“What do you mean you’re not coming?” Mashiro’s refined features wrinkled in irritation, her bronze skin displaying a slight sheen on Kaika’s monitor.
“It means what it means. Has your Japanese deteriorated from staying overseas so long?”
“You little..! I meant, why aren’t you coming? We had an agreement. This is a critical time for the revolution. If we don’t act now, it’ll be too late to stop Fa-, Secretary Butler.”
“You can call him Father. I’m quite familiar with father-daughter disagreements.”
“Stop trying to change the subject.”
Kaika closed her eyes, pondering how much she should reveal to her provisional ally. “Something important came up.”
“This is important too! The future of the world is at stake!”
“Is it more important than Makoto?”
Mashiro’s tense expression softened. “What happened?”
“Ageha was… caught in an accident.”
“Is he okay!?”
“Stop shouting. You’re too excitable.” Kaika closed her eyes and shrugged. “I don’t know his current condition. That’s why I can’t be away from Japan at this time. Please understand.”
“…Fine. Things are proceeding smoothly over here, so I think I can hold the fort for now. As we discussed, I’ve recruited most of the people opposing Father. They’re very eager to join the revolution with Vice President Hill at the helm. However, I know Father won’t go down just like that. We still need a trump card.”
“I have something in mind, but it can’t be used just yet. The timing has to be perfect.”
“I’d rather talk about it in person. I’ll be flying there as soon as I fix things on my end.”
“Okay, let’s talk about it in a secure location. I’ll be waiting. I hope Ageha is okay.”
The comm line they were using was definitely secure. Kaika would not have spoken about Ageha’s situation otherwise. The only reason she insisted on revealing her plan face to face was because it was easier to convince people, in this case the infamously stubborn Mashiro, that way. Her unorthodox scheme was not something the deluded hero would easily approve of.
“Thanks. See you then.” Kaika cut the video call.
Slumping in her chair, she released a meandering sigh. Keeping a calm facade in front of Mashiro had been more exhausting than she thought. Her mind was in disarray from losing two of her most valuable chess pieces. No, the fact that she was so rattled proved they were no longer mere pawns to her. They were irreplaceable.
Her mobile rang, playing the melody associated with Saya’s number.
“I have the plane’s last known location.”
“Is the info reliable?”
“As ordered, I identified the flight crew that boarded the plane using the hangar cameras. They were former Japanese yakuza recruited by the Russian mafia. I managed to track down the pilot’s younger brother, who apparently helped their team infiltrate the plane from the hangar. They killed the original crew members and pretended to be the backup crew. They even had the paperwork to back it up.”
“If either of us had been on the flight, we would have detected the anomaly immediately. Unfortunately, Ageha and Arashi aren’t aware of our personnel screenings.”
“We can’t change the past. How did you get the information from the pilot’s brother?”
“He didn’t submit to torture, so I resorted to using drugs. While I can confirm he believes the information to be true, I cannot assure its accuracy.”
“That’s better than nothing. So where are they?”
“The plane’s breadcrumb trail supposedly vanished over the Altai mountain range, near the China-Russia border.”
“I guess they planned to fly all of us to Russia. The impromptu meeting with the Chinese couldn’t be factored into their plan, which clearly required a lot of preparation. Did the source say how our schedule was leaked?”
“Unfortunately, he died from drug overdose before I could get that information. I had to administer significantly more serum than normal just to get him to talk. The Russians are not to be trifled with.”
“Ria taught us that much and more. We’ll deal with the leak later. No point thinking about a problem with no viable solution. How soon can we send a rescue team to the crash site?”
“That… is quite problematic. I am sure you know this, but there are many diplomatic issues to consider.”
“…You’re being unexpectedly calm about this.”
“Only because Ojousama is unexpectedly unsettled. Trying to keep you focused is distracting me from worrying.”
“Glad to be of service.” Kaika pinched her chin as she gathered her thoughts. “The crash is near the Chinese border, right? Let’s ask the Chinese military for help. I don’t mind owing them a favor or two.”
“I have already contacted them, but the Russian government has already forewarned them not to approach the area. Even though the crash is near the border, it is barely within Russian soil. Their hands are tied.”
