Chapter Fourteen: Escape

Selena Hill clapped her hands to quiet the room. “Welcome, everyone! Apologies for the wait. I had to do some last minute prep for the conference.”

A large group of old men and women bustled about the lobby of the rented-out three-star hotel. The building, located in the outskirts of Washington D.C., was aged but well kept. The victorian-themed decor exuded a quaint charm, making the venue appear more luxurious than it actually was.

The Vice President observed the group, taking note of the most important guests. Mashiro, along with her lone bodyguard, lingered near the entrance, away from the crowd. The other important members of the opposition party unabashedly congregated in the middle of the hall in classic politico fashion. Scores of security personnel loomed close to them, clearly outnumbering the invitees. After inspecting the smaller clusters of people, Selena confirmed that all the guests had arrived.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please follow me to the meeting room. As for all security personnel, please stay in the lobby during the meeting. Food and drinks will be served while you wait.”

Mashiro’s bodyguard, Makoto Kaburagi, casually raised a hand. “Can’t at least one escort accompany their client? I’m sure everyone here would be more at ease that way.”

“Mr. Kaburagi, are you trying to imply that our security measures are inadequate?”

“Not really. I just think one can never be too careful.”

“I assure you that we’ve taken extensive measures to ensure the safety of everyone here. We will be discussing matters of national importance. I mean no offense, but we can’t let just anyone listen in.”

Makoto still looked dissatisfied, but Mashiro placed a hand on his shoulder, placating him.

“Now then, if everyone would follow me.” Leading the way, Selena walked past the lobby’s main stairwell and entered the central corridor of the ground floor.

They headed to the largest meeting hall of the hotel, quite oversized for their group of thirty-two. The open double-doors welcomed them, revealing a long rectangular conference table lined with office chairs on both sides. Name cards lay on the table in front of each seat, each paired with a small square box wrapped by a red ribbon. Two crystal-laden chandeliers decorated the ceiling, and ornate wooden dividers cordoned off the deeper half of the spacious room.

“Please.” Selena gestured for everyone to seat themselves.

With hushed murmurs, everyone found their spots and settled in. Selena took her place at the head of the table but remained standing. Placing her hands on her chair’s backrest, she flashed a congenial smile.

“First of all, I would like everyone to open the gift I’ve prepared. Just a little surprise to set the mood.”

Losing to curiosity, about half of the attendees proceeded to do as asked. Others, including Mashiro, left theirs alone, waiting for the others to unveil the contents.

“What is the meaning of this?” A conservative congressman, pro-Butler in public but secretly one of the most influential members of the opposition, lifted the unboxed item for everyone to see.

A faint jangle gathered all eyes to the object. The chandelier lights applied a dull luster to the two metal rings in his hand.

Selena’s smile widened up to her ears, like a gaping tear on her wrinkled face. “I believe they’re called handcuffs.”

“We know that!” shouted a female senator. “Is this some kind of sick joke?”

“Not at all. It’s just a prop for the coming event.” Selena clapped her hands again, this time to indicate a shift in situation. “Let’s get on with it then. Everyone, please put on the cuffs and form a line by the wall to the right. Oh, I mean my right.”

Before anyone could voice protest, armored soldiers, painted ash grey, poured out from behind the wooden room dividers. Armed with assault rifles, the soldiers surrounded the table and pointed their weapons at the guests..

Mashiro shot to her feet, slamming the table with her hands in fury. “You betrayed us!”

“Betrayed?” Selena made a shocked face, pretending to be genuinely hurt. “Foolish girl. I was never on your side to begin with. Why do you think your father let me stay in power? Because I’m harmless? Hah!” The Vice President pursed her lips in ridicule. “You know my style of politics, right? Isn’t that why you chose me?”

Mashiro creased her forehead and bit her bottom lip in mortification. “…You were with him from the start.”

“Someone give this girl an award!”

“Why would you do something like this?”

Selena shook her head while wagging an index finger. “Now why would I tell you that? I’m not about to explain the details of our plans just because you stupidly fell into our trap.”

“Thanks. That was enough of an answer.”

Selena shot Mashiro a subdued glare. “Enough of answer? What do you mean?”

“I’m not a stingy hag like a certain someone, by that I mean you, so I’ll kindly explain.” Mashiro shrugged, eyes closed. “You confirmed that you were never truly part of the opposition. After that, you said the word ‘trap.’ That means your cooperation with the opposition was a ploy to smoke out all those who are trying to overthrow Secretary Butler. You were promised to retain your VP seat if you cooperated. How am I doing so far?”

Realizing she had spilled valuable information, Selena unconsciously pressed her lips together-.

“That face says I’m right on target.” Mashiro opened the box, took the handcuffs, and spun them on a finger. “But that doesn’t explain why you waited for me to approach you. You could’ve started recruiting people yourself. The only difference would be you can’t reach out to me specifically. Doing so would’ve been extremely suspicious since the conflict between my father and I is not publicly known. Which leads me to the conclusion that Secretary Butler, knowing I’d try to depose him, waited for me to approach you and incriminate myself. Even though I declared war on him myself, he didn’t have any evidence against me, at least nothing the masses would find acceptable enough to jail his own daughter. He can’t keep killing prominent people either. One cruel act makes a strong ruler, but two births a despot.” She calmly put the handcuffs on herself as the rest of the members watched in confusion. “In short, this was all a sham to catch me, to test if I’m worthy to be his adversary.”

Selena steeled her facial muscles to avoid giving away any more info. “Get off your high horse, you deluded brat. You’re just icing on the cake.”

Mashiro broke eye contact and shrugged her shoulders. “If you say so. I’ve been completely fooled. No point arguing about it now.”

Selena snorted and crossed her arms. “At least you know when you’ve been defeated.”

“Defeated? Me?” Mashiro stared into her eyes in a show of unbendable will. “I’m not gonna quit over something like this.” Despite her provocative tone, she calmly waltzed towards the wall to form the head of the line. “Everyone, we have no choice but to do as the Vice President says. Since Secretary Butler intends to take us into custody, no one will be harmed if we don’t resist.”

A string of gunshots thundered from outside the meeting room. Everyone inside turned to the door in fear as more bursts shook the walls.

Selena frantically pressed a button on her mobile and pressed it to her ear, trying her best to stop her hand from shaking. “What the fuck is happening!?”

“Sorry, Ma’am. One of the bodyguards resisted arrest. Several others assisted him, so we were forced to shoot them down.”

“Is the situation under control?”

“Three bodyguards have been shot, two injured, one dead. One escaped through the main entrance. Two of my men are on his tail. We also have two units stationed outside the front gate. He’s surrounded. Please don’t worry. We’ll get him.”

