“No deal~” said Valeriya as she leaned back in her office chair.
“Take this more seriously.” Mei Xing’s voice could freeze the air.
The change in his demeanor was so drastic Valeriya unconsciously tightened her grip on her phone. Annoyed by her own reaction, she crossed her legs to recompose herself.
“I’m completely serious. No player worth their salt is going to flip over their ace on demand, much less give it away.”
“That ace of yours killed Ying and crippled Mao, both valuable members of my organization. I deserve compensation.”
“I’d like to remind you that your people struck first. They shot Ken, who was under my care. A bit of retaliation should be expected.”
“Putting my best subordinate in a wheelchair is not a bit of retaliation. I can accept Ying’s death because she was at fault, but Mao was only there to stop her. Your killer mercilessly attacked Mao while she was trying to stop hostilities. If Ageha didn’t save her, she wouldn’t be alive right now. That doesn’t balance out. Who was that boy to you anyway?”
“The boy’s identity isn’t important. What’s important is who started hostilities. We aren’t children quarreling on the playground here. Every action carries weight and consequences. Why are you fretting over an injured mistress? You can still ride her in bed even if she can’t move.”
“…Looks like you really want to start a war.”
Valeriya burst into laughter. “I think you’re misunderstanding something, Mei Xing. We were never at peace in the first place. All we have is a truce, guaranteed to expire. You also seem to have misread me just because we exchanged a few pleasant greetings.” She intentionally lowered her tone and slowed her speech, making it sound almost seductive yet nonetheless terrifying. “I enjoy conflict. But I’m not a bully, so I don’t go after small fry. You, however, are a worthy challenger. As such, I’d like to clear the air between us before we begin our contest. I didn’t plan the incident at the gas station. That was nothing but an unfortunate accident. But I won’t apologize for it. There’s no point in expressing regret over something inevitable. And our clash has always been inevitable.”
“I’m afraid you misread me as well, Valeriya. I’m not the type of man you imagine. I don’t like fighting, and I’m very scared of dying. Given a choice, I’ll always take the peaceful path, even if it means bowing my head to others. Someone like that isn’t worthy of being your rival.” Mei Xing fell silent for a few seconds. “That said, this time I have no choice. You hurt one of my own and refuse to provide compensation. A war it is.”
Mei Xing hung up.
“Hmph. He didn’t even let me reply.” Valeriya sank into her office chair while cracking her neck by tilting it side to side.
Good thing he didn’t see through my bluff.
Valeriya did indeed enjoy conflict. However, she also loved winning. The current situation was not going well enough to permit such posturing against Mei Xing, but she had no choice. She could not appear weak in front of an enemy, and Mei Xing had become an enemy the moment Sakuya crippled Mao.
If Mei Xing had demanded any other person as reparation, Valeriya may have considered it. But her daughter was the most important thing to her. Irreplaceable did not even begin to describe Mitsuki’s worth.
Valeriya massaged her temples to soothe her throbbing headache.
Her faction was, quite frankly, cornered.
Sakuya accepted a match against Kai’s team.
Gen is missing.
Nick is going off the radar a little too often.
The Americans have their eye on Russia, with me being the most accessible target.
To top it all off, Mei Xing declared war against the Russian mafia.
The biggest problem of the lot was Sakuya’s stubbornness. Even though Valeriya wanted to fight Kai fair and square, exceptions had to be made depending on the situation. Duking it out with a powerhouse while her own organization rested on a wooden plank floating in the middle of a school of sharks was not exactly a wise move.
Even if Valeriya controlled the largest branch of the Russian mafia and had strong ties with the Russian government, she would not escape the chaos unscathed.
Gen’s disappearance was within Valeriya’s predictions. He had distanced himself from her ever since she shot him. That was fine. Even if he sided with the enemies, she had already prepared countermeasures for any technology leakage. Sakuya’s toys were practically complete anyway.
Amongst her problems, Nick was the lowest priority. She knew from the start that he would likely betray her if things went south. His recent disappearances confirmed that prediction.
Where did he scuttle off to?
No, he has too much pride to beg for help from a loli.
And Kai hates his guts.
Mei Xing would never trust a traitor.
Nick hated the Americans for once occupying his country, but that was an old story. He could likely endure cozying up to Butler, and Valeriya had foreseen that possibility. In fact, the main reason she still kept a treacherous failure like Nick in her faction was to prevent him from openly siding with the Americans. He could not make any bold moves while pretending to be Valeriya’s ally.
I’ll let him run around for now.
Then I’ll squeeze him dry before burning whatever remains.
The Filipino was not capable enough to pose a threat. Outsmarting idiotic officials in his motherland did not mean he was relevant on the world stage.