“Ria beat us to it!” Kaika slammed her tiny fist into the padded armrest. “She probably made a deal with the Russian government. That means asking Russia for civilian rescue is also out of the question. They’ll just pretend to send people in while guzzling vodka behind their desks. We can’t mobilize choppers or planes from Japanese soil either. They’ll be flagged and shot down before even coming close to the crash site with the excuse of invading airspace.” Kaika massaged her throbbing temples. “That leaves us one last option, the Soaring Serpent Society.”
“But Mei Xing is still at odds with Ageha. Do you think he will help?”
“I’ll take care of it. I’ll call you later.” Kaika hung up and dialed a different number on her mobile. As she listened to the first few rings, she switched the language in her head to Mandarin.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” asked Mei Xing upon taking the call.
“We need your help.”
“Very straightforward of you, Ms. Nikaido. I’m surprised. What can I do for you?”
“I need you to send a rescue team to the Altai Mountains. The Russians hijacked my private jet and crashed it there. Ageha and Arashi were onboard.”
A long silence followed. Kaika felt tempted to break it by offering incentives for Mei Xing’s assistance, but the Dragonhead beat her to the punch.
“Why!?” Kaika felt surprised at her own outburst.
“You should already know the answer. You’re asking me because the Chinese government has already declined your request, correct? If the society moves according to your request, we risk earning the ire of the government even more. We’re already in hot water because they discovered our rare metal trades with the U.S.. They will directly interfere with the triads if we keep going against their wishes, which is clearly not in our best interest. Seeking our assistance is not beneficial for your faction either. If I help you, the Chinese government will treat the relationship between our organizations as a real alliance. You will lose their trust.”
“Who cares about that!? Aren’t you Ageha’s friend!?”
Kaika’s lips twisted into a frightening scowl, but the other party had no idea due to the lack of a video feed. She lowered her normally melodious voice, coating every word with ice as they left her lips. “I’ll cancel all trade contracts with your organization if you don’t comply to my request.”
“That’s no longer a request but a threat, and quite an inelegant one, especially for you. Go ahead, cancel the contracts. I’ll just divert your metal supply to General Walker. The demand for the alloy plate manufacturing you brokered for us has not waned, I assure you. Even if that doesn’t make up for the losses incurred by dissolving our partnership, it’s still better than being attacked by the Chinese government. You live in Japan, so it may seem like a small problem to you, but the situation is very different for us who call this land our home.”
The grating noise of her gnashing teeth echoed within her sizzling head, fueling her anger even more, but she could not refute Mei Xing’s words. She had already known Mei Xing’s hands were tied in this situation. Even so, she had reached out for his help, hoping his lingering affection for Ageha would win over cold utilitarianism. It did not.
After taking a deep breath, Kaika straightened her posture and softened her tone. “Apologies for my unseemly behavior. Please forget what I said. NGC greatly values our relationship with the Soaring Serpent Society. I look forward to our enduring and growing partnership.”
“I’m glad we can come to an understanding.”
Before Kaika could hang up, Mei Xing’s voice, softer and tinged with melancholy, interrupted her.
“Let me say one last thing. If Ageha had told me about Saionji’s actions from the start… if he remained my friend even now, I would not think twice about sending help, no matter the circumstances. Tell Saionji that. Farewell.”
Without bothering to end the call, Kaika lowered her mobile, her arm dangling loosely from her shoulder. Mei Xing’s last words drummed on her ears endlessly.
Is this your revenge, young dragon?
“Mei, are you sure about this?” asked Setsu. “Ageha’s life is in danger.”
Mao rolled her wheelchair closer to him. “Yeah, Boss. Isn’t this a little too much?”
He pocketed his mobile, still warm from contact with his ear. “You two talk as if I’m the bad guy here.”
“You sure sounded like it.”
Faced with his subordinate’s characteristic sharp tongue, Mei Xing revealed a bitter smile. “You heard the conversation. My hands are tied.”
Setsu placed a hand on his shoulder, prompting him to face her. “Would you say the same thing if it were me and Mao on that plane?”
“Of course not. I said so at the end of the call. If Ageha remained my friend, then I-”
“Is friendship so fragile as to be broken by one lie? You’ve told me about Ageha and Kaika’s relationship. Even though they’ve had many disagreements, some of which can be considered betrayals, they’re still together. Judging from how panicked she sounded on the call, their bond is stronger than ever.”
