Chapter Ten: Surprises

“Would you like to start a bloodless revolution?” asked Mashiro.

Selena Hill, the incumbent Vice President of the United States, scrunched her brow, adding more creases to her weathered face. “What are you talking about?”

“Fath-, Secretary Butler illegally usurped power and is now using it with impunity. Don’t you think he needs to be stopped?”

“…What are you plotting?”

“Don’t worry. This isn’t one of his traps. You’re already in the palm of his hand, so it’s pointless for him to ruin you.”

“Says his daughter.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re the same. As a mother, I’m sure you understand.”

“…Why are you going against him? That isn’t exactly a smart move.”

“I mentioned half the reason already. He must be held accountable for the slaughter he committed to take power. The other half is obvious. His current foreign policy will invite conflict with other major world powers. While I’m confident we won’t lose with him at the helm, countless lives will perish for the sake of strengthening the country. War benefits the strong but preys on the weak. I favor the latter.”

“I won’t question that. Your reputation precedes you. Organizing humanitarian aid, pushing policy regarding poverty, providing infrastructure for marginalized communities overseas, the list goes on. Your last project didn’t quite work out, but the splash you created still sent ripples across the world. Your supporters, while far from the majority, are still eagerly waiting for your next move. Is this ‘bloodless revolution’ your latest project?”

Mashiro’s gaze sharpened. “You make it sound like I do this for fun.”

“Don’t you?”

“I’m no sociopath, Mrs. Vice President. I only want to do the right thing.”

“The right thing?” Selena cackled, not bothering to hide her disdain. “How naive.”

Mashiro shrugged. “I’m used to the ridicule. You’re wasting your breath testing me like this.”

The belittling grin on Selena’s face vanished. “I take it you understand the gravity of your proposal?”

Mashiro gave her a firm nod.

“What makes you think I won’t report you to Butler right now?”

“That won’t change much since I openly declared war on him to his face. He knows I’m trying to depose him.”

As for why her father let her swim freely, Mashiro had a rough guess. Despite his terrifyingly pragmatic mindset, Butler was also a righteous man. If he was indeed wrong in usurping power to change the nation, a check, a counterbalance, needed to exist to stop him. Who else could serve that position better than the daughter he trained himself?

Seeing Selena’s unconvinced expression, Mashiro added, “And you’re a greedy cunt. How can you resist taking the top seat in the country?”

“Finally you’re talking my language. Tell me more.”

“The plan is simple. We need to rally a large enough group of people to oppose Secretary Butler and remove him from his dictatorial seat.”

“But the masses are currently leaning towards his camp.”

“Not exactly. They are supportive of the changes he enacted. The person himself is still under scrutiny. That’s why a bloodless revolution is ideal. While Butler is doing many positive things for the country, it doesn’t erase the egregious crimes he committed to gain control. The opposition needs to show the people that they are supportive of Butler’s goals, but not of his methods. We will depose Butler but keep his ideals and policies intact, committing to pursue them. Let’s make Butler a real hero, one that gets shot down in the end for the sake of a better world.”

“…You’re a lot more terrifying than you look, girl.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“How do you plan to get supporters?”

“Actually, I’ve already garnered support from a number of people. I figured I needed to present you this much to get you on our side.”

The only reason Selena retained her position, as honorary as it might be, was because of her non-committal political career. She had never taken a rock-solid stance on anything, always going with the flow of the times. That policy had allowed her to reach the Vice President’s seat with political acumen alone. Appealing to the people was not exactly her best suit. Butler had allowed her to keep her position to convince the masses that he was not out to destroy the system but merely reform it.

“Who might these people be?”

“The officials who went into hiding in fear of Butler’s corruption purge.”

“How did you find them?”

“Let’s just say I have connections.”

Kaika’s information network had greatly contributed to that task. The underworld had its own delicate information cobwebs, hidden from the authorities for obvious reasons. The moment corrupt officials sought refuge in the darkness, Kaika had already grasped their circumstances.

“If you already have so many people on your side, why bother with me?”

“Several reasons. First, we need a figurehead. Being Secretary Butler’s adopted daughter, I’m not suited for that task. You are next in line for the presidency, making you the ideal candidate. Even if Secretary Butler is deposed, the former president would likely resign for allowing the coup to happen in the first place. You being the leader of the revolution would help in the transition.”

