Chapter Eleven: Closing Distance

Ageha tapped his foot while waiting for the private jet’s door to open. Powerful gusts rolled through the secluded airfield, kicking up a thin layer of dust. He squinted to avoid getting dirt in his eyes. The girl beside him, whose eyes defaulted to half closed, did not bother. Noticing his gaze, Arashi quickly turned away, her lips pressed into a tight line.

Well this is awkward.

The prickly atmosphere between them was nothing new. For the past week, she had been treating him like air and only replying to questions relevant to her duties. Although there was no hostility in her demeanor, it was still a far cry from how much she fawned over him before Mitsuki’s demise. Arashi had been avoiding his cooking like a plague, surviving on take out and snacks.

The situation was still manageable when Saya and Kaika were around, but unfortunately, the tiny tycoon had received an urgent business call before they left for the airport, forcing her to stay in Japan. Naturally, the loyal butler had accompanied her mistress, leaving Ageha and Arashi alone together for the long haul U.S. flight.

Ageha would have preferred to delay the trip so that everyone could go together, but he and Arashi had been tasked to scout out several locations that might be used for Kaika’s plans.

The jet’s plug door opened with a deflating sound, alerting Ageha to an escape route. He quickly climbed the stairs and entered the aircraft, careful not to bang the oversized rucksack housing his armor and weapons on the walls. The lone female flight attendant tried to take his luggage, but he insisted on stowing the hefty bag into the spacious luggage compartment himself. The flight attendant told him he could choose any of the rather luxurious seats, so he took the one closest to the exit, a habit he picked up from his underworld work.

Arashi’s messy hair appeared from the doorway, reminding Ageha that his refuge was actually a prison of unease designed to hold him for half a day. After parking her rifle case in the luggage compartment, she strode along the wide aisle and took the seat all the way in the back. She clearly had no intention of interacting with him for the entire trip, significantly lowering Ageha’s spirits.

He could not blame Arashi for her cold attitude. He himself had reacted extremely upon finding out that Kaika had faked Saya’s death. Not only had he slapped Kaika in the face, he had also resigned from his job and joined Kaika’s rival. From Arashi’s perspective, he was the culprit behind Mitsuki’s death and her fake mother, so distrust was inevitable.

After his conversation with Rin, Ageha had realized that punishing himself would lead nowhere. The first thing he had to do was set things right, and that started from telling Arashi the truth. Respecting his initial decision, Saya and Kaika had not revealed anything to Arashi yet. She might not believe his story at first, but with enough persistence, he might just get through to her. The biggest problem was that Arashi had avoided all conversation with him for the past week, always silently running off whenever he started one.

Wait a minute.


This is my chance!

Arashi had nowhere to escape to in a pressurized metal tube thousands of feet in the air. He simply had to wait for the plane to take off before approaching her. He would explain everything truthfully, hoping that would reach Arashi’s heart.

“Please fasten your seatbelts,” said the flight attendant. “We will be taking off shortly.”

Ageha glanced at Arashi, who followed the instructions like a soldier, before fixing his own seatbelt. He had boarded a lot of flights in his life, but never had he felt so eager to get off the ground.

 

***

 

Noelle, perched on a makeshift platform attached to an electric pole about a mile from the airfield, watched the jet’s door close through her rifle scope. “The target didn’t show up.”

Nick’s voice flowed from her earpiece. “I see. Who boarded the plane?”

“Ageha Shikimi and Arashi.”

“You didn’t shoot Shikimi?”

“The target for this mission is Kaika Nikaido.”

“Indeed.”

“You don’t sound disappointed. Why is that? Thought you’d want a consolation prize.”

“Then why didn’t you shoot him?”

“I wasn’t ordered to. Arashi shouldn’t have to see the man she loves die in front of her. Killing Kaika Nikaido alone will solve everything, right?”

“True. Oh, I haven’t answered your question, have I? I’m not disappointed because I prepared something in case your sniping attempt failed. Kaika not being there is a surprise, but I’ll take what I can get.”

Noelle lowered her voice, adding a chill to her usually bubbly tone. “What are you planning?”

“You have your agenda, and I have mine.”

“…If you hurt Arashi-”

“Sergeant Truman, you’re forgetting your place. I did ask you to speak more casually, but that doesn’t exempt you from my command. I believe I’ve been more than lenient with your requests, but I can’t waste a rare opportunity like this. You will stand down and wait for your next orders. Understood?”