“Boss, I know I’m not good with words, but please listen… Please remember what happened between you and your father. That bitch Saionji stole more than your father’s life. She stole your chance at patching things up.”
Mei Xing tugged his eyebrows together. “That’s exactly why I won’t help Ageha. He protected Saionji. He chose her over our friendship. He chose to not believe in me.”
“That’s not what I mean. Urgh, this is so hard…”
“Are you telling me to forgive Ageha?”
“No, that’s not it.” Mao sent Setsu a pleading look.
Setsu acknowledged the wordless request with a subtle nod. “No. She’s telling you to give yourself a chance to forgive him in the future. If Ageha dies because you won’t lend a hand, you will lose any chance of future reconciliation, just like how you did with your father.”
“I don’t want you to have any more regrets, Boss.”
Mei Xing’s eyes widened for a moment before he regained his grim expression. “I understand what you two are trying to say, but this isn’t something I can decide based on personal feelings alone. I have to think about the organization.”
“Excuses.” Mao sharpened her almond-shaped eyes, like a cat eyeing its prey. “Didn’t you say earlier you wouldn’t care about the circumstances if Ageha was still your friend?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Even putting aside your strained relationship,” said Setsu, “don’t you think you should help Ageha just because of all he has done for us? He saved our lives, including Mao’s and your daughter’s, even if he didn’t need to. He’s a kind man and deserves a second chance.”
Mei Xing understood more than anyone just how deep Ageha’s kindness was. Although the young man did not know how to receive kindness from others, he unconsciously reached out to people with undeniable generosity.
The true measure of kindness was not the inability to do wrong. Rather, it was the opposite. It was the commitment to show compassion despite having the ability and incentive to not do so with no real consequences. Ageha, a being far-removed from what was normally considered human, a practically invulnerable killing machine, did not have to submit to any human morals or laws.
Even so, he chose to feel. He chose to love. He chose to err. He chose to regret. Ageha admitting to hiding the truth about Zhang Wei Long’s death was the ultimate proof of his kindness, of his unquestionable humanity. In Mei Xing’s eyes, no matter how little flesh Ageha had left, he was undoubtedly human, deserving of forgiveness.
However, so was Mei Xing. He harbored the desire to forgive his friend, who had suffered enough for more than a few lifetimes, but at the same time, he could not let go of the indignation caused by Ageha’s betrayal. Moreover, he also had his pride as the dragonhead and as a man. His words could not and should not be taken back so easily.
Mei Xing stood up and loosened his tense facial muscles, revealing his exhaustion. “Let me think about this some more.” He practically hobbled out of the lounge, feeling the warm yet expectant stares of the women he loved on his back.
More than the freezing cold, the white nothingness terrified Arashi. Immense weight pressed on her entire body as she tried to suppress the creeping fear of death and grasp the current situation. Although she had not lost consciousness after tackling Ageha into the waterfall of snow and debris, the long struggle to stay afloat had forced them apart, leaving her disoriented and alone underneath a thick layer of snow.
Very few people survive being trapped in an avalanche. Even if victims possessed the knowledge to survive the first few minutes, they lacked the strength to dig their way out of the heavy snow. A few lucky people could stick their hand through the surface in a desperate attempt to flag rescuers, but Arashi knew she was on her own.
Fortunately, she had the knowledge and inhuman strength to overcome the dire situation. The arduous survival training her father had forced onto her bore fruit in the most unlikely of circumstances. Even though she was worried about Ageha, she forcefully pushed away that emotion and focused on saving herself. No one else could save him if she died here.
She spat out with force, once, twice, thrice. After gathering more saliva in her mouth, she repeated this action, as if sullying the pure white snow covering her face out of spite. Although it seemed like a crude attempt at venting frustration, the rather strange action achieved two things.
First, the warm saliva melted the snow close to her mouth and nose, giving her an air pocket that prolonged her survival. Moving her limbs meaninglessly would only result in wasting stamina, a critical resource in survival situations. Achieving the optimal result with minimum effort was ideal.
Second, the liquid told her which direction to dig. Much like falling into deep water, getting trapped underneath a thick layer of snow made it difficult to reorient oneself. However, there were no bubbles to follow to the surface within her icy cage. Instead of buoyancy, Arashi relied on gravity to find her path.
