“This reminds me of the time I told you about my teenage years.” Valeriya pushed the beach wheelchair with both hands, gently nudging the wide, deep-treaded rubber wheels forward.
Mitsuki, white bandages peeking from inside her loose robe, showed her mother a wry grin. “When you snuck aboard a ship and the sailors let you stay on because they liked your boobs?”
“These?” Valeriya glanced at her enormous assets, snug within a layer of gauze topped with a red kimono. “Not at all. They liked my sense of humor.”
The girl in the wheelchair chuckled. “Maybe you’re right.”
Waves gently crashed on the shoreline and then leisurely ebbed away, leaving a swath of damp sand in their wake. A ticklish wind caressed Valeriya’s unfurled golden locks. She rarely let her hair down, but the open beach had tempted her to try a more relaxed look.
A single painful throb assaulted her chest, making her grimace.
“Are you okay?” Mitsuki revealed a worried expression. “Does your wound hurt?”
Valeriya subtly gritted her teeth and smiled. “No big deal.”
“Geez, this is why I was against going to the beach. Your lung was pierced by a bullet, remember? You should be in a wheelchair too, not pushing me from behind.”
“How would we get around then? I can’t let you wheel yourself around in that condition.”
“Viktor can push us both. His injuries are light, compared to ours at least.”
“That old man is one tough cookie. He went back to work just two weeks after that battle.”
“…We lost, huh?”
“We did. Completely.” Valeriya flashed a dazzling smile. “But look on the bright side. We’re still together, miraculously surviving lethal wounds. Good thing Viktor immediately found us before it was too late. I’ve never felt so grateful to dumb luck. Or to that geezer, for that matter.”
“A miracle, huh? Was it really?”
“Putting aside my gunshot wound, surviving a combat knife to the chest with your small build is nothing short of that.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“…What do you mean?”
“You don’t believe in miracles, Ria.”
Another painful throb hammered the Russian’s heart, stopping her breathing for moment.
Mitsuki made a wistful expression while strangling the robe on her thighs. “Miracles are called miracles because they don’t happen. That’s what you taught me, remember?”
Valeriya circled around the wheelchair and hugged her daughter. “But it did. It did happen.” She tightened her hold, forgetting one of her arms was cybernetic.
But Mitsuki did not squirm in pain despite the powerful pressure on her supposedly wounded body. She limply accepted the embrace. “No. It didn’t.”
Another agonizing throb, far more powerful than the ones before.
“Nonsense. You’re right here. In my arms.”
“You know I can’t stay here. Neither can you.”
Valeriya shook her head violently. “We can! This is all I wanted, Mitsuki! I just wanted to be together with you! Nothing else really mattered!”
“Sorry for being so selfish all this time.”
“You can be as selfish as you want, any time you want. I love spoiling you, you know that.”
“Thank you for raising me, for loving me, Ria. My years with you were the happiest in my life.”
“I feel the same way. So let’s stay together in the coming years too!” Valeriya clawed her fingers into Mitsuki’s hair, as if trying to prevent her from escaping.
However, the stronger she clawed, the less real Mitsuki felt. Her fingers slipped into the figure in her arms, which began crumbling like sand. The wheelchair had already melded with the beach dunes, and Mitsuki’s legs had turned into a pile of sand.
Another jolting throb.
And then another.
“No no no, this can’t be..!” Valeriya pulled herself away and grabbed Mitsuki’s shoulders, shaking them in panic. “Sakuya! You’re in there, aren’t you!? Stop Mitsuki! Please, I beg you!”
Mitsuki’s expression changed from loving to annoyed in an instant.
Sakuya, with a Mitsuki-like frown on her face, clicked her tongue. “You’re always like this. You only notice me when you need me.”
“Please don’t go!” Beads of tears dribbled down Valeriya’s cheeks, wetting Sakuya’s crumbling knees. “Don’t leave me!”
“That’s impossible. You know why we, no, I’m disappearing. This is all your fault.”
It was all her fault.
If she had hidden her daughter in the safe and blew Ageha to kingdom come.
If she had thrown away her pride and protected her love instead.
If she had never crossed fangs with the devil in the first place.
If she had washed her hands of blood after grasping her light.
But she had gotten greedy.
She had wanted it all.
And all was too much.
“Then take me with you! Kill me! Please!!!”