“You better, or I’ll have your neck!” Selena pocketed her mobile and clicked her tongue loud enough for her captives to hear. “Dimwits!”

“What happened?” asked Mashiro.

“None of your business. Hurry up and form a line! We’ll exit from the back!”

The armored soldiers in the meeting hall escorted everyone out the room’s rear exit. Mashiro, the first one to stand in line, ended up being at the tail end of the pack. Selena, flanked by two armored guards, followed behind her. Due to the large crowd, they moved at a slow pace through the corridors. More gunshots echoed inside the building as they entered the hotel kitchen.

“You said the hotel was serving food and drinks to our security personnel.” Mashiro looked left and right, surveying the empty kitchen. “Where’s the kitchen staff?”

“Are you high?” asked Selena. “That was obviously a lie. The moment we left for the meeting room, my men apprehended them in the lobby.”

“Then why are we going out the service doors? Aren’t you going to abduct all of us anyway?”

“Abduct? Don’t say such slanderous things. You lot are being arrested for treason. Your bodyguards are…” Selena sneered at her chatty prisoner. “Let’s just say they’re going somewhere else.”

Mashiro’s gaze sharpened like a freshly forged blade, making the kitchen knives around them look dull in comparison. “What are you planning to do with them?”

How annoying.

Selena found Mashiro’s concern for her bodyguard when she herself was in grave danger utterly aggravating. In spite of her desire to appear calm and in control, she could not help but scowl. “I’ve told you more than enough. Shut up and follow the line.”

The sound of gunfire ceased around the time the first of the opposition members exited the hotel kitchen’s service doors. Several black vans waited for them, their doors open wide and engines running. The vehicles filled up one by one, leaving only a handful of the lot on the street. Mashiro, being last in line, took her sweet time walking to the last van.

“What are you fucking around for?” Selena shoved her from behind. “Get in there.”

The push was by no means powerful, but Mashiro tripped on an uneven spot on the ground and bumped the opposition member in front of her. She fell butt-first to the concrete as the mayor stumbled into the open van door. The sudden movements alerted the armored soldiers, prompting them to aim their weapons at Mashiro.

“The hell do you think you’re doing!?” Selena stood in between Mashiro and the rifle barrel. “Didn’t I tell you we’re supposed to bring her in unharmed!?”

“Apologies, ma’am.” One of the soldiers lowered his rifle and gave a hand signal to the rest to do the same.

The Vice President roughly grabbed Mashiro’s arm and dragged her to her feet. “Get in the car before I smack you.”

“You mean like this?” Mashiro swung around and slammed her elbow into Selena’s nose.

The Vice President’s head snapped back as fresh blood from her nose splattered on the street. Before the armored soldiers could react, Mashiro dashed towards the intersection of the narrow street. The soldiers reflexively aimed their weapons but could not fire due to their orders not to harm her. The one closest to Mashiro immediately gave chase, producing faint hydraulic sounds from the leg armor exoskeleton. His power-cell-fueled legs easily compensated for the armor’s substantial heft, shrinking Mashiro’s head start in seconds.

Still recovering from the blow, the teary-eyed Selena watched as the target made a last-ditch effort to escape. Although irritation crinkled her bloody face, she found no reason to worry. Mashiro, hindered by handcuffs, could not possibly outrun a professional soldier armed with the latest military technology.

The soldier closed in as Mashiro reached the intersection. Unsure which way to turn, Mashiro paused at the crossing to check both directions. The soldier grabbed her right shoulder as she turned to face him with a horrified expression.

Or at least that was what Selena expected.

In place of terror, a confident, bordering on arrogant, smile spread across Mashiro’s face. The soldier’s armored hand, mere inches away from her, was firmly held in place by another much like it.

“Late again,” said Mashiro. “Even though I did my best to buy you time.”

“Sorry about that.” A man wearing a navy blue armored suit twisted the soldier’s arm and swept his leg, slamming him into the floor. “I had to clean up the goons stationed at the gate first.” A round helm with a large, tinted visor, similar to a motorcycle helmet, hid his face.

“Didn’t you hear me say that we were leaving from the service doors?”

“I did. That’s why I’m here.” The man cranked the downed soldier’s arm, forcing it into an impossible angle.

The soldier’s joint protector snapped out of place, along with his shoulder bone. A pitiful shriek spilled from his helmet.

Releasing the soldier’s arm, the man straightened his posture and looked at Mashiro. “My stuff was in the car, so I had to drop by the parking lot. The soldiers got to me right after I finished suiting up.”

Mashiro and her ally did not even bother to lower their voices, allowing Selena to hear every word. They spoke as if they had been in contact the entire time, even while Mashiro was held captive.

That bitch had a comm device!

Mashiro’s babbling on the way out of the hotel had been done to inform her ally of her situation and location. Her dallying and subsequent fall had been an act to buy time until her rescue. Even the perfect timing of her escape had probably been due to their constant communication.

How dare she make a fool of me!?

The other soldiers, uncertain what action to take, trained their sights on the new enemy and looked to Selena for orders.

Ignoring their gazes, Selena shot a vicious glare at the interloper. “Who the hell are you!?”

“That hurts. We spoke just minutes ago.”

“…Makoto Kaburagi..!”

“Nice to formally meet you, Madam Vice President.” Makoto performed a quick bow.

This cocky little twat…

Grinding her teeth, Selena clenched her fists into tight balls. “I don’t have time for this. Kill him and get the girl!”

The frontline opened fire, hitting Makoto in the chest. The bullets bounced off his armor, barely leaving a scratch on the blue-painted surface.

“Be careful!” shouted Selena. “Don’t hit the target!”

“Get outta here, Mashiro,” said Makoto.

Mashiro stared into his black visor. “Can you handle them?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“I’m counting on you.” She turned right at the intersection, the direction Makoto made his entrance from, and disappeared from Selena’s sight.

“She’s getting away you imbeciles! Get her!!!”

I need more people!

To avoid attracting too much attention, she had stationed about half of the soldiers Walker loaned out in a nearby food processing plant. Selena pulled out her mobile terminal from her coat pocket and called for reinforcements.

While she waited for the line to connect, the squad of soldiers showered Makoto with rifle rounds. He defended his vitals with his arms but otherwise did nothing. Excluding the color, his armor closely resembled the ones equipped by the soldiers, which meant it was designed to be practically bullet proof. Even so, the repeated shockwaves should still take a toll on the wearer.