“You don’t mince words. I like that.”

“Second, I need your help to scout more allies. We still don’t have enough people on our side. A good portion of those in power are part of Butler’s government, just like you. The coup faction can be divided into three groups. One, those loyal to Butler and his ideals. Two, those who want more power and are using Butler’s changes to climb the ranks. Three, those who simply got caught in the wave. I want you to appeal to the second and third groups, covertly of course. If you convince enough of the second group, the third will naturally follow.”

“Tall order. How do you expect me to convince them?”

“Promise them better seats in your government. Make them look good to the people after all this is over. They’re politicians. The only thing they like as much as power is a good reputation. People’s support equals power in a democracy, after all. If a single scandal can spell doom to any politician, so can a beautiful headline cement a golden career. If that isn’t enough to win them over, remind them that Butler is a passing thing, unlike the government. He can fall from power any day, but as long as the country exists, people have to run it. Appeal to their desire for long term security.”

Selena stroked her chin for a few moments. “That’s doable. But won’t that method simply revive the former corrupt government you despise? You’re promising positions of power to the people who would or already abuse it.”

“I never said we’ll keep those promises. That’s a trick of the trade for you politicians, isn’t it? Only Butler needs to go. The good he has done stays. The purge of corruption will be sustained, even if we have to slow down the pace after losing his militaristic approach to justice.”

“You do remember you’re talking to one of those people, right? You promised to let me sit in the Oval Office.”

“You may be greedy, but you’re not stupid. Now that the people have tasted good governance, they aren’t gonna settle for less. That’s how greed works, doesn’t it? You have enough sense to follow Butler’s footsteps to stay in power. Even though your past isn’t exactly blameless, nothing can be achieved without compromise. I may be an idealist, but I’m not foolish enough to think utopia can be achieved without sacrifice.”

Selena scoffed. “You, an idealist? You’re nothing of the sort.”

Mashiro fought hard to contain a wince and won. Gazing straight into the old woman’s eyes, she confidently stuck out her hand. “Do we have a deal?”

Without breaking eye contact, Selena reached out and firmly grasped it. “Let’s talk details.”

 

***

 

Ageha blinked several times in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

Rin pouted as she placed a hand on her hip. “Glad to see you too.” She acted completely at home in the Nikaido drawing room, making the befuddled Ageha seem like the visitor.

“I invited her.” Kaika popped out from behind the cameriera. “Figured I needed reinforcements to get you back on your feet.”

“That’s none of your business.”

“But it is my business, considering I’m paying your very generous salary.”

“Maybe I should just quit then.”

“Hmph, saying things you don’t really mean. Are you switching from kuudere to tsundere?”

Rin interrupted them with a relieved laugh. “I came here worried, but you two are the same as ever.”

“I wish that were true, Rin, but your ex is being a pain in the butt. Can you kick his for me? Every time I try it myself, he grabs my ankles and hangs me upside down, even when I’m in a skirt!”

Rin made a disgusted face. “You perv.”

“Say that to the girl who doesn’t wear any underwear.”

“You do know that only worsens your crime, right?”

As soon as the word crime passed through Rin’s lips, all energy drained from Ageha’s face.

The cameriera formed a subtle frown. “I see the damage now. Looks as bad as you said, Kai.”

“Oh you haven’t seen the worst of it. He mumbles to himself about how sucky he is whenever he thinks he’s alone, forgetting that I have bugs planted in all his belongings.”

“What.”

Kaika coughed. “Never mind. Now then, I have other matters to attend to, so I’ll leave you two alone.” She glanced at Ageha and winked. “I sent Saya on an errand, so you two don’t have to worry about getting caught catching up.

Rin bonked Kaika on her head with her trademark hammerfist.

“Guah!”

“Stop saying stupid things and shoo.”

Kaika left the room while grumbling to herself. “Whose house do you think this is…” Before she closed the door, she turned to face Rin with a serious look. “I leave him to you.”

“You can count on me!” Rin flashed her a dazzling smile, something she fought hard to regain after the traumatic events in her life.

“So…” Rin mosied over and plopped onto a sofa, sinking into the luxurious fluff. “I heard you got seriously injured.”