Noelle bit her bottom lip as hard as she could, causing blood to trickle down her chin. “Yes, sir.”

 

***

 

Why is he coming over!?

Arashi tried her best to appear calm as Ageha walked towards her. She instinctively looked for a way out, but her seat at the back end of the plane provided no escape. Her only real refuge would have been the bathroom located at the cabin midsection, but Ageha had already passed that door.

“Can I take a seat?” He put a hand on the backrest of the seat beside her.

She turned her head and tried to look out the window, forgetting she had not opened it. Essentially staring at a blank plastic cover, Arashi tried her best to stop a blush from forming on her cheeks. She knew her behavior was childish, but she could not help it. Being close to Ageha confused her profoundly. She loved him unquestionably, but the seeds of doubt and contempt had taken root in her heart, torturing her whenever they were together.

Taking her non-reply as a yes, Ageha gingerly sat down, as if afraid of scaring her away. “Can we talk for a bit?”

“…Is it about the mission?”

“Not exactly.”

“Then please… leave me alone.”

“This is important, Arashi. I want you to know the truth.”

The truth.

That was exactly what she wanted. However, could she trust his words?

“You don’t have to believe me, but at least hear me out. Please.”

It couldn’t hurt to listen, could it?

Don’t worry, Noelle.

I won’t be tricked so easily.

“Okay.”

Ageha reflexively did a small fist pump. It was such a cute gesture Arashi almost flashed a smile, but Noelle’s stern warnings helped her rein it in.

“Thanks. Now then… Where should I start?” Ageha interlocked his fingers on his lap, a strange show of nervousness from the eternally composed man. “First, everything I told you when you visited the mansion a while back is true.”

He confirmed it.

Noelle was right.

They really did lie to me…

Confirming her suspicions did not give her relief. Instead, a suffocating sadness pressed down on her heart.

“But it wasn’t the whole truth. I did kill Mitsuki, but we never intended for that to happen. The plan was to kidnap her and force Ria to surrender. The reason I threw that knife… was to save you.”

What did he just say?

To save me..?

Ageha had just confirmed the possibility she had been desperately denying.

“The larger robot was about to attack you. I had no other way to stop it aside from disabling Mitsuki. Even then, I never intended to kill her. I was aiming for her leg.”

“Liar! You wouldn’t miss at that distance!”

“Ria interrupted my throw.”

“But… that can’t…”

“Don’t get me wrong. Mitsuki’s death is still my responsibility. I knew the risks. I made the choice. I brought her into the fray. You and Ria have nothing to do with it.”

T-That’s right!

Even if what he is saying is true…

It’s still his fault!

Arashi’s mind frantically tried to make excuses for herself, trying to outrun the pitch black shadow of guilt looming over her shoulder. Ironically, Ageha claiming responsibility had given her a head start.

“As for hiding the plan from you… It was true that I pushed for it the hardest, but the idea came from Kai. I’m not blaming her. It was the right decision. Wavering during combat leads to death. I didn’t want to put you at risk by telling you to fight a friend… You weren’t supposed to find out until after I’d secured Mitsuki. If we could’ve done the operation without you, we would’ve. But Ria is too cunning and strong. Even with all of us busting our asses, we came up short.”

Arashi began shaking.

He hid the truth for my safety..?

That can’t be…

If it is, then what have I…

What have I been doing?

“Finally, about your mother.”

There’s that!

He can’t explain away something like that!

“I did tell Kai to hire that actress indefinitely, but the actress was already posing as your mother even before I found out about her. After you became blind from fighting Akane’s cyborg, Kai could’ve restored your vision immediately with bionic eyes. Your optic nerves were perfectly fine. She lied about your blindness being irreversible to take away your ability to fight.”

“That doesn’t make sense! Why would she do that!? I’m her bodyguard!”

“She wanted me to work for her again. She did it to prevent us from killing each other. Then she hired that actress to give you some consolation. I can’t find any excuses for Kai’s actions. She was completely wrong.”

Kai… was the one?

“That’s why I had to fix it. As a condition for my reemployment, I asked Kai to restore your vision, make the actress take plastic surgery to imitate your real mother, and have her act out that role for life. I promised Kai that I wouldn’t let you kill me, and I wouldn’t kill you no matter what. She agreed after that.”