Valeriya rubbed her stiff shoulders. With the whole world against her, her aging body, a fact she would never admit to anyone, was screaming from stress. Valeriya realized something funny and chuckled. She had been keeping her age a secret for so long that she forgot the exact number.
Viktor might remember.
She added erasing that detail from his brain to her long laundry list.
I need a recharge.
Unfortunately, Sakuya was busy training herself for the upcoming battle. Mitsuki almost never surfaced anymore, preventing Valeriya from refreshing herself by using her daughter as a body pillow.
Can I get us through this in one piece?
The hardened Russian felt a little fainthearted, an emotion so rare she had forgotten the last time she experienced it. But it did not last long.
She stood up, left the office, and sauntered to her room.
I’ll just get off on the latest hentai and go to sleep.
I can’t wait ‘til those bastards smash against each other and crumble to pieces.
Valeriya. Kaika. Mei Xing. Butler.
It was no exaggeration to say that the fate of the world hinged on those four people. The underworld’s influence had overflowed from the depths and flooded their governments and militaries.
Nick drank the last gulp of his favorite beer and slammed the bottle on the bar. “One more.”
The seedy old bartender snorted and opened another bottle from the fridge.
I’ll join them soon enough.
And when the dust settles, I’ll be the last one standing.
Nick knew his internal monologue sounded like a speech from a third-rate villain, but he could not lie to his ambitious nature. At first he only wanted to free his country from corruption and to rule his people wisely. But after tasting real power, he could not turn back. He would make it to the top. Or die trying.
Two black men a few stools over glared at him, clearly saying he did not belong at this bar. Nick agreed.
I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice.
To avoid trouble, he averted his eyes and focused on his fresh beer. The clock behind the bar showed 10 p.m., the scheduled time for his meeting.
A sharp click came from behind him. Startled, Nick quickly swiveled his stool to face the possible threat while reaching inside his vest for his pistol. Before he could draw, striking crimson hair entered his vision. A woman with green eyes and a sharp, straight nose stared at him. Her features matched the picture in the profile Butler sent Nick a few days ago. He let go of his weapon and relaxed.
The redhead, whose short, spiky hair resembled a bonfire swayed by a gust, briskly raised her hand for a salute. The click he heard earlier was just the woman clicking her boots. Before her straightened fingers reached eyebrow-level, Nick snatched her forearm and gently lowered it.
“Don’t salute here. It’ll attract attention.” Nick released her and smiled. “Besides, I’m not from the military. Noelle Truman, I presume?”
Her hand shot up again before stopping at the height of her collarbone, without Nick’s help this time.
“Apologies, force of habit. Sergeant Noelle Truman, U.S. Army, reporting for duty, sir.”
“Can you lower your voice? You don’t need to announce your rank to the world you know. This is supposed to be a secret meeting.”
“S-Sorry, sir. I have never participated in espionage operations… I came to meet you under orders from General Walker. I only received your picture, so I don’t know our respective ranks…”
“Come on, drop the military lingo. I’m Nicolas Estrella, President of the Philippines. Just call me Nick.”
“…President of the Philippines? You mean the country..?”
“Great, you actually know about it. Some Americans think it’s a book from the bible.”
“I was stationed in Okinawa for a short time and met some Filipinos there… Wait, wait, p-president!? S-Sorry for not wearing something more appropriate! I didn’t know I’d be meeting a head of state!” Noelle patted the low neckline of her wool shirt and sourly stared at her denim pants.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m a shadow president anyway. And you look fine. Heck, I’m wearing jeans too, and this isn’t exactly the oval office.” Nick patted the stool beside him. “Relax and take a seat. We have a lot to talk about.”
Noelle made a friendly smile. “Gotcha.” She hopped onto the stool with no sign of her earlier rigidness and flagged the bartender. “Can I get whatever he’s having?”
The bartender raised an eyebrow, clearly annoyed at being forced to do his job. “One Sun Miguel, comin’ up.”
“That’s a quick change in attitude. I thought you were more of a by the book type.”
“I am, but I was put under your command. If you tell me to relax, then that’s what I’ll do.” She clasped her hands above her head and stretched her back.
Her perky breasts rose along with her muscular shoulders. Lightly tanned, toned abs and a cute belly button peeked out from under the hem of her moss green shirt. The grumpy bartender placed Noelle’s beer on the bar without bothering to prepare a coaster.
“From what you said earlier, I take it Walker didn’t give you any details about this operation.”
“Yeah, he said the person I’m meeting will handle everything.”
Nick answered by sliding a portable terminal to her.
“That’s the first target.”
“Don’t say the names out loud. At least not the infamous ones.”
“Isn’t this place secure?”