“Yeah, but I’m okay now.” He rotated his right shoulder to prove his statement.

Rin patted a spot beside her. “C’mon, take a seat. It’s weird talking like this.”

After doing as she asked, Ageha rubbed his nape with a hand. “Sorry for getting you involved in this. Kai can be forceful at times. Actually, make that all the time.”

“Nah, it’s nothing. Just so happened I had a day off. We haven’t spoken in a while, so I figured it’s a good opportunity to catch up.”

“What did she tell you?”

“That a friend of yours passed away, but I get the feeling that isn’t exactly what happened.”

“I see.”

An awkward silence enveloped them, but Rin made no move to break it. She patiently waited for Ageha to speak up. From the defeated look on his face, he definitely wanted someone to share his burden. Still, he did not part his lips no matter how long she sat there.

Ageha had always been like that. He never probed about others and never opened up to them either. There were rare cases when he was compelled to, like when Rin forced him to reveal his life as a killer, but he rarely shared anything on his own. That said, they would not get anywhere if no one talked, so Rin decided to take a step forward at the risk of Ageha pulling away.

“I don’t remember you being so mopey. Guess I chose right with Kou-chan.” Rin liked shortening Koujirou’s name to Kou-chan, to the older man’s dismay.

Ageha chuckled, but his eyebrows kept a melancholic tilt. “Of course you did.”

“Wow, you can’t even counter jabs. You’re certainly not the guy I fell for. The one I still have feelings for even now.”

“What.”

“Finally got your attention. That’s not a lie, by the way. Of course I still have feelings for you. Love doesn’t just vanish at the drop of a hat.”

“Don’t say things like that. Think about Yama-san.”

“Kou-chan knows. Not something I can hide from my boyfriend, you know.”

“He must be pissed at me. Probably why he kept stealing my food whenever we ate out.”

“I guess he feels a little insecure. How can I blame him? I did settle when I chose him.”

“That’s harsh. I’m afraid to imagine how you treat Yama-san when you guys are alone.”

“We get along great, for your information. Settling isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Ageha. Life is a series of compromises with reality. You can’t have everything you want, and sometimes that’s a good thing.” Rin broke eye contact and stared blankly at the painting on the far wall. “Think about it. If the two of us got together, what would’ve happened? I would’ve been constantly worried about your safety, and you’d always be afraid of how your darkness would affect me. We stayed together for just a few months and I already suffered so much.”

“Rin, I’m so sor-”

“Stop. I’m not trying to blame you. I’m just making a point. Even if you were what I wanted, you weren’t what I needed. I couldn’t be the one you needed either. You know what? I’m really happy right now. I realized something by spending time with Kou-chan. Happiness isn’t something that happens to someone. It isn’t about luck or fate. It’s about hard work. We try to adjust and compromise until we find a good spot for both of us. That was something we never tried when we were together. All we had was… selfish selflessness. We wanted each other to be happy, but didn’t work hard enough to be happy ourselves. We were lazy.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“I only realized that myself recently. My relationship with Kou-chan is not without challenges, but I’m proud to say we’re happy together. I’m proud of the effort I put in. Things earned through hard work are much more valuable than ones that just roll onto your lap.”

“Did you come here just to brag?”

Rin jabbed his ribs with an elbow but felt like she hit a wall. “Ouch!”

“That part is no longer human either. Almost none of me is anymore.”

“Take a look in the mirror before saying dumb things like that.” Rin poked his cheek with a finger. “That’s a face only a person can make.”

“A terrible person, then.”

“You’re a lot of things, some good, some bad. But you’re not a terrible person.”

“You can say that because you don’t know.”

“Then tell me.”

Rin stared into his eyes with a resolute expression. Ageha hesitated at first but eventually gave in with a shrug.

“Fine. Since Kai was the one who called you, I’m guessing I can tell you everything.”

“Yep. I signed the nondisclosure agreement on the way here.”

Ageha formed an amused smile before telling his unexpectedly convoluted tale.

Parts of the story made Rin tear up.

Parts of the story gave her goosebumps.

Parts of the story gouged out holes in her heart.

After hearing everything, she felt compelled to get one thing off her chest.

“What the fuck is the deal with this threesome thing you’re doing with Saionji and this Arashi girl!?”

