Chapter Nine: Light and Darkness

“Hello, Shikimi-san.”

“This voice… Setsu-san?”

“Yes. Sorry for calling so late. I wanted to check up on your injuries. Mei Xing has been ranting about wanting to give you a visit, but he’s swamped with work right now.”

“No need for that. I appreciate the sentiment, but he already called me a couple of times. That’s more than enough.”

“I see. I’m sure he’d like to have drinks over your victory against the Russians.”

“Victory, huh. I guess that’s how your organization would see it.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive about what happened. Valeriya’s daughter was rather close to you, wasn’t she?”

“I don’t mind. What’s done is done.”

Setsu gently pursed her lips, analyzing the rather emotionless reply.

He doesn’t seem to be as broken up about Mitsuki’s death as I thought…

Setsu had called Ageha to feel him out regarding Saya’s involvement with Zhang Wei Long’s death. Mei Xing had asked her not to probe, but she could not let the one who killed Mei Xing’s father get away with it scot-free. As much as her husband pretended to be over the entire affair, she occasionally saw glimpses of his regret over the unresolved conflict with his father.

According to Mei Xing, Ageha had suffered a heavy blow from accidentally killing Mitsuki. Setsu hoped that his unstable emotional state would make it easier to squeeze information from him about Saya’s scheme. That outcome assumed that Saya was indeed responsible and that Ageha knew about it, but in her head, the chances of both being true were high. Mei Xing trusted Ageha deeply, perhaps too much, preventing him from investigating the case himself. Only Setsu could discover the truth. Even so, she still wished that once no stone was left unturned, all her hunches would turn out to be baseless fears.

“Um, Setsu-san? Is there anything else?”

Not noticing she had lapsed into silence, Setsu immediately wet her lips, which were withering from tension, and let her script flow out.

“Actually, I wanted to ask you about something.” She gulped as she fortified her resolve. “There is no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to get straight to the point. I’ve continued the investigation about Zhang Wei Long’s death and discovered a few things. Before Chen was killed, he mentioned that someone from outside the organization leaked false information about my family’s death, causing Zhang Wei Long to launch an attack against Nikaido-san. That scheme led to the dragonhead’s assassination by the Americans. The shooting itself was his noble sacrifice to save his subordinates from an unwinnable conflict, so Mei Xing never really sought vengeance against the Americans, but Chen’s conspirator is another story. Chen gave us a name, but we didn’t pay his desperate pleas much attention. That is, until I managed to get information about the entire affair from one of Chen’s contacts outside the Soaring Serpent Society.”

The last part was purely fictional. Setsu had indeed looked into Chen’s ties, but none of them produced any usable evidence.

“What information?” asked Ageha, sounding almost indifferent.

If he’s acting innocent, then he’s as terrifying as Kaika Nikaido.

“Shortly before the US incident, Chen was secretly looking for allies that could help him overthrow the former dragonhead. One of the people he approached, Yue Fei, was particularly harsh towards Chen, insulting him for even considering betraying his leader. After Zhang died and Mei Xing took the seat, Chen returned to Yue Fei and threatened him, saying that Mei Xing is under his thumb. He proudly bragged about finally overthrowing Zhang, fully knowing that no one would trust Yue Fei’s words over his at the time. That was also when he carelessly mentioned the name of his conspirator.”

“Who was it?”

He sounds so calm…

Maybe he doesn’t know.

Or maybe Saya wasn’t involved after all…

In that case, I’ll get on my knees and apologize to both Shikimi-san and Saya for my disrespectful actions.

But I still need to hear him deny it with my own ears.

“…Saya Saionji.”

An eerily long silence followed.

Then Ageha spoke.

“Finally.”

Setsu unconsciously strangled her mobile, confused by the reply. As if making up for his curtness so far, Ageha let his words flow freely and forcefully, like a broken dam.

“I don’t know about the business with Yue Fei, but Saya did indeed leak false information to Zhang Wei Long, ultimately causing his death.”

A panicked voice boomed from Ageha’s side of the line. “What the hell are you-” The high-pitched screech turned into muffled groans, as if someone had put a hand on the protester’s mouth.

“Sorry Kai. Setsu found out. And… I can’t lie about this to Mei Xing anymore. I can’t carry everything anymore.”