The blaring gunfire subsided as the soldiers’ magazines emptied one after another. They quickly reloaded their weapons, a lull lasting no more than two seconds. In that brief snippet of time, Selena’s ears caught Makoto’s serene yet spine-chilling declaration of war.

“Overload mode, activate.”

 

***

 

About a month ago, Makoto, at Mashiro’s prodding, sent his custom armor to Tokyo for upgrades. According to Mashiro, her deal with Kaika included cutting-edge tech upgrades for his equipment to maximize his safety. Two weeks since then, his improved armor returned in a large, beat-up cardboard box with duct tape randomly plastered all over it. A small note with messy handwriting clung precariously to a crooked piece of clear tape on one side of the box.

The note said the following:

‘Sup

New stuff

  1. Say “overload mode activate” Very fun, try it. Now
  2. Cooler-looking helmet. No other purpose
  3. Blue paint as requested
  4. Arm and leg piledrivers. Very strong, guaranteed. But no money back
  5. Paint gun. Great for paintball tournaments
  6. Oh don’t forget to say “overload mode deactivate” when you feel hot enough to die
  7. I’m not liable if you do die. Reading this counts as consent
  8. Ask Kaika for details. Most of this = her idea
  9. I don’t get paid enough for this shit

Tsubasa

Better-than-Gen Researcher and Weapon Specialist (engaged – don’t get any ideas)

Makoto, who did not know who this Tsubasa was, tried to get in touch with Kaika to get a better explanation. Unfortunately, the tiny tycoon never had time to take his calls or reply to his messages. The only response he ever got was a one liner email saying, “The best defense is a good offense.”

Only after experimenting with the suit and surviving several near-death experiences did he understand what that meant. He came to understand that Kaika and Mashiro clearly had different things in mind when it came to “maximizing his safety.”

A sigh of exasperation leaked from Makoto’s helmet as he recalled the events that led to today. As ridiculous as their temporary allies were, he nonetheless felt grateful for their support, giving him the power to protect Mashiro when shit hit the fan.

Like right now.

With one soldier disabled at his feet, the enemy headcount totaled eleven. The situation was far worse compared to going against four soldiers in the parking lot. He decided to go all out from the start to reduce their numbers to a manageable level.

Makoto, fueled by the overloading power cells installed in his custom suit, blazed toward the first line of enemies. Bullets hammered his armor relentlessly, but he gritted his teeth through the pain and continued to advance. Selena, safely behind throngs of soldiers, was on the phone, probably calling for reinforcements. He did not have the luxury to play it safe.

Dammit.

I wish she underestimated me a little.

Upon reaching the first enemy, Makoto lunged forward and tackled him with his shoulder. Foreseeing this attack, the soldier tossed his rifle and braced himself. He grabbed Makoto’s shoulders with both hands as his feet skidded to a stop. Ignoring the grapple, Makoto lightly tapped his left fist into the soldier’s hip joint.

“Like that’ll do anything!” Tightening his grip, the soldier tried to push Makoto to the ground. “Surround him while-”

The sound of hydraulics followed by a dull metallic thunk cut off the soldier’s call for help.

“W-What the…” He looked down and gasped upon seeing a metal stake around two inches in diameter skewering his crotch area, right through his joint protector. With a shrill cry, he fell to the floor, hands fumbling over the wound in panic.

Makoto wasted no time on the defeated enemy and landed a powerful front kick to the next soldier’s knee, forcing him to a half-kneel. Placing his palm on the enemy’s chest, he activated the piledrivers in his left forearm and right leg at the same time. The stake in Makoto’s leg sank into the ground, locking him in place. The enemy’s impact-resistant armor prevented the arm stake from puncturing his chest, but the sheer force tossed him about a dozen feet backward, knocking down two of his allies like bowling pins before tumbling to the ground.

With a twist of his leg, Makoto detached the stake on his calf armor to free himself. Seeing the gap between their battle prowess, the soldiers unconsciously shuffled backward.

Makoto’s overload mode gave him superior power and speed compared to mass production models, but this came at a steep cost. Not only did it cut his suit’s operating time to mere minutes, it also assaulted the user with brain-shaking shockwaves and smoldering heat. The inner protective lining of the suit was not designed for the boosted movements.

Fortunately, the power cells were located in the back of the unit, which meant he was much less affected by the heat compared to Ageha. Furthermore, smoke did not waft from his armor because there was no artificial skin or fabric close to the overheating cells. Even so, he found himself struggling just to remain conscious. The fighter’s high brought by the sudden increase in power battled with the agony from his searing skin, straining muscles, and creaking bones.

With a one-foot stake protruding from his left forearm, Makoto dashed towards Selena, hoping to reach her before she called for help. However, the soldiers instantly moved to protect their CO, two using their bodies to block his path while four others shot him from the sides.

Makoto stabbed the stake into the closest soldier’s shoulder joint, digging in about halfway, before twisting his forearm to detach it. The stake remained rooted inside the man’s shoulder, causing him to collapse from the pain.

Like an eagle taking flight, Makoto spread his arms wide, his fists pointed at a soldier on each side. By pressing the trigger on his lower palms, Makoto activated the paint guns attached to his wrist guards and coated the soldiers’ visors with blue paint. The blinded soldiers ceased firing and clawed at their helmets in a hopeless effort to regain vision. The quick-drying paint was practically impossible to remove by hand.

Makoto aimed his paint guns at the two remaining soldiers on his sides. Noticing his intent, the soldiers ducked his line of fire and tried to tackle him. In response, Makoto crouched down and crossed his arms on his chest. A split-second before the two soldiers made contact, he activated the last piledrivers in his arms and skewered the enemies’ through the joint area on their groins.

Don’t underestimate Okinawan karate!

In most of the world, karate had a reputation for being a hand-to-hand sport which focused on form versus function, a traditional art rarely used by MMA fighters. However, Okinawan karate, unlike it’s well-known sibling, had always focused on practicality. It promoted the use of weapons and exploitation of weak points. The reason their techniques were not used in martial arts competitions was because they were designed to disable and kill, acts forbidden in modern sports. Despite appearances, Makoto’s current battle style, which made full use of his armaments to attack the enemies’ weaknesses, was true karate at its finest.

The uninjured soldier in front of Makoto smashed a powerful side kick into his chest. Unlike the others, this enemy possessed considerable skill in hand-to-hand combat. Before Makoto could recover, three more blows connected, two punches into his body and an uppercut into his helmet. Makoto staggered backward, his vision swaying violently, but still managed to raise his fists to guard his jaw. Pressing his advantage, the soldier rushed in for a finishing blow. Makoto leaned back to evade a right hook, but it was not enough to avoid the attack. Taking another blow in his state would likely knock him out, so he decided to gamble his life for victory.