“That’s what bothers you the most!?”

“Hell yeah! C’mon, this sharing thing was never on the plate when we were together. It’s unfair!”

“Why do you even care? Knowing your jealous streak, you wouldn’t have accepted that arrangement, right?”

“I wouldn’t, but I still feel like I missed out!”

“Weren’t you bragging about how happy you were earlier?”

“I am happy. But, you know, it feels like finding discount coupons for your favorite restaurant then realizing they’re expired.”

“No, I don’t know.”

Rin snorted defiantly. “Whatever. Cradle robber.”

“She’s eighteen.”

“Does saying that to yourself make you feel any less of a deviant?”

“…No.”

“Good. There’s hope for you yet.”

A chuckle escaped Ageha’s lips, followed by Rin breaking into laughs. After their fit of laughter settled down, Rin took a moment to process the information.

Ageha had told her everything that led to his current state.

About Arashi.

About Valeriya.

About Mitsuki.

About Saya.

About Mei Xing.

It did not take her long to see into the heart of the matter. Even with Kaika’s and Saya’s intelligence, it was only natural that they could not see what Ageha really wanted. Mei Xing had hit closer to the target but still missed the bullseye.

So it fell to Rin to fix the broken man in front of her.

“You killed someone you cared about. Someone who cared about you. I can’t even imagine how that must feel.”

“Not the nicest feeling in the world.”

“Well, you deserve it.

Ageha’s breathing stopped, his mouth agape, as if time itself halted.

“You made a terrible mistake. You must be punished for it, and that suffering is your punishment. You weren’t expecting to get away with all that scot-free, did you?”

“No… I…”

Rin was not special like Saya or Kaika. She did not have prodigious talents or special training. She did not spend the most time with him. She was not by Ageha’s side when he was suffering through many ordeals.

She was not his family.

And that was why she could see what the others could not. That was why she could say what needed to be said.

Ageha wanted punishment.

However, that was not what he needed.

“But it’s okay, Ageha. You’ve suffered enough.”

Ageha’s features contorted, creating patterns of pain and despair one after another. “No, I haven’t..! I killed Mitsuki..! Arashi ran away because of me! And I lost Mei’s trust because of my weakness! I-”

“I forgive you.”

Silence.

“You’ve paid your dues. I can see that. So I forgive you.”

Then tears.

Rin embraced his head, pressing his damp face into her chest. He cried like a lost child who finally found his mother.

Ageha wanted forgiveness.

It was that simple.

Kaika and Saya did not realize this because they were just as culpable as he was. For the same reason, they had no right to forgive him. A conspirator could not be the judge and jury for a fellow criminal. Words of comfort coming from them would ring more hollow than a broken bell.

Mei Xing had punished Ageha for his distrust but had not forgiven him. While this alleviated some of Ageha’s guilt, it did nothing to balm his gaping wounds.

Ageha himself thought he wanted punishment and sought it incessantly, when in reality he wanted what came after. Punishment was the beginning of absolution, after all.

Rin was fundamentally different from them. She stood on the other side. She was not part of Ageha’s world. If anything, she was once his victim. She had been torn to shreds by the wake of his actions. If anyone had the right to punish and forgive him, it was her.

Did Kai see that far?

Kaika had seemed desperate when they met earlier, but no one knew what went on inside that little devil’s head. Rin was not about to attempt deciphering it.

Minutes passed as Ageha sniveled, staining Rin’s shirt with his tears and snot. Ageha’s tears, something Rin had never seen before, were the first sign of his recovery. It would not be a quick or easy process, but at least the bleeding had stopped.

Right when Ageha’s eyes began to dry, Kaika burst into the room.

“Arashi’s back! She’s in the lobby! She…” Kaika trailed off upon finally noticing what was happening inside the room. “Uh, sorry for disturbing you two. I’ll deal with Arashi. Don’t worry, I won’t say a peep about this to Saya.”

Gently releasing Rin, Ageha raised his head with a refreshed expression on his face. “I’ll follow after I clean up.” He wiped the remaining fluid on his cheeks with the back of his hand. “Thanks, Rin. For everything.”

“You owe me and Kou-chan dinner. And not a cheap one.”