After shaking her head a few times to loosen the melting snow, the air pocket grew large enough to free her cheeks and eyes. She spat out one more time, observing which way her saliva went. The spit flew slightly to the left of her forehead, indicating she was upside down.
With her bearings set, she dug her way out using her alloy limbs, performing a swimming motion like a surfacing diver. She let her left arm rest because it was not strong enough to assist in her escape. Her fingers broke through the surface faster than she thought. Thanks to her desperate struggle to stay afloat after being engulfed by the waning avalanche, she only had to dig through about three feet of snow.
Freed from her petrifying prison, Arashi immediately focused on finding Ageha. That said, it was almost impossible to pinpoint where he was buried. Unlike her who swam in the snowy river to keep herself afloat, the immobile Ageha could only sink like a rock. That meant he was much deeper than Arashi was, living on a very limited amount of oxygen.
Panic began setting in, narrowing her vision. Sweat beaded on her forehead despite the brutally frigid air. Arashi’s training did not include creating miracles, and that was what she needed to find Ageha in the blindingly white expanse before her.
I have to calm down!
Taking a deep breath, Arashi consciously lowered her heart rate. She relaxed her tense shoulders and cleared her mind.
I need something…
The image of Ageha facing-off against a force of nature, his body clad in a white misty aura, formed in her head.
Arashi put her bionic eye to work, scanning her immediate surroundings. When they were swallowed up by the avalanche, she tried to hold onto Ageha for as long as she could, so he should not be far from her location. After a minute of searching, she noticed a small indentation on the smooth slope of freshly layered snow.
There he is!
She dashed to the location and confirmed her hunch. The snow on the surface sank about a foot or so. Ageha’s body was still exuding residual heat from his overload mode, melting the snow around his body. The space created had caused the snow above to sink, creating the small depression before her.
She stabbed both hands into the snow and frantically shovelled away, ignoring the clenching pain in her human fingers. There was no time to waste. Even if it cost her hand, she would not let him die.
A fountain of snow formed behind her as she rapidly made her way deeper. Ice crusted on her face and ears, turning them raw red. Her lungs ached from breathing in dry, cold air, but she trudged on, imagining how much more suffering Ageha felt while trying to save her.
Finally, a small hole opened up, revealing a brown winter coat, still warm and wet. Arashi breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the air pocket created by melting snow, which saved Ageha from suffocation.
He did not respond.
Concluding he was unconscious, Arashi continued digging around him until most of his body was free. The momentum from pulling him out of the hole caused her to fall on her butt, shoulders heaving. After confirming his survival, the stinging pain in her left hand and face assaulted her like a thousand needles. Gritting her teeth, she removed Ageha’s wet clothes and replaced them with her own coat and cardigan, leaving only a sweater, tight-fitting pants, and her underwear for herself.
After attaching his knife belt on her waist, she bundled all his wet clothes into a ball, tying the coat sleeves into a strap. The wet clothes were heavy and cold, but she opted to bring them along just in case they had to stay in the mountains for a while.
With Ageha’s clothes strapped to her back, she lifted him up and tried slinging his arm over her neck. This took some effort because depowered ARMS were generally reduced to pillars of metal. By taking advantage of the more flexible joints, she managed to get him into position.
Ageha’s teeth chattered like an evil clown in a haunted house, his lips turning darker by the moment. Arashi could not tell if the redness on his face and neck were caused by burns or hypothermia. The large blisters on his neck and chin suggested the former, but considering the long period he was trapped in ice, the more dangerous latter possibility could not be ignored. Either way, she needed to find shelter quickly and treat him. Luckily, the sun was still high up, and the wind was calm, but nature was a cruel mistress, a fact she dared not test a second time that day.
Considering the magnitude of the avalanche earlier, it was unlikely that another would happen on the same slope. Most of the snowpack up the mountain had already fallen. However, piling up snow or digging downward to make a shelter would take too long without a shovel. Arashi decided to gamble and check a different area for a snowdrift first.
They made their way across the slope until they reached an area undisturbed by the landslide, not a far trek considering they had been heading that direction while fleeing a short while ago. Due to their height difference, Ageha’s boots paved two lines on the snow as she dragged him along. Even though her shoulder and legs supported much of his abnormal weight, her abdomen and back muscles still threatened to cramp from fatigue.