“It should be, but you can never be too safe.”
The name Valeriya Varrenikov served as the header for the first file. Nick chose her as the first target because she was the most vulnerable at the moment.
Nick was aiming for the chink in Valeriya’s armor, her overbearing yet warranted confidence. No matter how cornered she was, she would never become desperate. Even if the odds were stacked against her, she would never panic. Indeed, the Russian’s weakness was that she was too strong.
That meant she would never treat a small fry like Nick as an equal. She would not even place him on the same level as Kaika. That was the reason Valeriya had not killed him yet. She completely believed that could be put off until later, when he was no longer of any use.
To take advantage of that, Nick had intentionally left faint footprints of his meetings with the Americans. He had purposefully asked his people to make suspicious movements to convince Valeriya of his impending betrayal. The mistakes had been just minor enough to overlook, but the wily Russian would not miss them.
Someone who committed such mistakes could never hope to outwit Valeriya Varrenikov. That was Nick’s illusion.
The possibility of the Russian reading that far ahead was low. The Nicolas Estrella she knew was a man blinded by pride and ambition. He still was, but his mortifying encounter with the devil spawn Kaika had shattered that identity to pieces. Unlike more seasoned schemers like Valeriya or Butler, he was young and easily damaged. Ironically, his slow recovery had opened the door to victory, but the path ahead promised to be long and arduous.
“There are other targets. Go ahead and look them over.”
Noelle tapped the screen, flipping through several profile pages one by one. The targets included Kaika, Ageha, and Saya. She checked the details of each one with an earnest expression, unbefitting a mass murderer.
“I get the mob boss, but why the rich girl? Based on the profile, she’s selling weapons to the U.S. military. She’s an ally.”
“The problem is what she’s doing away from public view. That girl’s like a swan. She enamors everyone with graceful maneuvers, but she’s kicking like a nutcase underwater, stirring up invisible waves that ripple to every shoreline.”
Then Noelle reached the final target.
“Arashi?” She peered into the screen, as if hoping a closer look would transform the picture on display. “It can’t be…”
“…You know her?”
“This is Arashi Tanizaki!”
“Yes, that’s what the header says.”
“But Captain Tanizaki and Arashi are dead! They disappeared years ago!”
“Calm down! People are looking.”
“Arashi is fine, physically at least. The rich girl, as you called that evil brat, manipulated her with lies about her parents and turned her into an assassin. She’s good with a rifle, like her father. And you.”
“Then she’s a victim!”
“Based on the info, I agree. How do you know her anyway?”
“I said I was once stationed in Okinawa, right? I trained under Captain Tanizaki for a few years during that time.” Noelle’s expression turned nostalgic. “I was just a dumb rookie back then. I couldn’t do anything right. He saw my potential and trained me to shoot from the ground up. I owe him everything.” She tightened her grip on the beer bottle. “I felt so powerless when I heard he and his daughter disappeared after that bitch of a wife left him.”
“…Did you love him?”
“As a mentor and a friend. There was no better soldier on earth.”
I wonder how she’d react if she knew her mentor turned his own daughter into a freak show.
Nick tucked away a grin. “But your boss still wants her dead. She killed a lot of people, and is a threat to your country and mine.”
Noelle vigorously shook her head with a furious expression. “I can’t do this. She’s still a kid! No way I’ll kill the captain’s daughter. I owe him too much.”
“That’s a problem…” Nick covered his mouth with a hand and scrunched his brow, pretending to be deep in thought. “Wait, maybe… But that’s…”
“What is it? Tell me.”
“Maybe you can convince her to change sides. Arashi is just being manipulated. Based on her background check, her mother died several years ago. But there are reports of Arashi meeting with someone who looks a lot like her mother Kaoru. This is just a guess, but maybe that rich girl tricked her into believing her mom is alive by hiring a look-alike? Maybe you could talk some sense into Arashi. She knows you, right?”
Nick had found out about the death of Arashi’s mother during an investigation months ago. The rest of the story was bullshit he made up. It was a tad unbelievable, but the most convincing lies always were.
“She was just a child back then. I doubt she remembers me. If she couldn’t recognize her mother’s face, no way she’d recognize mine.”
“Do you have any proof of your connection?”
“Come to think of it, I do. Give me a day. I’ll go look for it.”
Nick had actually found an old picture of Arashi’s father and Noelle drinking together, but it turned out to be unnecessary.
“That’s fine. Your first target is the mob boss anyway. You can deal with Arashi as you wish once you’re done with that.” He rotated his seat to face Noelle and stared into her eyes. “No one can know about this part of the plan. Your boss wants everyone in that file gone. If you don’t want either of us added to that list, you need to keep everything under wraps.”