Makoto pressed the visor-lock button near his jaw. The black visor whizzed upward, revealing his unguarded face. The soldier’s armored knuckles clipped the edge of his nose, spraying blood in the air, but he avoided most of the force. By opening his helmet, he had reduced his head’s surface area and barely avoided the knockout punch.

With his mind in a haze, Makoto’s body moved from muscle memory. He grabbed the soldier’s extended arm while twisting his body sideways. In one fluid motion, he threw the enemy over his shoulder and slammed him into the ground. Still restraining the soldier’s arm, Makoto stepped on the gap between armor plates over the soldier’s armpit and launched the stake in his left calf, pinning the enemy to the concrete.

While Makoto was busy fighting the soldiers, Selena boarded one of the vans. The vehicles carrying the captured opposition members drove off one by one, leaving Makoto alone with the armored enemies. The two soldiers Makoto knocked down like bowling pins earlier had gotten back to their feet. Aside from them, two of the eleven enemies, who assisted Selena’s escape, still remained unscathed.

I have to give up on the opposition members.

To Makoto, Mashiro’s safety was paramount. His own came a close second.

Time to regroup with Mashiro and escape.

He turned about face and ran back the way he came, but a large black van pulled up at the intersection and blocked his way. The van door opened, revealing more armored soldiers huddled snugly inside. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, Makoto wracked his brain for a solution but failed to find any. He closed his eyes and released a resigned sigh.

“Mashiro, can you hear me?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you safe?”

“For now.”

The enemies aimed their rifles at him from both ends of the street. The heat from his power cells neared unbearable, and his body shook from overuse. It was all he could do to keep standing.

“I’m in trouble.” He closed his visor, preparing for the worst. “Please get as far away from here as possible.”

“Hey-”

“One last thing, I just wanted to say that I… I lo-”

“Shut up!”

“Here you go again! Can you at least let me finish!?”

“No!”

“…Why!?”

“Because you give up way too easily!!!”

A white SUV smashed into the black van blocking the intersection, pushing it out of the way. With hardly any pause, the SUV turned into the street where Makoto and four armored soldiers stood stock-still, like a family of deer caught in the headlights.

Behind the wheel of the rampaging vehicle was the face of his childhood friend and irreplaceable partner, furious beyond belief. “Grab on!”

Makoto sidestepped the SUV and clung onto open window of the passenger side door. Mashiro floored it, not caring about the two soldiers in her way. One of them jumped to the side, while the other stepped out of the way and tried to grab onto Makoto. Makoto unceremoniously kicked the enemy in the head, leaving him rolling in the dust. The SUV sped to the other intersection, where the black vans escaped from earlier, and took a sharp left.

Makoto opened the door from outside and jammed himself into the passenger seat, filling it to the brim with his bulky armor. After deactivating overload mode, he removed his helmet, revealing his beet-red, sweat-soaked face. “This isn’t the direction the VP went.”

“I know.”

“Then why are we going this way?”

“To get you to a hospital, you idiot!”

“I’m fine.”

“Say that when you don’t smell like a well-done steak!”

“I thought you liked your steak well done.”

“Only when it’s made from a cow, not a stubborn mule!”

“Okay, can you at least stop shouting at me? My head’s hurting.”

“No I won’t! How many times do I have to tell you to take care of yourself more! What’ll I do if you got-”

“Oh shut up.” Sinking his armored fingers into her silken black hair, Makoto held the back of her head, turned her surprised face to him, and sealed her chatty lips with his.

Five plodding seconds ticked away in that position. Then the SUV began swerving left and right on the road like a terrified snake. Realizing the danger, Makoto released the driver.

“Are you trying to get us killed!?” Mashiro’s blush was easily visible even through her tanned skin.

“Er, no. Sorry.” Makoto rubbed the sweat off his itchy nose with his hand. Fearing he overstepped his bounds with the kiss, he frantically came up with an excuse. “I-I didn’t mean to do that. I was, uh, high from adrenaline and-”

“And what exactly are you sorry about?” Mashiro took her eyes off the road once more to glare at him.

Even the occasionally dense Makoto understood what she wanted to hear. He reined in his embarrassment and forced the words out. “I’m sorry for not being careful enough.”

“Good answer.” Her infuriated expression softening ever so slightly, the red-faced Mashiro resumed driving.

 

***

 

“Got it!” Arashi raised an arm in victory upon successfully hitting a marmot from thirty feet away.

It took her several tries before finally getting one. The mountain wind, her shivering shoulders, and the acute senses of the animals in the area all contributed to the difficulty. Moreover, her only hunting tools were pebbles she picked up along the way. The rifle on her back was not suited for the task. Using it on small animals would only result in bloody mist and tiny chunks of shredded meat splattered on the snow.

Her quarry were few and far between. It had taken her four hours to find the one she had just killed. The squirrel-like creature, no larger than a prairie dog, did not have much meat, but it was a catch worth celebrating in the current situation. She picked up the carcass and headed back to the shelter where Ageha awaited.

“I’m back.” Arashi entered the warm cave, tossing the dead animal on the floor.

“What did you get?”

“A marmot.”

“A what?”

“Here.” She picked the animal back up and showed it to the immobile Ageha.

“Is that a squirrel?”

“Sort of.”

Arashi, who loved wildlife documentaries related to fish and dolphins, occasionally watched other animal programs, mostly at Mitsuki’s recommendation. She knew the animal was a marmot, but as expected from a TV trained expert, she could not tell specifically what kind.

“Well, beggars can’t be choosers.”

“I’ll prepare it now, so please wait a bit.”

“Don’t worry about me. I consume very little energy because I spend the entire day loafing in here. Speaking of which, how many days have passed since the crash?”

“Three days.” Arashi went to a corner and began skinning the marmot.

“Feels like it’s been a week. Nothing more boring than being paralyzed in an ice cave in the middle of nowhere.”

“…Sorry.”

“Hey, c’mon. I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know, but… If I didn’t pull the trigger, then the avalanche-”

“That was no one’s fault. Let’s leave it at that, okay?”

Although not entirely convinced, Arashi nodded. She stepped outside the shelter and proceeded to gut and cut the marmot to smaller pieces. The blood spilling onto the snow resembled a strawberry snowcone, whetting her appetite. However, they had no pot to cook the thick red liquid in, so she did not bother keeping it. After skewering the meat and innards on carved wooden sticks, she went back inside and placed them near the fire to cook. The enticing aroma of sizzling meat soon filled the small cave.