“What..? Why?”

“I… didn’t want to rob you of the happiness you finally regained, and Kai didn’t want you to leave her. In the end, we lied to you for our own benefit. I’m sorry.”

“No way…”

“That’s everything. The whole truth.”

“Th-Then why did you say it in such a misleading way before!?”

“…Because I wanted to be punished for killing Mitsuki. I thought I deserved your hatred, all of it. But I was wrong. Reveling in my guilt won’t bring Mitsuki back. The best I can do for everyone I’ve wronged is to make it up to them moving forward. That’s why I’m trying to set everything right. I don’t want to deceive you anymore, Arashi.”

Arashi violently shook her head, her fingers grasping her hair. “I don’t believe this. I don’t believe you! Everything you just said makes you out to be some kinda hero! There’s no way I can accept it just like that!”

“You can ask Kai. She’ll confirm everything I said.”

“Of course she will! You’re all in cahoots!” She looked down, tears dropping onto her lap. Her fingers dug into the checkered skirt covering her black tights.

Ageha made a bitter smile. “…I guess things won’t go that easily.” He sighed as he stood up. “Like I said at the start, you don’t have to believe me. Thanks for letting me say my piece.” With heavy steps, he returned to his seat at the far end of the cabin.

Arashi curled up in the spacious leather seat, hugging her knees to her chest. The alloy limbs lent her no warmth, but that was fine. She desperately needed to hold onto something right now. Her entire world rocked and tilted from the clashing stories inside her head.

It can’t be true…

If it is…

Then I blamed Ageha for restoring my eyes.

I called him a liar for trying to keep me safe.

And… I killed Mitsuki.

No!!!

 

She clung to Noelle’s warning, words that foretold a plethora of lies Ageha, Kaika, and Saya would use to cajole her.

Lies!

Lies!!!

All lies!!!

She unconsciously reached for the mobile Noelle had given her. Even though she could not call the redhead in flight, the feeling of being connected to someone she could trust gave her a modicum of comfort.

I should’ve listened to Noelle…

Arashi had informed Noelle that she would be leaving the country to prevent her from worrying. The redhead had cautioned her about going on a trip with her manipulators, asking for details so she could help in case of an emergency. The show of concern had reminded Arashi of the old times, when everyone in her team got along so well.

Some time later, the flight attendant offered her a blanket, which she gratefully took. The world felt so cold to her that any warmth was welcome. She set the backrest as far as it would go and hid underneath the sheet. Within the darkness, she prayed for sleep to take her, but confusion and anxiety relentlessly rattled her mind. Hours of that torture passed.

An appetizing aroma caught her attention, stopping her waking nightmare. She peeked out of the blanket to see the flight attendant offering her a tray of food.

“Would you like to have a meal?”

Still in a daze, Arashi nodded without much thought and sat up straight, leaving her backrest lowered. The flight attendant placed the tray on her wide foldable table and poured her some wine. After making sure Arashi had everything she needed, the flight attendant brought out another plate of food for Ageha.

Feeling peckish from the long flight, Arashi prepared to dig into the meal. As she sliced up the hunk of roast beef on her plate, Ageha asked the flight attendant the strangest request.

“Can you try the food for me first?” He handed the flight attendant the utensils. “Being a chef, I’m a very picky eater. I refuse to put anything less than sublime in my mouth. You look like a cultured person. Can you give me your evaluation?”

“I’m very sorry, Shikimi-san. By policy, I’m not allowed to do that.”

“Policy? Isn’t this a private jet? Who cares about that?”

“I guarantee the food is up to par. It was prepared by a professional chef and loaded right before take off.”

“Which was more than four hours ago. How do you expect this to be any good?” He withdrew the silverware with a sigh. “Whatever.” Ageha took a spoonful of the mashed root vegetables and dipped it into the sauce. “How long til we land?”

“About eigh-”

Ageha shoved the spoonful of food into the flight attendant’s mouth. Visibly shocked, the flight attendant hopped back and spat the food out, a rather natural reaction. However, the flight attendant continued to spit saliva out, desperately trying to clean out her mouth, as if the food was…

“Poisoned,” mumbled Arashi.

“Arashi, don’t touch your food!” Ageha stood up and grabbed the flight attendant’s wrist. “Who sent you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! Please stop this!”

“Oh please. Flight attendants generally don’t have such thick calluses on their hands.”