Confusion engulfed Setsu. She could easily paste together what was happening on the other side of the line, but her mind refused to accept it.

“So Saya really did kill Mei Xing’s father..?”

“Yes.”

“And Shikimi-san, you knew about it?”

“Not from the start, but yes, eventually I found out. To keep the records straight, Kai was not involved in the planning and execution of the scheme. I swear.”

Setsu was right all along. Saya had indeed killed Mei Xing’s father, and Ageha knew about it. However, she was wrong about something as well.

Ageha had not been indifferent or acting during their call. He was just too wounded and weary to keep up appearances. What she had heard was indeed his true self. The calm she had detected in his voice was simply emptiness. Even though she was supposed to hate Ageha and Saya because of their wrongdoings, all she could feel was remorse for brutally ripping open Ageha’s wounded chest and stabbing her fingers deep inside.

“There you have it. I’m sorry for hiding the truth from your family, Setsu-san. Saya also regrets what she did. But I doubt any of that matters to you and Mei.” Ageha took an audible breath, as if breathing fresh air for the first time. “One last thing… Thank you.”

“Huh?”

“For setting me free. Goodbye.”

“Wait a-”

The line disconnected.

What have I done?

Saya deserved punishment, but Ageha merely protected the one he loved by staying silent. From his hollow voice, Setsu could tell how much he had suffered to keep that terrible secret, not just for Saya’s sake, but also for his friendship with Mei Xing.

And that bond would now vanish.

Setsu could understand Ageha’s, and to a lesser extent Saya’s actions. And given time, she could probably forgive them. However, that was only because she never really knew nor cared about Zhang. Her main purpose for investigating was not to punish Saya, but to make sure her family was safe from betrayal and harm.

Setsu’s free hand floated up and covered her quivering lips.

She knew. She knew Ageha and Saya had no intention of hurting them at present or in the foreseeable future. She knew Ageha cared dearly about her family. She knew Mei Xing cared about Ageha as much.

She might have made a terrible mistake.

Had she just exposed her loved ones to more danger by stirring up a hornet’s nest? Would it not be safer for them if she let Saya’s secret vanish into the abyss?

Nodding to herself, Setsu made a decision.

She would hide the truth from her husband, living through the same hell Ageha had. All she needed to do was press the redial button and tell Ageha she was now part of the deception and would share the burden of truth in exchange for peace and security.

But her finger never made it to the button.

“Is it true?”

Her beloved husband’s voice came from behind. She slowly turned around, the hand grasping her mobile trembling like a newborn fawn.

“M-Mei…”

“Tell me.”

It was too late. He already knew. He merely wanted to hear the story in full.

So she told him.

And they cried.

 

***

 

About half an hour had passed since Setsu’s call when one from her husband came. Ageha was alone in his room. Saya was busy trying to placate the furious Kaika just outside the bedroom door.

“Why did you admit it?” asked Mei Xing.

“To survive, I guess.”

“That’s a pathetic reason.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t be like you. I couldn’t shoulder the burden.”

“Will you protect Saionji?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Even though you were the one who practically sold her out to me?” Mei Xing spat out his next words as if they were phlegm. “Just to feel lighter no less.”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing dammit!!!” A loud bang came through the receiver.

“…I’m sorry.”

Mei Xing emptied his lungs with a deep sigh. “You know what I can’t accept about all this? It’s not Saya killing my father. They weren’t allies. She had no reason to spare him. She was cruel and worthy of my vengeance, but that’s all. What I don’t understand is how… how could you hide this from me for so long? You lied to my face, again and again! How can I trust you anymore!?”

“I’m so sorry.”

“If you had just told me the truth, if you had just shown trust in our friendship, I could’ve forgiven Saya for your sake. If you, the one who saved me and my family had asked openly, I would’ve done that. This… This is all on you.”

Tell the truth from the start?

You’ve gotta be joking.

A monster like me can’t do that.

Ageha trusted the people truly close to him, including Kaika, Saya, Arashi, Rin, and Mei Xing. He would never question their loyalty. It went without saying that they would not betray him. However, that was a different kind of trust compared to what Mei Xing had referred to.

Ageha could not trust kindness.

He never understood what that was, after all.