Kaika looked surprised for a second but quickly donned a satisfied smile. “I’ll be waiting for you two in the lobby.”

“Wait, I’ll go with you. I wanna meet this Arashi girl.” Rin peeked at her wristwatch. “Kou-chan will be picking me up any minute now anyway.”

“He’s picking you up here?” asked Ageha.

“Yeah. I figured seeing you living in all this luxury would keep him on his toes. Y’know, spark his provider instinct.”

With a raised eyebrow, Ageha turned to Kaika. “See the monster you created?”

Kaika looked away. “She was like that from the start.”

Rin cleaned up her shirt with a handkerchief as Ageha disappeared into the bathroom. Fortunately, the shirt’s dark red fabric did not stain easily and looked almost freshly laundered by the time she was done.

Kaika and Rin walked to the lobby together, chatting about mundane things on the way. Waiting for them in the middle of the hall was Arashi, dressed in casual winter wear.

Arashi took a glance at Rin and then tilted her head. Before Kaika could get a word in edgewise, Rin approached Arashi and introduced herself.

“I’m Rin Natsume, Ageha’s ex-girlfriend.”

Kaika slapped herself on the forehead. “What now…”

Arashi’s sleepy eyes snapped open. “Uhm…”

“You don’t need to introduce yourself. Arashi Tanizaki, right? I know you’ve been through a lot lately, but I can’t leave without telling you something. Something important.” Rin came even closer, almost passing by Arashi’s right side, and moved her lips close to the teen’s ear. “A word of advice from someone who formerly stood beside Ageha as you do now. Trust him. He isn’t a man who would willingly hurt people he cares about. Don’t make the same mistake I did.”

Arashi showed a befuddled expression, not surprising considering a stranger just gave her life advice out of the blue.

The doorbell rang.

Rin glanced at Kaika. “That’s my ride. Say goodbye to Ageha for me.”

“Sure.”

“He’ll be okay.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Kaika performed a deep bow, surprising both Rin and Arashi. “Thank you.”

“No need for that! It was no big deal.”

“For me… for us, it was.”

Rin sighed as she made a resigned smile. “Fine. Do me a favor in exchange. Take care of that stubborn mule for me, okay? I didn’t leave him with you so he can bang his head against the wall as much as he wants.”

“Sorry for not keeping him on a tighter leash. You, on the other hand, have trained your pet extremely well.”

“Shush. Call it tough love.” Rin winked as she pushed open the large mansion doors.

 

***

 

Arashi knew that woman.

It was the woman she and her father had held hostage at that schoolyard. It was the woman who Ageha had saved by risking his life, ultimately forcing Arashi to kill her own father and consequently unfettering her shackles.

As Arashi watched Rin leave, she wondered if she should thank or hurl curses at her. Her father’s death had opened up Arashi’s world, but recently, she had learned that freedom was not without cost. Knowing more meant feeling more, pain or otherwise.

Ironically, Rin did not recognize her. Arashi had already been hiding in the shadows when Jin brought Rin to the schoolyard, so they had never met face to face.

What did she mean?

Arashi had not known that Ageha and Rin had been lovers at one point, and that same ex-girlfriend had suddenly given her advice on how to treat Ageha.

How much does she know?

“Don’t make the same mistake I did.”

Rin’s words haunted her.

Is it so wrong to doubt Ageha after he tricked me into killing my only friend!?

The last thing Arashi wanted was to lose Ageha forever, but she could not help the hatred she felt for him. Contrary to popular belief, love survived just fine in a pool of negative emotions, even thrived in it. The more Arashi recalled how much she cared for Ageha, the more his betrayal hurt.

Even so, she had returned.

Something bothered her about Ageha’s admission of guilt. At the time, he had stopped Saya from explaining why he had killed Mitsuki. According to Kaika, the objective of the mission had been to kidnap Mitsuki, not kill her. If so, Ageha had little reason to kill Mitsuki when he did. He had been fighting Valeriya, who, unlike the robots, would not deactivate even if Mitsuki fell unconscious.

Had he done it to distract Valeriya? That was certainly possible. However, a possibility more consistent with Ageha’s personality existed. Enduring the torment, Arashi remembered the moment when Mitsuki died. The giant robot attacking her had suddenly stopped moving. Even though she was not the sharpest tool in the shed, she could deduce what that meant.