“What do you mean!?” The woman struggled within his grasp, clenching her hands into fists to hide her palms. “You can’t tell something like that with just a glance!”

“Unlike most people, I have built-in zoom.”

The frightened expression on the flight attendant’s face instantly disappeared. A slim blade slid out from the sleeve of her free arm. She grabbed it and swung the tip at Ageha’s eye.

What an idiot.

This woman clearly doesn’t know who she’s dealing with.

Who else would attack Ageha while stuck in a metal tube with no exits?

The assassin screamed like a banshee as Ageha crushed her wrist. He did not even need to block the blade because the woman immediately crumpled to the floor.

A man in a jumpsuit with a parachute burst from an extra luggage compartment at the rear of the main cabin. He held a gun with both hands, aiming at Ageha. Arashi, who sat at the rearmost row, was watching from the gunman’s right side. Normally, she would find no reason to help Ageha fight against such fodder, but with one look at the man’s weapon, she realized the danger it posed.

“Ageha, stun gun!” Arashi leaned back onto the lowered backrest and kicked the gun out of the man’s hands.

The familiar sound of clanking metal told her his arms, or at the very least his hands, were cybernetic, explaining why they did not break on impact. She quickly twisted her torso sideways and launched another kick, this time aimed for his knee. The gunman swiftly raised the targeted leg, avoiding the blow.

This guy’s good!

In one swift motion, the gunman drew a compact electroshock baton and swung it at her. Still awkwardly sprawled on the chair, Arashi could not dodge it properly.

It had been a while since Arashi’s last fight. She had not trained or sparred at all since the battle against Valeriya. Moreover, her muscles had slightly atrophied due to malnutrition. They had recovered significantly since her return to the mansion but were still not in optimal condition.

In the world of athletics and martial arts, missing just a few days of training led to a significant decline in performance, and she definitely felt that in this unexpected conflict. That said, for a fighter that could keep up with two of the world’s deadliest melee fighters, that loss was inconsequential except for the most formidable of foes. Her current opponent did not belong in that category.

Arashi rolled sideways, dropping to the floor. The shock baton missed her by a hair and bounced off the seat. Using her momentum, she swung her elbow towards the man’s knee, a part she knew was likely human because he protected it earlier. The gunman raised his leg again to avoid the blow but failed to foresee Arashi’s follow up kick, which resembled a single leg raise.

The man managed to cross his cybernetic arms at the last moment to defend his lower abdomen, but the collision pushed him off balance. Taking advantage of the opening, Arashi rolled backward and performed a vertical kip-up kick with both feet, hitting his chest squarely. She maintained a handstand as the man flew up and slammed into the plane’s ceiling, denting the metal. The moment he hit the floor, she flipped out of her handstand and landed on his back.

“Looks like you still got it,” said Ageha as he searched the unconscious flight attendant-cum-assassin’s pockets. “I’ll tell Saya her capoeira lessons bore fruit.”

“Small fry don’t count.” Arashi stepped off the unconscious, likely dead, man.

The cockpit door opened, revealing the co-pilot with another stun gun, a weapon ideal for fighting against advanced cyborgs and within pressurized airplane cabins. The co-pilot pulled the trigger without hesitation. Ageha used the flight attendant as a shield to block the wired darts and tossed her aside. He did not even bother approaching the enemy, who practically had his back against the wall.

With a desperate yell, the co-pilot drew a stun baton and dashed towards him. Right before their respective reaches overlapped, Ageha stepped forward. It was the most basic of moves but when done at such speed, it appeared as if space itself contracted. Without even taking a stance, Ageha threw a lazy punch, almost akin to a friendly smack, hitting the co-pilot square in the nose. His solid metal knuckles broke most of the man’s facial bones and knocked him out cold.

Several gunshots echoed within the cabin. Alarms went off as the plane suddenly tilted. Air began rushing towards the cockpit.

“Shit!” Ageha ran towards the open cockpit door and peeked inside. “We have a problem.” He made room for Arashi, who followed behind him, to see inside the tiny space.

The pilot had shot himself in the head, but not before blowing holes throughout the cockpit and the control panels. The plane quickly lost pressure, and the malfunctioning controls forced the aircraft into a rapid descent.

“Can you do something about this!?” Ageha shouted over the loud sirens and gusts.