A pathetic creature living in fear of everyone and everything, hiding from or driving away all that could hurt him, could never understand something like that.

He had once reached for the light, finding a glimmer of it in his young friends, but the alien glow had burned him to ashes.

The powdery lumps that remained had lost the ability to see the kindness within humanity. Trust was out of the question.

He could not trust Rin to forgive his terrifying sins, so he had never truly tried to love her back.

He could not trust Mitsuki’s kindness to rein in Sakuya’s rage, so he had never endeavored to convince her to do so.

He could not trust Arashi to forgive him even if she knew the whole truth about Mitsuki’s death, so he had deceived her.

He could not trust Mei Xing to forgive Saya’s transgression, so he had lied to him under the guise of protecting her.

He could not trust himself to not break apart if he relied on and got betrayed by ephemeral kindness once again, so he had stopped believing in it.

So this is how Kai feels.

How could he blame Kaika for her innumerable lies when he constantly cowered under the same terror? Deceiving others was much safer than trusting their compassion. Each lie Kaika weaved was a haven from the fear of the unknown. Even if a happier ending lay past trusting others, she could not take it. She was not brave enough. Neither was he.

“You’re right. I… I don’t know what I can do.”

“I don’t want anything from you. I’m no fool. Going after Saionji will only bring misfortune to everyone. Therefore… I shall forgive her.”

Mei Xing’s blinding strength and kindness enveloped him.

“Thank you, Mei-”

“Don’t you dare call me that. We are strangers now. That’s the price of your deception. Farewell.”

The light burned him again, making him yearn for his accursed refuge in the darkness.

 

***

 

Mao grasped the armrests of her wheelchair. “Are you sure about this?”

“I don’t know.” Mei Xing slumped on the sofa.

Both Mao and Setsu had been listening to his conversation with Ageha. He had placed the call on speaker to avoid having to explain the situation to them.

“He was the one who got revenge for me.” Patting her immobile thighs, Mao made a pleading look towards him.

Even Setsu, the one who had initiated and concluded the investigation about his father’s death, had been trying to convince him to be more lenient towards Ageha, likely for his own sake. Mei Xing loved Ageha like a brother, so losing him would be utterly devastating.

“My trust is not something that can be bought with favors.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I’m surprised you’re defending him. You loved my father more than anyone.”

“I did. I wanna wring that bitch Saionji’s neck right now if I could. But I also love you more than anyone. I… understand why Ageha did what he did. I would’ve done the same thing in his position.”

Setsu placed  her hand on Mei Xing’s. “Mao is right, Mei. There’s no reason for both of you to get hurt over a past that no one can change.”

“The fact I severed ties with him is also a past that no one can change.” Mei Xing filled a glass with water and drank half of it. The balmy liquid did nothing to cleanse the chaotic thoughts in his head. “Can you leave me alone for a while? I need to think.”

The two women hesitantly nodded. Setsu wheeled Mao out of the room and closed the door behind them. After a few moments of silence, a shrill cracking noise pierced the air. The glass in Mei Xing’s hand shattered to pieces under his convulsing grip, causing a cocktail of blood-laden ice water to dribble down the coffee table leg and onto the carpeted floor.

“Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!!!”

Mei Xing could overlook Saya’s ruthless actions, not uncommon in the underworld, for the greater good. However, he could not forgive Ageha as easily. The deeper the trust, the bigger the hole it left behind when uprooted.

Despite that, he could not deny the powerful temptation to let bygones be bygones just for the sake of maintaining his friendship with Ageha. He owed the man a lot and treated him like a younger brother who was always eager to listen to his life lessons.

That was why Mei Xing made the call so soon. Letting time calm him down might have caused him to waver. He had intentionally let emotions control him so he could make what he believed to be the right decision.

Ageha could not be forgiven. Only then would the foolish young man understand what kindness was.

That said, Mei Xing did not sever ties with Ageha just to teach him a lesson. He was also deeply wounded by his friend’s betrayal, and it took all the patience he had not to murder Saya for robbing him of his chance to reconcile with his misunderstood father.

Punishing Ageha for his own good was merely an excuse, one made so that Mei Xing could keep walking within the light. That was his responsibility and curse, a privilege that separated him from the lonesome monster he now loathed as much as loved.

 

Next Chapter

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