He might have killed Mitsuki…

To save me.

Then that means…

It was my weakness that…

Arashi shook her head, unable to accept it. Ageha had also tricked her into thinking her mother was still alive. Toying with her emotions like that and using her like a tool was not something easily forgiven.

“Ageha should be down here any minute,” said Kaika. “How are you doing?”

“Just fine.”

“You expect me to believe that with you looking like a reversed scarecrow?”

“…”

There was no denying it. Her body was terribly disproportionate. Her cybernetic legs remained unchanged, but the flesh parts of her upper body had lost a significant amount of mass.

“Just to be clear, this isn’t a visit, right? Are you back for good?”

Arashi shook her head. “Not for good. For now.”

“What made you change your mind?”

“I wanted to make sure… with my own eyes.”

Arashi had returned to ascertain the truth before she made a final decision. In order to do that, she had to investigate things herself, even if it meant working for Kaika. She could no longer trust the words of the people who had deceived her for so long.

“Fair enough.” Kaika trotted to Arashi and squeezed her human arm. “First thing we need to do is put some meat on these bones. You can’t move around, much less fight properly, in that condition. I’ll have Ageha prepare a feast to celebrate your return.”

A loud rumble echoed from Arashi’s empty stomach. Blood rushed to her cheeks as she turned away with a pout. Unexpectedly, Kaika did not tease her for it and merely smiled gently, like an affectionate mother. A nostalgic warmth filled Arashi’s chest, a feeling she had been missing for so long. Then a spear of guilt pierced her heart, causing the pleasant feeling to rapidly leak away.

Noelle had been against her going back to Kaika’s group, fearing she would be fooled into trusting them again. Despite the redhead’s objections, Arashi had left her temporary haven to determine if everything she had learned, enjoyed, and loved for the past year had been a lie. Before Arashi departed, she had promised Noelle that she would be wary of those around her, especially Kaika. Any joy derived from interacting with Kaika and the others was tantamount to breaking that promise, causing Arashi to suffer.

Just then, Ageha entered the lobby from the west corridor. He stopped in his tracks upon seeing Arashi and Kaika together, his eyes quickly finding Arashi’s. Arashi hurriedly turned away, creating an intensely awkward atmosphere.

“What are you standing there for?” Kaika whipped her index finger in the general direction of the main kitchen. “If you have time to dawdle, go and cook something for our prodigal daughter. She looks like a mummy for crying out loud.”

“No,” said Arashi.

“Don’t be unreasonable. You have to eat.”

“I’ll eat… But not his cooking.”

Ageha grimaced for a split-second but quickly put on a poker face. “I’ll go ask the sous chef to prepare a meal. Arashi, you should go drink something. You’re severely dehydrated. There’s water in the dining room.” He tried to smile, but a strange expression bordering between a scowl and a grin formed instead.

Heart-wrenching pain assailed Arashi. She did not reject him to be cruel. All she wanted was to avoid falling into the gentle abyss of comfort because it would compromise her search for the truth.

She barely stopped his name from leaving her lips as he walked out of sight. The moment he disappeared, Kaika entered her vision, strangely without her usual flair and confidence.

“I know I don’t have any right to ask this of you, but please don’t hurt him anymore. He may look okay now thanks to Rin, but he was a mess just hours ago. If you want to lash out, do it to me instead. As the boss, our failure is my responsibility.”

What the…

What the fuck is this!?

Why is everyone acting like I’m the bad guy!?

They tricked me, not the other way around!

“Stop acting like you care.” Arashi walked towards the dining room, bumping Kaika by the shoulder as she passed.

The fact that Kaika said nothing after her tantrum angered and shamed her even more.

 

***

 

It was like an avalanche.

Valeriya acted normal for a few days after being discharged from the hospital. At first, there were only minor changes, like how she began smoking again. She stopped caring about the anime airing schedule and permanently shelved her kimono. Viktor watched all that with little concern, thinking it was just her returning to her persona before meeting Mitsuki.

Then came the second wave. She regularly took morphine, supposedly for the pain of her already healed wounds. She went after smaller organizations that tried to take advantage of the Russian mafia’s instability, going so far as to purge the enemies’ immediate family members to turn them into examples. Viktor watched all that with great concern, fearing what it could all lead to. However, she still led the organization with reason, so he stayed his hand.