Noelle hesitated for a moment. “Why are you going so far for my selfishness?”
“I need all the help I can get. And you’re all I have.”
After taking a deep breath, she nodded and pushed the terminal towards him.
Nick waved it off. “Keep it. It’s a secure phone. Only use it to contact me.”
Things had unfolded exactly as Nick planned. He had investigated Butler’s best sniper as soon as he heard her name. Noelle’s link to Arashi’s father was an unexpected treasure. It had allowed him to rip Noelle from Butler’s control and make her his personal pawn.
“I’ll head to Tokyo as soon as I can.” Noelle pocketed the device. “Can you get me a weapon once I’m there? I don’t wanna risk smuggling firearms myself.”
“What do you need?”
“Any decent rifle is fine.”
“Don’t underestimate your targets. They’re all ridiculously difficult to pin down. They have unpredictable schedules and always move in armored convoys with tinted windows. They even have decoy motorcades. The rest of the time, they’re holed up in secure penthouse offices or behind the walls of a mansion-cum-fortress. A sniper’s nightmare, really.”
“Doesn’t matter. As long as I have a working rifle.”
“That’s some confidence. I heard you contributed a great deal during the coup by eliminating more than three times as many targets as the next best shooter, but you better not let that get to your head. The enemies this time are far from normal.”
Noelle smiled gently. “I’m not confident in my skills at all. I’m just factually the best sniper alive.”
Her face showed no shred of pride. In fact, it appeared almost self-derisive, as if she did not value her abilities one bit.
“Even better than Captain Tanizaki?”
“I said alive, right?”
“Depending on the terrain, I can take down up to three Captain Tanizakis at the same time, assuming he was in his prime when he taught me. I’ve eliminated better snipers in my career.”
“Isn’t that a bit disrespectful to your mentor?”
“Like I said, I loved that man. But facts are facts. I regretted not being able to do anything for him, but now I have the chance to use the skills he taught me to do just that. I’ll save Arashi no matter what. Don’t depend on me for anything else though. I can’t fight worth shit.” Noelle took a few swigs from her sweaty beer bottle and unleashed a loud burp. “This is good stuff.”
“Right? It’s imported from my country.”
“A nationalist? I like.” Noelle knocked her bottle into his.
“Uh, in case you forgot, I’m the ruler of said country. I kinda have to be.”
“Oh, slipped my mind. Sorry ‘bout that.”
Nick chuckled at how casually she conversed with him. “You’re a gutsy one, that’s for sure.”
“Just the opposite. I’m a sniper, remember?”
“If you say so.”
“So where are we going?” asked Ageha.
Arashi, her left arm wrapped around his right, continued pulling him along the street. “…Leave it to me.”
They were both wearing spectacles as disguises. Ageha had chosen a metal-framed geeky design, while a stylish purple one rested on Arashi’s cute nose. Aside from the eyewear, Arashi had also put on hair extensions and a beret, transforming her wild aura into a more mature atmosphere. Artificial black hair sloped down her shoulders and back, ending at her waist. Despite the changes, the skip in her step made her look her age.
The rest of their outfits did not look much different from the other couples roaming the streets on a weekend. That was only natural as they too were a couple roaming the streets on a Saturday. In other words, they were on a date.
Ageha knew this was not the best time for a date because of the looming battle with Sakuya, but Arashi’s puppy dog eyes had chipped away at his hesitation. Arashi had delivered the final blow by saying he was unfair for going out on a date with Mitsuki but not her.
While not nearly as infamous as Kaika or Saya, Ageha and Arashi were likely on the kill lists of several organizations and bounty hunters. Even though few groups would dare attack them from the front, getting sniped from afar was something even Ageha could not defend against.
That led to Ageha disguising himself with spectacles. It was a universal fact that wearing a pair of geeky glasses would obscure your identity to the world. As ridiculous as that sounded, that was just how things worked.
Arashi had spent a bit more effort on her disguise, and it paid off. Ageha thought she looked beautiful.
What surprised Ageha the most about the date was Arashi’s insistence to plan it. Ageha always planned their occasional aquarium visits, and Arashi seemed to be satisfied just following him around. Arashi’s newfound assertiveness made Ageha a little excited about what was in store. Fortunately, the weather was unseasonably warm for February, making an outdoor date comfortable enough even for cyborgs.
“…We’re here.” Arashi stopped in front of a neighborhood butcher shop and pointed at the small sign erected on the sidewalk.
This is Arashi.
My fault for expecting too much.
“What’s with… that look?” she asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? We’re standing in front of a meat shop. Are you asking me to buy meat and cook for you? Just so you know, that’s not how dates go.”