“What I wouldn’t give to have some salt right now,” muttered Ageha.

“…Maybe I can season it with my sweat?”

“Please don’t.”

“What about tears?”

“Can you move away from using bodily fluids please?”

While waiting for the marmot meat to cook, Arashi took her usual place beside Ageha. She embraced his neck and pressed his head onto her breasts for warmth. Several minutes passed while they enjoyed each other’s heat, quietly listening to their alternating breaths.

“Is it just me or are your breasts uneven?”

“You’re so rude. Women’s breasts are all uneven.”

“But not by this much.” Ageha nuzzled his face into her mounds. “Oh, I get it. The one on the right is silicon, just like Saya’s, so only the left one actually grows. You need to get your plastics replaced when we get back.”

“Ageha.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you like bigger boobs?”

“I don’t care about boobs.”

“I knew it… You like girls with no boobs at all…”

“That’s not what I meant. What I’m trying to say is I don’t particularly care about the size or shape of breasts themselves.”

Arashi whimpered, disappointed.

“What is it this time?”

“I thought I could win over Saya… when it comes to boobs.”

“You shouldn’t worry about competing with her, okay? And please stop it with the oddly sexual topics.”

“Can you blame me? We’ve been stuck here… for three days…” A soft moan gently dribbled from her burning lips.

“…Wait, do you mean…”

“It’s been… building up.” Arashi fidgeted, still embracing his head. “I can’t do it outside because of the cold, and you’re always in the shelter. It would’ve been okay if you were… a shallow sleeper.”

“Sorry about that, but I can’t exactly take a walk to give you alone time right now.”

“But… but I can’t take it anymore…” Arashi began rubbing her crotch against his arm, warming up his winter coat with friction. “You don’t even have to move. I’ll… handle everything.”

“Okay, calm down. First of all, I’m literally paralyzed from the neck down, so telling me I don’t have to move is pointless. Second, this is not the time or place. We’d lose a lot of body heat. Third, and this is the most important, the meat is burning.”

Prodded by his words, Arashi took a whiff and noticed an intense smoky smell wafting from the fire. She hurriedly got up and checked on the marmot kebabs, which were charred near-black on one side. Using the knife, she scraped away the burned bits and rotated the skewers to cook the other side.

“Whew, that was close.” Ageha relaxed his tensed jaw and moisturized his chapping lips with his tongue.

“Or so you think.” Arashi peeked at him while rearranging the kebabs, a mischievous smile spreading across her face. “Did you forget… we’re stuck here until help arrives?”

“Before you think about doing anything,” said Ageha in a panicked voice, “I’d like to give you a lecture about this thing called ‘consent.’”

Arashi giggled, her gloved fist held over her lips. “Relax. I was joking.”

With an exasperated frown, Ageha whispered, “Kids grow up so fast.”

“I heard that.”

“I said it so you wou-”

A piece of marmot kebab fell into Ageha’s open mouth, cutting off his comeback. Arashi sliced off another piece from the skewer and gobbled it up.

Ageha quietly chewed on the morsel and gulped it down. “Not bad.”

“The joke, the shot, or the meat?”

“I’ll leave that up to your imagination.”

Four days passed.

Unfortunately, the marmot was the only decent meal they had since the crash. Arashi could not find any more animals during her outings. Left with no choice, she ventured farther from the camp, hoping to find anything edible. Even so, the only things she found were some edible leaves, which she turned to tasteless soup.

“Arashi, could you help me out?” Ageha glanced down his body, signaling what he meant.

“Okay.” Arashi picked up the marmot skin from the corner of the shelter and approached Ageha. After unzipping his pants, she gently placed his member into the animal skin, which now served as a portable chamber pot.

At first, Ageha had insisted on doing his business alone, requesting to be dragged outside and left there until he was done. However, as days passed, this practice had become too taxing on their malnourished bodies. He had eventually caved in and accepted Arashi’s marmot-catheter proposal. Fortunately, since they barely ate anything, he did not have to defecate outside the shelter too often.

After disposing of the urine outside, Arashi came back to melt some snow for Ageha to drink. Three capfuls later, Ageha shook his head, signaling he had had enough. They barely spoke in the past two days to conserve energy. Even so, they communicated well enough with just gestures and eye movements, proof of how well they knew each other. The sound most commonly heard within the shelter was the rumbling of Arashi’s stomach. She used to get embarrassed when that happened, but like Ageha, she had forgotten to feel ashamed of the little things by now.

“I’m going to go higher today,” said Arashi as she checked the knives sheathed on her waist belt.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to go down the mountain?”

“I already tried that, but I couldn’t find anything. Maybe there are… some birds higher up.”

“I see. Be careful. Come back before sundown.”

“Why? I can see in the dark.”

“Predators are usually nocturnal.”

“That’s good. It’d be easier if food came to me.” She flashed a confident grin, a sharp contrast to her sleepy eyes.

“Don’t make me worry too much.”

“Roger.”

Arashi slung the rifle on her back and went up the mountain. She did not have a decent container for water, so she brought the rifle’s scope cap with her. Ageha would not be able to use it by himself anyway. She replenished water by melting snow in the cap whenever necessary.

After hours of trekking with nothing to show for it, her lungs began to complain, and the throbbing in her temples grew stronger. Hunger sapped her stamina, forcing her to rest even though most of the work was done by her cybernetic legs. ARMS battery life heavily depended on usage, typically lasting a little less than a week with normal use. Because Arashi rarely performed superhuman feats to preserve power, she estimated she still had about three more days before energy ran out. That was the hard deadline for their survival.

She found a small nook behind a large rock to hide from the wind. Looking around, she saw some dried bushes she could use as kindling. After gathering materials, she took out the fire plank from her jacket pocket and started a small fire. She spent about half an hour resting, rehydrating, and warming up before proceeding farther up the mountain.

Several hours went by with no prey in sight. The scenery, while beautiful, barely changed no matter how much she hiked. The repetition of snowy hills and rocky cliffs wore her down mentally. Remembering Ageha’s advice, Arashi checked the sky, now a brilliant orange, and decided to call it a day.

Before beginning her trek back to the shelter, she found a good spot to rest up. A lick of her lips told her she was hydrated enough to make the easier downhill return trip without making another fire. She planned to leave the moment her breathing relaxed and her heart rate returned to normal. Embracing herself, she tried her best to keep still and conserve energy while recovering.

A large shadow fell over her. A quick glance up revealed a crescent silhouette circling overhead, carving the bright orange sky with swift, graceful strokes, like a paintbrush on canvas. Zooming in with her bionic eyes, she carefully observed the unexpected visitor. Incandescent, golden feathers bordered the descending mahogany comet.