Eventually, she spotted a snowdrift with firm snow. After resting Ageha’s back against a nearby rock, she set off to work, digging a hole on the side of the tall, wind-carved snowbank. Even without a shovel, the speed and power of her cybernetic arm made short work of the task, partly because she did not need to dig too deeply yet. Creating a shelter from the wind and keeping them warm was enough for now.
She stuffed Ageha into the tiny cave and set off to find kindling for a small fire. Small shrubs dotted the area, as well as some coniferous trees. Using his knives, she gathered a bunch of dried leaves, bark, and branches and then returned to the shelter to build a fire plough.
She used a knife to split a thick branch in three, creating a flat board. She then carved a groove in the middle of the plank to guide her spindle, a thin straight branch used to create friction. A tinder nest made of leaves and bark rested at the far end of the fire plough. With her alloy hand, she briskly rubbed the spindle along the groove, rapidly creating sparks that fell right into the tinder. Her arm’s inhuman speed allowed her to ignite the wispy nest in less than a minute, a sharp contrast to her subsequent gentle blowing to fan the flames.
Once the small fire grew large enough to warm up the small ice cave, she laid out Ageha’s wet clothes beside it to dry. Then she stripped Ageha once again, but this time, she followed suit by removing her sweater. She pulled him closer to the flame and embraced his neck, tucking his frigid face into her bosom, before wrapping their dry clothes around them, creating an assassin en papillote of sorts. With their limited resources, direct body heat was the best treatment for hypothermia.
When Ageha’s shivering subsided, Arashi wiggled out of their cyborg burrito and took off the waterproof lightweight alloy lens cover on her rifle. She packed a little ice on it and used her alloy hand to place it onto the fire. The highly conductive alloy quickly melted the ice, producing half a cup of water, which she promptly downed to replenish her fluids. She repeated this several times until her throat no longer felt like the tundra. As selfish as it may seem, she had not forgotten about Ageha. Pouring liquid into an unconscious person’s mouth would only cause him to drown because the liquid would go down his windpipe. She had no choice but to wait for him to wake up.
Arashi checked her own condition. The wound on her head had already stopped bleeding, and her body suffered no serious injuries. She embraced Ageha’s neck, checking his temperature. It had normalized somewhat, but his extensive cybernetic implants still stole a significant amount of his body heat. Even though he had fewer limbs to heat up, he also had less blood to warm the remaining human parts, resulting in a net loss.
In order for him to recover, Arashi needed to raise and maintain the internal temperature of their shelter. The small fire was already dwindling, so she decided to go back out into the cold and gather materials. After donning her sweater, she searched the surrounding area for leaves she could use as bedding to insulate their bodies from the icy ground. Taking advantage of her cybernetic legs, she jumped up the nearby pine trees and tore off their boughs. Before returning, she picked up more branches and twigs for the fire.
She laid the boughs out inside the shelter and rolled Ageha onto the leaves. The flame crackled and grew larger as she tossed more fuel in. Next on her agenda was poking holes through the roof of their shelter with a long branch to allow the flame’s emissions to leak out, preventing carbon dioxide poisoning. Then she marked the shelter’s roof with rocks and branches to avoid accidentally stepping on it, causing its collapse. Finally, she worked on the inside of the shelter, making it slightly larger so she had enough space to move around. Her last renovation involved packing more snow on the ground, raising the shelter’s inner floor level above the arch-shaped door. This was done to trap hot air, which naturally rose upward, inside.
A small grin appeared on her face upon finishing her project. The freezing weather urged her to snuggle with Ageha to keep warm, but a pang of thirst stole priority. As she moved to melt another small cup of water, Ageha’s eyes fluttered open.
“…I can’t move.” He tried to raise his body, but only his neck followed his will.
“You ran out of batteries. How do you feel?”
“Like I was hit by an avalanche.”
Arashi relaxed and smiled, understanding that the untimely joke was meant to show he was alright. “Me too.”
“What happened after I lost power?”
Arashi gave a concise account of what happened, omitting the embarrassing part where she embraced him in the nude to save his life. She made him drink several capfuls of water as she recounted the events up until the present.
“Sorry for the trouble. It was my fault for forgetting that the sound of a gunshot could cause an avalanche.”