Arashi’s sleepy face switched to its second most common mode, the smug. That never failed to tick Ageha off, but he decided to listen to the inevitable explanation.
“We’re not here for meat… We’re here for croquettes.”
“Croquettes? I guess they do sell those…”
And isn’t that still meat?
“Why if it isn’t Arashi!” A short plump man in an apron, whose face could barely be seen from behind the counter, waved at them. “You here for the usual?”
He recognized her?
Does she always go out in disguise?
“Yes, Mister!” Arashi released Ageha’s arm and trotted to the friendly shop owner. She handed him a few coins in exchange for a brown paper bag.
“Is that the croquette we walked all the way here for?” Ageha peeked into the bag as she unfolded the top.
Thin tendrils of smoke escaped from the opening. Arashi reached inside and unveiled a golden brown oval, peppered with almost ethereal crumbs. The scent of meat mingled with the aroma of perfectly fried potato and baked bread. Small shops usually reused old oil to save money, but this store was clearly not one of them.
Arashi took a bite from the top. She squinted in joy while munching on her first mouthful. Then she pushed the croquette towards Ageha’s face. “Here… Take a bite.”
The area hovering near his lips was the exact spot Arashi bit earlier.
Is this some kinda indirect kiss nonsense?
In that case, shouldn’t she take a bite after I do?
Ageha chomped down on the croquette. He chewed on the contrasting textures of the crisp breading, fluffy mashed potato interior, and aggressively seasoned ground beef. Then he realized something.
Arashi made me bite second because the middle part had the best proportion of crust to filling!
“This is delicious.”
Her smug smile returned. “I know.”
“Give me another bite.”
While Ageha paused in confusion, Arashi proceeded to gobble down the rest of the croquette.
“What the hell, you could’ve at least left another bite for me.”
“No time. Let’s go.” Arashi entwined his arm again and dragged him in a different direction.
Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at the entrance of a Don-Quijote store. Inside were aisles and aisles of random merchandise, from food to onaholes. There were even bottles of sake and a section for bicycles.
Ageha scratched his head, a mannerism he picked up from Mei Xing. “If you wanted to shop, we could’ve gone to a better store. I can pay for an outfit or two if you’re short on cash.”
“Let’s go.” Arashi pulled him away from the sliding doors leaking a devilishly catchy brand song.
“We haven’t even gone in yet.”
“Not there… Here.” She pointed at a small food cart beside the gigantic chain store.
“You like them?”
Arashi raised a hand towards the old lady manning the stall. “Hello. Can I have one box?”
“Oh, if it isn’t that young lass from before… A… Ara… What was your name again?”
“Arashi. Granny, I’ve told you that more than ten times already.”
More than ten times?
How many times has she eaten here?
Come to think of it, that butcher also knew her.
“Extra scallions on top, right?”
“Uh huh. If you remember that much… please remember my name too.” Arashi left a few coins on the counter.
The granny took the payment while laughing heartily. “When you get to my age, you tend to forget the little things.”
What a passive aggressive reply.
Despite how she looked, the thin granny swiftly cooked up a box of octopus-stuffed balls and generously covered it with finely sliced scallions. After sticking two short skewers into the morsels, she handed them over to Arashi. “Here you go, Araki.”
“Geez, it’s Arashi!”
“Just joking!” The granny laughed again. “I hope you enjoy it with your boyfriend!”
“We will!” Arashi nodded and hooked arms with Ageha again. She nimbly picked up one of the balls and blew on it gently. After cooling it just enough, she carried it to Ageha’s lips. “Aaaa…”
“You really should work on the flat tone. You sound like a zombie.”
She formed a tiny pout. “Just eat it.”
Ageha did as ordered. The tangy sauce and homemade mayo spiced with a bit of curry tickled his tongue. The moment he bit into the ball itself, an explosion of rich gooeyness filled his mouth. An immoral amount of chopped chewy octopus popped out. The pieces were smaller but more numerous than your average takoyaki, making it easier to eat and giving it more seafood flavor. The ideal amount of pickle hid inside the flavor bomb, enticing him to reach for the next piece.
“This might be the best takoyaki I’ve ever had. And I’ve made my own. Can I have another-”
Arashi had already finished the entire box.
“What the hell…”
“The early bird catches the worm.”
“That was lava hot. How did you eat all of it that fast..?”
“Let’s go. We have… a lot of stops.”
Their next stop was a small bakery behind the train station. Few people wandered to that area, so the shop was pleasantly empty. This time, Arashi bought a phenomenal curry bread that actually used genuine indian spices, giving it a hiccup-inducing kick. Again, Arashi gave Ageha only one bite and finished the rest. The cashier waved goodbye to Arashi as they left.
The same happened at the seedy oden stall with an exquisite dashi broth and dirt cheap prices.