A golden eagle!

The majestic raptor, boasting a seven-foot wingspan, elegantly glided down to a crevice close to where Arashi had been resting. Due to an overhang above her, the bird of prey did not see Arashi during its descent.

Perched on a jutting rock about twenty-five feet away, the golden eagle rested its wings while occasionally turning its head to look around the area.

This is my chance!

Arashi snuck her right hand into her jacket pocket and fumbled for the best pebble in her arsenal, an almost perfectly round stone she picked up just an hour ago. She closed her eyes and slowed down her heart beat, hoping it would still her shivering body. The shaking slowly subsided, but she could not wait to get into optimal condition. The eagle could fly away at any time. She had to launch her attack now.

Here goes nothing!

Arashi measured the distance between her and the target using her bionic eyes before jumping out of hiding. The eagle turned towards her as she wound up for the throw. The contest between the two predators ended in an instant. The eagle took off before Arashi could pitch the stone, but she accounted for that. The rock hit the eagle mid-flight, scattering golden feathers in the air. The wounded eagle tried to reorient itself, but the injury was too severe, causing it to crash on the snow-capped rocks below.

Arashi stood frozen, gazing in shock at the empty spot where the eagle got shot down.

I did it…

I really did it…

I did it!!!

Her overflowing adrenaline urged her fatigued body to chase after her kill. Before she knew it, she was jumping down ledges in search for the raptor’s carcass. In less than a minute, she caught sight of a gold and brown lump splayed on the snow. Unable to contain her excitement for a proper meal, she beelined towards it as saliva pooled in her mouth.

White lightning struck her flank. Searing pain spread from her waist as she tumbled on the freezing ground. She stopped her roll by clawing her alloy fingers in the snow and then propped herself up into a low fighting stance.

Before her prowled an elegant, albeit no less menacing, beast. Small black dots and curls adorned its thick, silver mane like tattoos. Its long, bushy tail lay flat on the ground, just barely visible behind its low-lying, five-foot long frame. Pale green eyes locked into her own, paralyzing her muscles from instinctual fear.

A snow leopard.

Arashi never imagined her first encounter with one of her favorite land animals would end up like this. To her dismay, she had no time to admire it. The animal was likely targeting the eagle’s carcass, and Arashi was now in its way.

The cliffside terrain put her at a major disadvantage. Her rifle was useless at this distance. Without breaking eye contact with the leopard, she slowly reached for the combat knife on her belt. The beast lowered its head and body, slinking to the ground, while slowly swishing its bushy tail. Blood seeped from the gashes on Arashi’s abdomen, soaking her sweater in red. The pain distracted her for an instant, pulling her attention from the beast.

As if sensing her lapse, the leopard pounced and forced her back to the ground. She desperately defended against its fangs with the knife. Arashi tried to kick its abdomen, but the leopard hopped to her left side and directed its fangs at her neck. She rolled sideways, avoiding the fatal bite by a mere inch, only to find the beast’s claws flying to her face. The leopard’s paw passed over her head as she rolled backward, tearing off a clump of her hair.

Contrary to her expectations, the snow leopard ceased its attack and circled to her right side. Unlike trained fighters, the animal moved on instinct, making it very difficult to predict. She rotated her body to keep the beast in front of her while scanning the area for anything she could use.

Her ankle brushed against something. She discreetly peeked downward to see what the obstacle was. Ironically, it was the very thing that put her in the current predicament, the mangled carcass of the golden eagle. Bitter disappointment rose up her throat upon arriving at her best course of action. Arashi had been set on roasted bird for tonight’s dinner, but she had no choice but to give that up. A stomach without a bird was better than the other way around.

Arashi waited for the animal to launch its next attack. Her breathing reflexively stopped as she sharpened her senses. The big cat bolted to the side before sharply turning her direction. Arashi kicked the golden eagle towards the leaping leopard before lunging towards it with her knife. The bird collided with the beast in midair, inciting the animal to tear into it on instinct. As the mess of fur and feathers crashed to the ground, Arashi thrust her knife through the eagle’s wings. The blade slipped in between the golden feathers and sank into the leopard’s chest cavity. Arashi’s momentum pushed the bloody medley, including herself, into a messy tumble. Despite the chaos, she did not forget to finish off the beast by twisting her knife inside its body and tearing its torso open as she pulled the blade out.

The battle ended with Arashi lying on the ground, pinned down by a silver-grey cat much bigger than her, both of them blanketed by golden feathers. Her breathing finally restarted, both lungs hungrily gasping for air after winning the intense battle.

I did it!

Roasted bird and cat!!!

An unnerving cracking noise coming from below tickled her ear.

Give me a break!

Before she could escape the corpse sandwich, the ground underneath her crumbled and fell. The ledge they had been fighting on was apparently made entirely of ice, and the raucous combat had dislodged it from its precarious perch on the ridge.

The next minute went by in a blur. Before she knew it, she lay collapsed at the bottom of the cliff. The eagle and leopard had been caught by rocks along the way. Despite all her efforts, she ended up empty handed. Not only that, she had lost one of Ageha’s knives during the fall.

Her training urged her to ignore emotional pain in favor of survival. First, she checked her physical condition. Her cybernetic limbs had performed excellently in absorbing impact, keeping her alive from an otherwise fatal drop. That said, she did not get out of it unscathed.

One of the bones in her left forearm was broken. Judging by the swelling, it was an ulnar shaft fracture, probably caused by her forearm directly smashing into a rock on the way down. Two of her right ribs were cracked but not completely broken. Large bruises covered her torso like land on a world map. Several cuts on her face soiled her cheeks and chin with blood. Her vision and hearing were normal. Luckily, she did not hit her head badly, which was the best she could hope for in that situation. In another stroke of luck, her rifle had survived the fall, still strapped to her back. Aside from a few scratches, the weapon seemed to be in working condition.

Fatigue caught up with her, pulling down her eyelids like lead weights, but she did not give in to the temptation. Had she been her old self, void of dreams, a future, a home, then she might have called it quits. However, there were people waiting for her now. Ageha, paralyzed and alone in that cave, relied on her and her alone.

The sun had retreated, giving way to the brilliant starry sky. Ignoring the breathtaking view, she forced herself up. The first thing she did was splint her injured forearm using a branch and the torn right sleeve of her sweater. The fracture was not severe. She could still put pressure on her fingers and move her elbow, albeit with some pain. A strange feeling of gratitude to her father welled up within her. His brutal beatings were what raised her pain tolerance to what it was now.

