashiro lightly slapped her cheeks to fire herself up and picked up the phone.
“Mr. Rodin is on the other line,” said Tina.
“Put him through.”
After a beep, a deep voice with a thick french accent came from her receiver. “Good morning, Ms. Oogi.”
“Good morning, Mr. Rodin. How have you been?”
“Excellent, excellent. You?”
“That is good to hear. Very good…” His voice trailed off, choked by hesitation.
“I don’t like beating around the bush, so I’m going to just come out and say it. Your anti-poverty movement lost support.”
“You’ve lost support, Ms. Oogi.”
“B-But why?” Mashiro unconsciously stood from her seat.
“You haven’t been focusing on running the campaigns. Without your presence, the energy fizzled out and everything went flat, like opened champagne.”
“Wha-What can I do? Mr. Rodin, can we salvage the situation?”
“I’m sorry, but there is no ‘we.’ I was one of the first to back out. There’s too much local opposition. It could’ve worked if you rode the momentum after that impressive speech, but you left the frontlines and vanished. The other representatives think you got bored and tried to find a different challenge.”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner!?”
“Because you might’ve been able to save it.”
“I don’t understand… You wanted this as much as I did!”
“The world doesn’t run on ideals, Ms. Oogi. It runs on money, the very thing you want to give away.”
“Mr. Rodin, please! You’re better than this!”
“…It was a nice dream, but it’s time to wake up. You’re alone, Ms. Oogi. Farewell.” He hung up.
Mashiro called up her other supporters and received the same cold response. Her dwindling batteries burned out by the time she finished checking off the names on her list.
It can’t be…
All that work…
Makoto, I’m so sorry.
I dropped the ball.
If I didn’t get so caught up with Kaika and Ageha…
Mashiro vigorously shook her head. “I can’t give up now.”
I’ll come back and do it all over again if I have to.
But first I need to get rid of any distractions.
Mashiro called Max on her mobile. “Hello.”
“Sorry, I’m kinda tied up right now.”
“This won’t take long.”
“I’m sorry, Max. I can’t sit on this anymore. I’m telling Dad about Kaika and Ageha. I need his power to catch her.”
“Wait! Just give me a few more days-”
“I’m really sorry. Dad is on a plane right now, so I’ll tell him first thing tomorrow morning.”
“…I understand. I’m sorry too. I told you I’d take care of this, but I have nothing to show for it.”
“No worries. Kaika isn’t someone we can handle by ourselves.”
“…Yeah, you’re right.”