They finally settled into a more relaxed sit down restaurant that specialized in monjayaki. A tableside chef expertly mixed the seafood, vegetables, and very thin batter on the hot iron griddle in the middle of their table. A wide, thin, and gooey pancake began to take shape.
Unfortunately, Ageha’s hope that things would go differently was struck down again. Arashi started scooping up and slurping down the soupy batter from the hotplate before it was even ready. She left just a morsel of the goopy, crusty pancake for him. A fantastic morsel it was, though, with just the right crunch followed by a creamy finish.
Even though he ate only one bite of each dish, Ageha’s stomach was nearing its limit. Arashi’s intentions dawned on him.
She knows I can’t eat a lot because of my body.
She kept eating everything to make sure I didn’t get full before our food tour was over.
A comfortable warmth flickered within Ageha’s chest. The girl who could only think of her own desires and appetite had become able to show such consideration. The child who only focused on the next fun thing had planned an entire outing just for him. Not only that, she had improved her communication skills enough to befriend the shop owners throughout town.
Her sleepy voice woke him from his reverie.
“We have two stops left. Can you… still eat?”
I should be asking you that question.
“Thanks to you. Lead the way.”
Five minutes later, a small Chinese takeout shop came into view. Arashi joked around with the owner’s teenage daughter before leaving with Ageha and a paper bag in tow.
“Aren’t you gonna open it?” asked Ageha.
“Not yet.” She handed it to him. “Let’s race. You lose if you squish… what’s inside. It’s a handicap.”
“What do you-”
Arashi flicked his forehead with her alloy finger. His head snapped backward.
“That hurt…” Ageha rubbed his sore brow and shook off his dizziness.
When he opened his eyes, Arashi dashed away from him. She kept a hand on her hat to keep it from flying off. Waist-length hair fluttered behind her like black feathers as she disappeared into an alley.
Ageha jogged to the corner to see where she went. Noticing him lagging behind, Arashi stopped and looked back. Then she made that annoying smug smile.
“…You asked for it.” Ageha cracked his neck. While firmly holding the bag of food, he sprinted towards his prey.
Arashi’s expression stiffened for an instant. Then she bolted to the far end of the alley, hopping over the occasional soda can or cardboard box littering the pavement. A dilapidated brick wall blocked her path, but she did not slow down. Kicking off a dumpster, she leapt upward, twisted her body, and dove into a hole in the wall just large enough to fit her sleek physique, like a dolphin jumping through a hoop.
The opening was too small for Ageha, so he opted for different approach. Tossing the bag of food into the hole, he sped up and slammed a spinning side kick into the brick wall. The blow blasted away a chunk of the barrier and launched his glasses away. He landed on the other side and carefully caught the paper bag with both hands to avoid smushing the contents.
That toss and catch trick had been something impossible for him months ago. His one-on-one-on-one basketball matches with Arashi and Saya had paid off in the most unexpected situation.
He scanned for his prey at the intersection ahead. Fortunately, people were scarce, so their antics had not caused a commotion. Arashi ran into an alley across the street and swung up the fire escape ladders like a gymnast.
Realizing her intent, he took a shortcut by simply jumping up the three-story building. He and Arashi landed on the rooftop at about the same time. About thirty feet remained between them. Seeing him so close, Arashi rushed to the edge of the rooftop and jumped to the adjacent building. Ageha followed her while taking care not to drop the paper bag. Despite the handicap, he drew closer with each rooftop they traversed.
The chase reminded Ageha of their first battle. Arashi had grown much stronger and faster since then. Despite his own upgrades, the hunt did not go as easily as he had planned.
A few buildings later, Arashi was finally in arm’s reach. The moment he tried to grab her shoulder, she fell over the edge of the rooftop. Ageha hurriedly looked down, worried about her safety. She landed gracefully on top of a laundry cart, shocking the lady pushing it. While breathing a sigh of relief, he leapt a few meters forward, predicting her next direction.
Ageha kicked off a second floor veranda and landed about six feet from where she stood. “Game over.”
“Yup. We’re here.” With a satisfied smile, she held his arm and leisurely pulled him towards the next corner. “We got here… faster than expected. No need to rush now.”
Confused by the sudden change in attitude, Ageha powerlessly allowed himself to be dragged off. He had completely forgotten about getting revenge for the superhuman forehead flick.
The street led to a small park hiding behind a patch of office buildings. Small stretches of grass and a few evergreen trees dotted the area. A colorful crepe truck stood in the middle of the plaza, like an out of season holiday decoration.
As Ageha and Arashi walked closer, an almost irritatingly bright greeting splashed at them. The shocking “Welcome!” came from a moustached man, whose head popped out from the truck windows.