Then in a blink of an eye, things went out of control. Valeriya shut herself in her room most of the time. Some days she frolicked on cloud nine. Some days she brutalized subordinates for the most minor transgressions. She sold her orphanages to the highest bidder, not caring what would happen to the children. She frequented the arena, not as a spectator, but as a masked contestant. With just an alloy arm, she tore apart her mostly cybernetic opponents, night in and night out, venting her inordinate fury. Then Viktor saw a full body ARMS schematic displayed on her carelessly abandoned monitor.

That was when he decided to move, hoping it was not too late.

He had to get vengeance for Mitsuki before Valeriya inevitably decided to act on it herself, taking down the entire organization with her. However, to destroy Kaika, the one who defeated the prodigious Valeriya, he needed help. Fortunately, he knew exactly where to find it.

 

***

 

“Isn’t this the first time I got a call from you?” Nick played with the straw in his glass with a finger.

“Yeah,” said Viktor. “If memory serves, you only communicated with Valeriya when dealing with our organization.”

“She’s a little too hands on if you ask me. Nikaido was better at using her subordinates to their maximum potential, but I guess that’s the price of being too skilled at everything. So, what can I do for you?”

“Let me get straight to the point. Would you like to team up with me to take down Kaika Nikaido?”

Nick exploded into laughter, almost dropping his mobile in the process. “So the rumors about Ria going batshit insane are true! I couldn’t believe my ears when I first got wind of it. She’s been under the radar for the most part, but when she surfaces, well, what can I say? Fireworks one after another. That woman is like a blue whale surfacing for breaths right now.”

“…”

“You don’t need to confirm. It really doesn’t matter to me anyway. So, what are you offering?”

“Manpower and weapons. Choppers, tanks, anything goes.”

“…Are you planning to start a war?”

“If I have to.”

“Well, I do need men right now, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a Russian mafia executive owe me one… Most importantly, I also have a bone to pick with that little cunt. What do you need from me?”

“I know you have ties with America. Use them to get information on Nikaido’s schedule. That way, we can put our resources to proper use without causing a fuss. We can attack when she’s most vulnerable.”

“How did you find out about my link with the U.S.?”

“I have an information network too. My organization can at least track down past flight records. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as the Americans’.”

“You overestimate them a little, but I do see your point. How about this, Viktor. Let me sleep on it. I don’t want to get into anything without hammering out the details on my end. I don’t want you to leave thinking I provided poor service.”

“…Fine. There’s little time, so please don’t dawdle.”

“Of course.” Nick ended the call and immediately dialed another number.

“Hello, sir,” said Noelle.

“How’s everything going?”

“Still on standby, as ordered.”

“I was asking about your day, but no matter. I need a favor.”

“I am a soldier, and you are my CO, sir. I will do as ordered.”

“How admirable.” Nick endeavored to curb the sarcasm in his tone. “First, take it easy. You know I don’t like stiff conversations.”

“Okay.”

“Good. Now then, I have a question. Is Arashi Tanizaki still staying at your place?”

“…”

“Don’t worry, I’m not faulting you for not reporting it to me. I understand that she is special to you. As for how I found out, well, you have to forgive me for being careful about new subordinates. I hope you understand.”

“…She returned to the Nikaido estate several days ago.”

“Do you have a way of contacting her?”

“Yes, I provided her with a military grade mobile so we can talk without fear of eavesdroppers.”

“Can you ask her to share some information about Kaika Nikaido’s schedule? Of course, you should probably be more subtle in phrasing it.”

“…Are you telling me to use Arashi?”

“No. I’m telling you to save her, as I told you before. You see, I can get my hands on significant manpower and weapons soon. All I need is a location. The only target is Kaika Nikaido, the root of all evil, as they say. Once she’s gone, Arashi will be free from manipulation. She can live a life away from violence, suffering, and death. I guarantee her safety. In fact, I plan to include you in the operation to do just that.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do. No promises, though. If Arashi doesn’t want to talk, that’s her choice.”

“Of course. Call me either way.”

“Wilco.”

 

Next Chapter

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