After stabilizing her arm, she put pressure on the wound on her flank. The cuts were not deep, so the bleeding stopped fairly quickly. She tore off one of her jacket pockets and used it as a bandage pad to cover the wound, secured by tightly tying up the front of her coat around her waist.

With no idea where she was, Arashi had no choice but to wander the area, searching for a path to higher ground. Darkness spread around her as she trudged her way through snow and rocks. One hour passed, then two. Each step robbed her of energy. Each dead end whittled away her willpower. The bitter cold burned her face and fingers. She started to lose hope of ever returning to Ageha’s side.

He must be worried sick.

I can’t hurt him anymore than I already have.

I have to protect him.

I have to get back.

I have to get back.

I have to get back.

She chanted that like a mantra, disregarding the pangs of hunger and bouts of pain from her many injuries. Every time she felt like giving up, she recalled Ageha’s face when he told her about his feelings.

That sullen Ageha blushing like that…

He was so cute.

The warmth spreading in her chest served as her fuel, pushing her beyond human boundaries to keep on going.

Then she noticed something in the distance. A faint orange hue stained the pale moonlight reflecting from the snow. After blinking a few times to make sure it was not an illusion, Arashi decided to investigate.

That’s a campfire.

Why are there people in this terrible place?

Rescuers?

Arashi stopped her advance, remembering why they had gotten into this mess in the first place.

Enemies.

Whoever plotted the hijacking likely knew about the location of the crash. They probably sent people to confirm the death of the targets. Keeping a low profile, she snuck closer to the light source and came upon an unexpectedly large camp, but what surprised her the most was what lay just beyond the tents.

That’s our plane!

The aircraft was barely intact, most of it burned black. Only half of one wing remained attached, and the engines were nowhere to be seen. Considering that there was no place to land a plane in the mountains, the group had likely come by helicopter. Since Arashi and Ageha had not heard of any aircraft flying near them, the crash site had to be quite far away from their shelter. This realization drew a sigh of relief from her because it lowered the risk of the enemy finding Ageha.

That relief lasted a single second.

“Hey motherfuckers!” A tall man, equipped from head to toe in mountain gear, waved a radio to get the others’ attention. “Survey corps Titan found a snowdrift shelter a few miles up the adjacent mountain. We don’t know if anyone is in there right now. Considering how dangerous our game is, I told them to stay put until we send reinforcements. Kururugi, take two teams and investigate the area with the scouts. I’ll send you the coordinates. Don’t forget to bring heavy weapons. Underestimate the enemy and you’ll be a frozen popsicle before you know it.”

I gotta get back quickly!

The enemy group consisted mostly of Japanese, but a few caucasian squads were mixed among them. The man barking the orders approached those groups and spoke to them in a language Arashi did not understand. Two squads broke off from the main force and began climbing the closest slope.

Ageha’s crisis brought energy back to her languid limbs. The flickering flame within her burned fiercely with the desire to protect him.

Based on what she overheard, he was still safe, but that would not last for long. Not knowing the way back, Arashi decided to follow the two squads until they were close enough for her to go back alone. Then she would beat them to the shelter and rescue Ageha.

Two hours of fast-paced trekking later, Arashi found familiar terrain and spotted a few landmarks she used when hunting. No longer in need of guidance, she snuck closer to the enemy squads. One member of each team took on the role of rear guard, staying a small distance away from the main group to keep an eye out for pursuers. Arashi stalked those two from the side, waited until they came close enough, and then hurled her knife.

Her blade flew straight into the farther enemy’s neck, muffling his scream. Even so, his toppling body made a dull sound as it hit the snow. The second rear guard turned towards the noise, aiming his rifle at the bleeding corpse. Before he could call out to his team, Arashi rushed from behind and crushed his throat with her cybernetic arm. Without wasting a moment, she dashed to her embedded knife and pulled it out as she made her escape.

She did not bother confirming what transpired after her ambush and focused on rushing back to Ageha. The frantic shouts echoing behind her suggested that her delaying tactic worked well. Arashi’s splinted forearm throbbed with every step she took, but slowing down did not even occur to her. In order to avoid running into the two squads, she had to go around the slope to reach the shelter, so every second counted.

After traversing the slope and slipping through a narrow path between two small hills, she finally spotted the shelter. The problem was, despite their standing orders, the two scouts were snooping around the snow cave’s entrance.

The lack of activity, inevitable because the only person inside was immobile, likely convinced the scouts that the shelter was empty, tempting them to conduct some half-assed investigation. The two of them communicated with hand signals before splitting up. One stood guard outside the shelter, while the other readied his submachine gun and peeked into the narrow entrance.

Arashi was too far to stop them from going inside. It was game over the moment the enemy captured Ageha. She could only surrender if he was held hostage, even if it meant dying a slow, painful death afterwards.

No choice!

With almost robotic precision, she unstrapped her rifle, removed the scope cap, and loaded a bullet. Without bothering to sit or lie down for stability, she placed her target between the crosshairs and pulled the trigger.

The intruding enemy, half his body already inside the shelter, fell to the ground as his leg exploded behind him.

Tears formed in the corner of Arashi’s eyes as she withstood the pain shooting up from her fractured forearm and waist. Her next shot, no less taxing, obliterated the second scout’s chest, scattering his pinkish innards on the white snow.

Arashi ran to the shelter as fast as she could, her vision blurring from the pain. The one-legged scout still breathed when she pulled him out of the opening, so she finished him off with a knife through the eye.

“Ageha!!!”

He welcomed her with a wry smile. “Things sure got lively all of a sudden.”

“You’re okay!” Arashi jumped on him and embraced his body with all her might.

“I’d complain you’re hugging me too hard, but we both know I can’t feel a thing.”

“We need to get out of here. Two enemy squads are on the way. They’re probably rushing here because of the gunfire.”

“I’ll skip asking you to leave me behind because I know you won’t. Do you have a plan?”

“We run away.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“Sorry, I was the stupid one for asking.”

Arashi stripped the two dead scouts of their supplies: two pistols, a submachine gun, ammo, a thick winter coat, rope, a combat knife, a bottle of water, and a lighter.

After dragging Ageha out of the small shelter, she packed their things into the enemy’s rucksack and put it on Ageha. The sniper rifle clung to the bag with its strap, and the combat knife made its home on her belt’s empty sheath. Using her right arm, she clumsily flopped Ageha on her back and secured his limbs and torso onto herself with the rope.

“It’s going to be a rough ride.” Arashi turned to the side and met his eyes. “Don’t bite your tongue.”

“I’ll be fine. Go all out.”