“What can I get for…” The shop owner’s eyes landed on Arashi. His jovial expression turned into one of disgust. “Ehhh… It’s you again.”
All the other shop owners clearly liked Arashi, but this one obviously did not appreciate her business.
“Hello,” said Arashi, without batting an eyelash.
“Let me guess, we’re getting crepes here?” asked Ageha.
Arashi shook her head. “Only ice cream. The crepes here… suck. Terrible. Absolutely terrible.”
The shop owner’s reaction finally made sense. Ageha thought about telling Arashi to be more polite, but honesty was her best quality. He did not want to sully that side of her, at least not for the sake of a two-faced moustache.
“Mister, give us two scoops of green tea ice cream.”
“How many times have I told you!? I sell crepes, not ice cream!”
“But your homemade ice cream… is the best I’ve had in this city.”
The frowning owner blushed slightly. “Y-You’re not fooling me with that again! B-But since you came all the way here, I guess I have no other choice. I can’t just drive away loyal customers, no matter how rude they are. Don’t misunderstand! I’m not doing this for you! This is to preserve my pride as a pastry chef!” He twirled the end of his annoyingly overgrown moustache.
“You’re a pastry chef..? But your crepes taste… like wet newspaper. You should just sell ice cream instead.”
The owner trembled in anger for a moment but sighed in resignation soon after. “Why do you even want ice cream? It’s still winter, you know. You should try my warm crepes instead, like this authentic spinach and mushroom-”
“But your crepes suck.”
“…Just answer the question.”
“I wanna try it with this.” Arashi took the paper bag from Ageha and unveiled a gigantic nikuman.
The steamed pork bun dwarfed the ones sold in convenience stores. Steam wafted from the glistening white skin. Arashi peeled off the paper underneath and carefully split it in two. Then she handed one to Ageha.
After enjoying the caramelized fragrance of soy and sugar wafting from the filling, Ageha took a bite. The pillowy bun enveloped the delicately balanced flavors of the filling. Not a lot of time had passed since they bought it, so the ground meat and sauce were almost hot enough to burn his tongue.
“Now try this.” Arashi shoved a spoonful of green tea ice cream, procured from the dissatisfied crepe maker, into his mouth.
The green tea ice cream cooled his burning mouth in an instant, allowing him to further savor the subtle tones of the filling’s sauce.
So that’s why we rushed over here…
Arashi wanted to eat the ice cream while the bun was still steaming hot.
The faintly bitter flavor of the green tea ice cream complimented the slight sweetness of the filling. Tea was a traditional accompaniment to steamed buns, and that time-tested combination had proven true again. Fortunately, the sweetness of the ice cream itself was heavily toned down. While that would probably cause diners with a sweet tooth to cringe, it was the perfect pairing with the giant nikuman.
Needless to say, the odd pairing of steamed bun and ice cream was the highlight of their food trip. Arashi had probably been forcing him to save stomach space for the finale.
After a year of eating good food, the Arashi who would wolf down anything edible in front of her had vanished. Her palate had developed more than Ageha expected.
They moved to a nearby bench to eat the rest of the meal. Sitting side by side with the paper ice cream cup wedged between them, they alternated bites of nikuman and spoonfuls of ice cream, sharing the single spoon the scrooge of a shop owner provided.
“Arashi, how did you know about all these places? Did you research them on the net?”
She blinked twice before shaking her head. “I tried all of them. We only… visited the ones I really liked today though.”
“…Let me get this straight. You ate at all of the restaurants and food shops in this city?”
“The ones I can afford. There are… shops that charge too much. That’s how I usually spend my free time.”
That’s still damn impressive.
Ageha often went on dates with Saya, but they frequented high-end restaurants, so he had actually been missing the food he used to eat as part of the working class. The food-centric date was a nostalgic and enjoyable experience, to say the least.
Arashi licked the ice cream off her lips. “I decided to leave the more expensive places for later… when I get promoted.”
“Promoted? Our team has ranks?”
“That’s what… Kai said. I want to take you to even more delicious places. That’s why I’m working hard!”
Kai, how could you trick such an honest girl…
Ageha felt a squeezing pain in his heart.
I guess I’m no different.
Arashi did not know that they would be fighting Mitsuki’s other self in a few days. As much as it pained Ageha’s selective conscience, he could not tell her the truth for her own safety and theirs.
She twisted her waist to face him and lazily pointed at his cheek. “You have ice cream… on your face.”
“Here?” Ageha buffed his cheekbone with his knuckle.
“No. I’ll handle it. Lean forward a little… And close your eyes.”