“That’s a myth.”
“Sound generally can’t cause an avalanche. If I had to guess… the bullet probably hit the snowpack near the peak… breaking off an already weak ice slab.”
“I see. Either way, it was my fault. I should’ve been more careful when I approached you.”
“No, it was my fault… for acting crazy like that.”
“You hit your head and got confused. Can’t blame you for that. I deserve the blame.”
“Stop. Stop saying that. You know… it’s not your fault.” Arashi hid her face behind her knees, sniffing to stop herself from crying. “I understand now… that you did all of it, everything, for me… for this stupid, useless girl.”
“…Then you know why I said those things right? I’m not gonna feel better if you start blaming yourself.”
The string of tension keeping her together finally snapped, unleashing her raw emotions. “But you… you faced an avalanche to save me, terribly hurting yourself in the process..!”
“I’m fine, and I didn’t succeed by myself. You saved me in the end. You even built us a shelter while I was sprawled on the ground like a dirty rag. That makes us even.”
Arashi violently shook her head, tears flying off her eyes. “How’s that even!? I treated you so badly… Said so many mean things… Even though I love you so much…”
“I’m so stupid!!!”
He cocked his head to the side, one of the few actions he could actually do right now. “What’s new?”
“That hurts you know!” Arashi whacked his shoulder.
“Have you ever heard of the term ‘loveable idiot?’”
“Are you trying to make me cry?”
“But you’re already crying. See what I mean?” He pointed at her face with her eyes. “Loveable idiot.”
Arashi burst into a full blown wail, rubbing her flooding eyes with both hands alternately.
“Okay, okay, calm down. I’m sorry. I was just trying to make a point. Stop crying.”
“…What point?” She sniveled as she spoke, her face damp and salty.
“Kai, Saya, and I all know you’re an idiot. A hopeless one at that. You do the most ridiculous things, cause the most annoying problems, and act like the avatar of unpredictability.”
“I’m still waiting for the twist…” Arashi frowned like a little child, trying to suppress her tears.
“Let me finish. You’re a big idiot, that’s undeniable. But that’s what makes you different from the rest of us. You make us smile when you smile because we know it’s real. Your purity, your straightforwardness, is why we all, um, care about you.”
Ageha looked away from her as best as he could with his limited maneuverability. Even so, Arashi noticed the slight reddening of his skin.
“Your ears are red.” Even though her eyebrows were still drawn together, a small smile formed on her face.
“Those are just burns.” Ageha coughed. “Anyway, don’t think for a second that this little teenage rebellion of yours would change how we… how I feel about you. I’m used to it. Remember how we got to know each other?”
Arashi nodded twice. “Duels to the death. They weren’t exactly… the most romantic dates ever.”
“I’m surprised you even know what romance means.”
“I’m not going to be a child forever, Ageha.”
“To me, you’re no longer one.”
Blood rushed to Arashi’s cheeks. She felt as if steam would burst out of her pores despite the frigid temperatures.
Does he mean he sees me as a woman?
Of course he does.
Arashi recalled their date, which climaxed in a deeply sensual exchange at a park bench.
He wouldn’t kiss a child, would he?
But he’s always accused of being a lolicon.
Considering his loyalty to Kai and how much he doted on Mitsuki…
That’s completely possible.
Very likely even.
That means he would kiss a girl of any age.
Then what did he mean by what he said?
Does he not like me anymore because I’m no longer a child!?
Even Arashi herself did not understand how she came to such an illogical conclusion, but being the idiot that she was, she just plodded along.
I have to know for sure!
“Wh-What exactly do you mean..?”
“Y-You know, Saya suggested this, um, thing between the three of us. I know I seemed reluctant at first, considering your age and all…” Ageha pursed his lips for a second and then nervously moistened them with his tongue. “But I just want you to know that I wouldn’t have accepted it if I… if I didn’t love you.”
The most unexpected reply delivered in the most unexpectedly shy manner hit her right when she least expected it. Even though Ageha had kissed her before, this was the first time he ever put his feelings into words.
Like a robot, Arashi mechanically stood up and forced her jaw to expel words. “I. Am. Going. To. Search. For. Food. Bye.”
She scrambled out of the shelter with reckless abandon, as if escaping into the mountains to cool off her boiling skin.