None of Valeriya’s regality remained. All that was left was a sobbing husk, teetering towards collapse from the weight of her sins.
Sakuya smiled bitterly. “Even if I wanted to, I can’t. I don’t have hands to choke you with anymore.”
Valeriya dropped her gaze. The tiny little fingers and knuckles she loved kissing had turned to dust, carried away by the ocean breeze.
“Then bite my neck! Rip my arteries apart!” Valeriya pulled aside her golden mane and offered her throat to Sakuya.
“Is this really what you want?”
“Yes. I can’t be apart from you. I just can’t.”
“…Fine.” Sakuya bared her teeth and leaned towards her mother’s neck.
Valeriya instinctively gulped upon feeling the girl’s warm breath on her life line, but she did not pull away. This was the only ending for her, to be together with her raison d’etre, to atone for her greed, and to vanish from the world defeated.
“I loved you, Ria.” Sakuya kissed her neck. “And now my revenge is complete.” After leaning back to gather momentum, the girl thrust her head forward and slammed it into Valeriya’s chest.
The clash cut the final string holding her body together. Sakuya burst into a pillar of sand and vanished with the wind.
The final strike shook Valeriya’s heart harder than all the excruciating thumps prior. Before Valeriya could scream her daughter’s name, she disappeared from that world.
“We’ve got a pulse!”
“Good. Move the defibrillator out of the way and get the transfusion going. She’s lost a lot of blood.”
Viktor heaved a sigh of relief upon hearing the exchange beyond the operating room doors. In preparation for the battle, he had set up several makeshift clinics near the shipyard and the bank in case anyone in their party sustained serious injuries. Each one had a full medical staff stationed inside, as well as state-of-the-art equipment. They were currently inside the clinic closest to the bank, where he had found the mother and daughter.
Red-stained bandages bound Viktor’s right arm, and fatigue lay heavily on his face. He still felt lightheaded due to anemia, but it was nothing he could not endure. He had more important things to see through right now, namely Valeriya’s fatal struggle. It was no exaggeration that the result would dictate the fate of the Russian mafia’s East Asian faction.
Either way, a rocky road lay ahead. Even if Valeriya did survive, would she be the same person as before? Her daughter Mitsuki had died in battle, brutally murdered by Ageha judging from the knife in her chest.
I misjudged them.
Regret flooded his heart. He had naively thought that Kaika’s faction would not take Mitsuki’s life, causing him to delay his return to the bank. Had he forced his body to move, maybe he could have prevented this tragedy, even if it meant sacrificing his life in place of the young girl’s.
Valeriya dying would cripple their faction and the Russian mafia in general, but her living as a vengeful ghost would be even worse. She would use all the resources available to her to destroy Kaika and everyone she cared about. That meant the entire mafia would also take great losses. His loyalty rested more heavily with the organization than Valeriya herself.
Should I kill her right here, right now?
The normally decisive Viktor felt confounded. Valeriya had been his talented, albeit rebellious, pupil once upon a time. They had also fought together in many battles, from organized shootouts to street brawls, in the many years they had known each other. Viktor never started a family due to his irrevocable ties to the mafia, so Valeriya was the closest thing he had to a daughter.
Apparently, his hardened heart had chinks in its armor, a weakness he had not realized himself until this moment. Mitsuki’s death had also badly damaged him, as if he had lost his only granddaughter. He was not about to kill his own daughter on top of that.
However, Valeriya running her faction to the ground in search of vengeance remained a credible threat. He needed to find a way to prevent that from happening no matter what.
I just have to do it myself.
If the target of Valeriya’s vengeance disappeared, then she would not spiral into self destruction. It was not the ideal solution because she might lose her will to live without revenge driving her, but it was better than the alternatives.
Viktor did not underestimate Kaika’s faction by any means, but he also knew they were reeling from the last battle. The rift between Arashi and Kaika formed by Mitsuki’s death could be taken advantage of. Moreover, Viktor was not picky when choosing allies or methods. He possessed none of the handicaps Valeriya had shackled herself with.
He closed his eyes as he cemented his decision. Despite Valeriya’s precarious situation, Viktor believed she would survive. She always had, even against impossible odds. He only needed to prepare a place for her to return to.
Six hours later, the head surgeon, fatigue clear on his brow, exited the operating room and confirmed Viktor’s hunch.