“…I have a bad feeling about this.” Ageha focused on her half-exposed irises, trying to read her intentions. “Did you see me and Mitsuki-”
“I saw. I followed the old man… No, he let me follow him. Anyway, it’s unfair.”
“I thought you weren’t the jealous type. I mean, you never complained when I go out with Saya.”
“Saya is the legal wife. Mitsuki is… my rival concubine.”
Kai, what are you teaching this girl?
Arashi gently touched his cheek. “Anyway, close your eyes. Please?”
Seeing her amorously red face and contrasting puppy-dog eyes, Ageha reflexively gulped.
She’s almost a decade younger than me.
Ever since Saya proposed sharing him with Arashi, the physical contact between them had gradually increased. That said, it was still limited to innocent hugs, sitting on his lap, and smacks on the cheek. Needless to say, Ageha had been holding back in consideration of Arashi’s age and immaturity. This time would be no different.
Making up his mind, Ageha reluctantly closed his eyes and leaned forward. As expected, he felt something soft on his cheek. What he did not expect was how scorching hot and seductively slick it was. It did not take a detective to figure out that it was not her lip. The hot tentacle traveled from his cheek to the corner of his lips, poking it, testing it, teasing it. It rolled over his bottom lip, licking off the sugar from the ice cream. The trembling prod hesitantly retreated from his moist skin as her breaths tickled his chin and neck.
“I love you, Ageha.”
Those words shattered his reason.
He reached out and held her nape, gently bringing her close. She stiffened for a split-second but quickly gave herself to him. Without opening his eyes, he found her damp lips by tracing her steaming breaths. At first, he tenderly brushed his lips with hers, much like the first kiss they shared at the basketball court. But neither of them could be satisfied with that anymore.
To Ageha’s surprise, Arashi raised the floodgates first. She slipped her tongue between his lips and ravenously searched for his. Upon meeting, they engaged in a peculiar fencing match, with one side clearly inexperienced but eager, and the other patiently guiding while suppressing a building hunger.
Their bodies slowly rose from the bench as they sought more contact. His fingers ran down her back. Her nails dug into his clothes. They were barely seated anymore. Arashi purred and moaned, driving Ageha’s dwindling restraint to the edge.
Then a gunshot rang out.
Arashi fell sideways and crashed to the ground.
Ageha could only look on in shock.
He stared at Arashi’s face, dyed completely crimson. Red reached her ears and neck.
A volcanic anger erupted from his depths.
He looked around, searching for the source of the sound.
Who could have done this?
He immediately found the culprit.
Why would you do something like this?
Another gunshot rang out. And another.
He took out his mobile and pressed a button.
The periodic gunshots ended.
“Ageha? Ojousama asked me to check on you. Where are you now?”
That little devil!!!!!!!!
Arashi slowly got up and dusted off her clothes. The sudden ringtone had surprised her, causing her to stand up, but her legs had wobbled because of their mind-numbing kiss. She had ended up falling to the ground with a furious blush reaching her neck, embarrassed by their interrupted intimacy and her clumsy fall.
“In a park eating ice cream with Arashi.”
Naturally, he kept the details a secret. The shock he received from Saya’s new ringtone was enough punishment for his lack of self control.
“Ice cream? In winter..?”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you all about it while we watch Kai swing from the ceiling like a pendulum.”
“Huh? I don’t really get it, but okay.”
The culprit was obvious. Only Kaika would hack into his phone. She did not even need any coding skills. His password was a simple four-letter key: 7292, or Saya. Converting his girlfriend’s name to English would not even qualify as a code to the devilish prodigy, so part of the blame lay with his carelessness.
“Don’t forget about our weapons training with Shizan-sensei,” said Saya.
“Yeah, I remember. Unlike Tsuba-san, her father is very strict with time.”
“I’ll bring your weapon along with my sword. See you soon.”
“Yeah.” Ageha ended the call and stood up from the bench. “Looks like time’s up.”
Arashi looked a little disappointed but nodded anyway. With none of the assertiveness she had earlier, she gingerly approached him and wrapped her arm around his. She lent more of her weight to him than before and trembled ever so slightly as they began to move. The effects of her first french kiss had not faded away. A ticklish awkwardness remained between them, but even that, they found soothing.
“Thanks for the food tour, Arashi.”
“You’re welcome… Did you enjoy it?”
“A lot. It was a great idea. I’d missed a lot of the things we tried today.”
I can’t treat her like a kid anymore.
Women really do mature faster than men.
“I’m glad… Now I don’t have to go out and buy from those shops anymore.”
“Now that you’ve tried them, you can make them for us at home, right?”
On second thought, she’s still a cheeky brat.
He slumped his shoulders and sighed. “Yeah, yeah. Why not.”
Arashi snuggled even closer.