Two blinks served as her response. She bent both legs, gathering energy, and leapt into the sky. To avoid detection, she could not leave footprints. Leaping from place to place, stepping on exposed rocks when she could, was their best bet to hide their tracks. Her injured and worn-out body screamed in agony each time she landed. Even though she hid it well with her typical lackadaisical expression, Ageha saw through it effortlessly.

“Don’t push yourself. You can take it easy once we get over this hill.”

Finding a chance between her labored breaths, she muttered, “Yeah.”

“I know you don’t wanna hear this, but you should leave-”

“If you… know that… then shut up!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Some things did not need to be said. The same went for her conviction, her drive, the one thing forcing her broken body into motion.

I’m going to get us out of here.

This time, I’ll protect you.

I swear.

 

***

 

“Papa! Papa!” Li Xue jumped onto her father’s lap and fumbled around like a little chick until she felt comfortable. “When will Uncle Ageha visit us again?”

Mei Xing widened his eyes at the question, his concentration ripped away from the document on his monitor. Shifting gears, he placed a hand on Li Xue’s head and smiled as kindly as he could. “I don’t think he’ll be coming over for a while.”

Li Xue innocently tilted her head. “Is Uncle really busy?”

“…You could say that.” He willed away the grimace about to appear on his face.

Mei Xing hated lying to his daughter. Due to his occupation, it was inevitable for her own protection, but that did not mean he was fine with it. Someday, when she was able to understand the circumstances, he planned to tell her all about the Soaring Serpent Society and what kind of man he was, even if it meant losing her love. But for now, he could only sugarcoat the truth while being as honest as possible.

“Then why don’t we visit Uncle instead?” Li Xue’s face lit up, as if she just came up with the greatest invention known to man. “We can go to Tokyo again!”

“Do you like Tokyo?”

“Umm… Yeah. But I’m fine anywhere if we can play with Uncle Ageha and his wives again.”

“Uh, Ageha isn’t actually married to anyone.”

“Hm? But Mama and Mommy Mao are your wives, right?”

Mei Xing could not help but glance at the two ladies observing watching this exchange with Li Xue from his office sofa. They had been watching with gentle gazes mere seconds ago, but now, a certain intensity manifested in their eyes. Taking the clue, he gulped before wording his reply.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So, when can we go see them?”

Realizing his daughter would not back down so easily, Mei Xing decided to explain the situation with a little more clarity. She was young, but she did not deserve to be treated like a fool.

“The thing is, Li Xue, your Uncle Ageha and I had a fight.”

“A fight?”

“Yeah. He lied to me about something. Something important. So we aren’t on good terms right now.”

“Do you hate him now, Papa?”

The straightforward question hit Mei Xing like a truck. Despite his sophistry regarding his reasons for punishing Ageha, he had never seriously asked himself that question. So he did.

The answer came faster than anyone, much less he, expected.

“No, of course not.”

“Then do you like him?”

“…Yeah. Despite everything, I do.”

Li Xue beamed brightly, rivaling the sun in intensity. “Then you two should make up!”

The advice was simple, perhaps too much so. He did not move on feelings alone. Loyalty, pride, politics, responsibilities, all these played a part in his decision.

“I remember Papa saying that a true friend is family. So you should forgive him, like how Mama and Mommy Mao forgive you all the time.”

Putting aside the rather prickly follow up, his daughter’s memory was accurate. That said, he could not take credit for the words, which actually belonged to his father, Wei Long. Wise they might be, he held fast to the belief that parting with Ageha was the right thing to do.

“Things are not that simple, Li Xue.”

“Why?”

The childish question pierced the heart of the matter, along with his own. Why was it not that simple? Because he had been betrayed? Because he had to uphold the dragon head’s word? Because he had to prioritize the interests of the organization? Because he should not let personal feelings influence his decisions?

Those questions revived his father’s image in his head.

Their relationship deteriorated when Wei Long skipped his own wife’s funeral. This infuriated Mei Xing because back then, he was not aware of his father’s quest for vengeance. Zhang Wei Long had prioritized his role as the dragon head, his pride, his hatred, over his love for his wife, which ended up destroying their father-son relationship, a loss never to be recovered.

Am I making the same mistake?

Setsu and Mao had told him he was going to lose his chance to reconcile with Ageha if he did not act. He knew that was true, yet somewhere deep inside, he refused to believe it. Ageha was not weak enough to die from a mere plane crash. That sounded ridiculous, but that was how much he idolized Ageha’s strength, and moreover, will to survive.

However, the man who confessed his sins on the phone was not the same person he came to know in the past year. The sinner he had spoken to was the same man Mei Xing first met in the inn, plagued by guilt and desperate for a way out. Five days had passed without any news of him after the crash. He could very well be dead.

What have I done?

His thoughts settled into rock-solid resolve.

He replayed his daughter’s innocent question in his head.

“Why?”

“Because your Papa is an idiot.” Mei Xing faced his lovers and barked out his orders. “Setsu, call Kaika and tell her to give us all the info they have on the crash. Check the map of the area around ground zero and send rescue teams to find Ageha and Arashi. Tell Kaika and Saionji to fly here asap if they want to join the search. Mao, please get ready to join the search teams.”

“Already done,” said Setsu.

“I refuse,” said Mao.

“Good, then let’s get go-, wait, I think my ears are playing tricks on me. What did you two just say?”

Setsu flashed a mischievous smile. “I already informed Ms. Nikaido of everything that you just said earlier today. Her plane will arrive in an hour.”

“I’m not going to leave your side.” Mao tugged her eyebrows together, forming a dead-serious expression. “I knew you were gonna overdo it when you changed your mind, so I’ll hold you back. Saving Ageha is important and all, but you have to think about yourself too. Someone might take this chance to attack you, so I’m not leaving you alone no matter what.”

“I’m not following. Setsu, what do you mean Kaika is arriving in an hour?”
“I knew you were going to change your mind, so I went ahead and made preparations.”

He shifted focus to Mao. “And you knew about this?”

Mao nodded casually.

“How can you two be so sure I’d change my mind? I was torn about it just minutes ago!”

Setsu shrugged. “Because we know you.”

Then Mao’s lips curled into a condescending smirk. “And we had a secret weapon. Took us a while to realize it, though.”

The two ladies’ gazes focused on one person. Mei Xing’s eyes naturally followed their line of sight, eventually landing on the tiny girl sitting contentedly on his lap. Li Xue looked up and made the sweetest smile.

“I knew you would help Uncle Ageha, Papa. I love you so much!”

“Dragon’s give birth to dragons.”

Even after his passing, Zhang Wei Long’s wise words rang true.

 

Next Chapter

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