Arashi shook her head. Although her father’s comprehensive military training included basic aeronautical subjects, he had not taught her how to fly planes. Saya might be able to pilot one, but considering the extent of the damage, it was clear the plane would not land in one piece.

“Dammit!” Ageha slammed his hand into the pilot seat backrest. “I refuse to die here!”

“There’s still a way.”

She studied the working monitors and gauges. Fortunately, the damaged controls left the air brakes engaged, slowing the plane down. However, their altitude was still dropping quickly.

Arashi ran back to the man in a jumpsuit and took off his parachute. After quickly equipping it on herself, she took out her rifle case from the storage compartment and unboxed her rifle.

“Hold this.” She tossed the weapon to Ageha. “I’m not losing it again.”

He strapped the rifle to his back. “You’re pretty calm considering the situation.”

“My father taught me to skydive from high altitudes when I was thirteen.”

“Great. Then we’ll be okay.”

“Not exactly. The plane is moving too fast, we’re too high up, and we only have one single-person parachute. The chance of us surviving the jump is low.”

“Business as usual.” Ageha shrugged.

Judging from the enemies’ preparedness, there were probably spare parachutes hidden inside the plane. However, they did not have the time to look for them.

Arashi pulled the emergency lever by the cabin door. The door disengaged and instantly got sucked into the atmosphere. If they were to survive this ordeal, they would have to time their jump perfectly.

Arashi faced Ageha with a serious expression. “Carry me by the waist and hold on tightly.” She embraced his neck as he gently lifted her off the floor. “You have to jump up from the ledge… to avoid hitting the wing and engine. After we clear the plane, spread your legs wide to increase air resistance. Now hold your breath until I say otherwise.”

Ageha took a deep breath from the still oxygen rich cabin air and nodded.

“Jump!”

With a running start, Ageha leapt off the plane. The tip of his boot almost grazed a tail flap as they tumbled through a cloud. Arashi extended her arms to correct their position. Ageha, a complete newbie at skydiving, forgot to open his legs, so Arashi tapped his knee with her foot to remind him. They achieved a proper X stance, with Arashi’s arms spread out on top and Ageha’s legs at the bottom, after several tries.

Due to their trained cardiovascular systems and limited oxygen-consuming body parts, holding their breath for around five minutes was an easy feat, eliminating the threat of hypoxia.

They soared through the clouds until the land underneath them came into view. Endless snow topped mountains consumed their vision, reminding Arashi of the brutally cold winds ravaging them. Swathes of green and brown could be seen dotting the black and white expanse below. Upon reaching the ideal height, Arashi wrapped her legs around Ageha’s and then pulled the parachute cord.

A powerful jolt ran throughout their bodies, but ARMS could easily handle that amount of tension. Unfortunately for them, the parachute was not as dependable.

We’re falling too fast!

Arashi tried her best to control the parachute, but it was not designed to carry more than one person, much less two cyborgs and an oversized custom rifle.

Should I ask Ageha to drop the gun?

She shook her head. If they were going to get marooned in a mountain range, they would need a way to defend themselves and survive. The rifle was critical for that.

I can do this!

With skilled maneuvering, she successfully avoided getting thrown around by the wind and gradually lowered their altitude.

Then she felt something odd from the parachute. Looking up, she saw a small tear in the canopy gradually grow larger due to the unnaturally fast descent and heavy load. Their  speed increased as they fell closer to the ground. The objects on the ground, from bushes to boulders, increased in clarity. The canopy tear widened into a gaping hole, turning their parachute into a glorified tent.

“Ageha, I’ll guide us towards the trees! Can you use your legs to break our fall!?”

“I’ll try!”

She pulled on the cords and flew them to the closest patch of trees. Ageha extended his right leg and kicked off a tree trunk, barely slowing them down. Changing tactics, he shifted his body to Arashi’s flank raised his legs forward and used it to ram the branches blocking their path.

It’s working!

Arashi guided the parachute as Ageha used himself as a contact brake. This went well for a few seconds, but the parachute got caught in the branches behind them, causing them to stop abruptly. With the forward momentum gone, they swung backward towards a thick tree trunk. Ageha quickly rotated their bodies and took the brunt of the impact on his back, but Arashi’s head snapped sideways from the clash and hit the barky wood.

She groggily looked up to see a beautiful silhouette of the forest canopy backdropped by the cerulean sky before fading into unconsciousness.

 

Next Chapter

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