Category Archives: Chapters

Epilogue

Nick pushed open the door and strutted into Valeriya’s office in Moscow. Without paying heed to the owner of the room, who was sitting behind her desk with a tired expression, he made his way to the sofa and flopped onto it.

“I hope you don’t mind?” asked Nick while flashing a smug grin and putting his feet up on the coffee table. “My legs are tired. I had to travel a long way to get here.”

Valeriya’s face did not change in the least. “Not at all. Make yourself comfortable.”

Seeing Valeriya so meek, Nick felt a surge of euphoria. Her behavior could not be more different from the last time they spoke, but that was to be expected. He had eliminated Arashi Tanizaki, one of Valeriya’s targets for revenge. Viktor was the one who dealt the fatal blow, and Noelle had been killed in action, but those matters did not change the fact that he contributed in the joint operation. Losing his representative in the mission also showed that he sacrificed something for victory. It was only natural that Valeriya had asked to meet and thank him personally.

The Russian leaned forward on her chair, lifting her blond top bun from the leather headrest. “I want to express my gratitude to you for joining the operation against Ageha and Arashi.”

“Don’t mention it. I was just fulfilling my duty. We’re allies, aren’t we?”

With the U.S. faction in turmoil, Nick had decided to get back on Valeriya’s good side, at least for now. By using this success to his advantage, he planned to be considered as her equal, or at least a cut above her other subordinates.

“Allies. An interesting way to put it.” Valeriya took a cigarette from a sleek metal case and lit it with a lighter.

Nick watched her every move from the corner of his eye, trying to see how he could push the conversation in his direction. The Russian had lost her previous vibrance. Her red shirt and suit were wrinkled and disheveled. The hair balled up on her head looked as messy as a bird’s nest, and most of all, her eyes had lost their vigor. She had gained a new cybernetic arm, but everything else had degraded drastically.

Losing a child, huh…

Guess even rotten assholes can be miserable.

“You know, Nick, I was wrong about you. I thought you were a small fry, a tool to be used.”

Oh, an apology?

Nick almost licked his lips in anticipation. Nothing would soothe his ego more than an apology from the arrogant bitch in front of him.

“To be honest, I didn’t think you had what it took to achieve anything, but I was clearly mistaken.”

“Please. No need for such words. It’s all water under the bridge.”

“No, I need to set things right.” Valeriya extended her right hand, still holding a cigarette, and pointed to a large container on the other side of the room. “A gift. For your efforts.”

“Can’t say I expected this. I never figured you to be the type.”

“Credit where credit is due.” Valeriya smiled, albeit lacking energy.

“What is it?”

“Go see for yourself.”

Nick examined the box from the sofa. It was about his height and twice as wide as his shoulders. The material appeared to be metal or plastic, maybe a mixture of both. Further delaying would be rude to his host, so he stood up and walked over to the box. A handle protruded near the corner of the front side. Taking it in his hand, he opened the door with surprising ease.

In it was a female figure with red hair.

Noelle.

No, it was the skin from her head and neck, wrapped snugly on the corresponding parts of a gynoid with shiny metallic limbs.

Nick almost fell backward in shock. “W-What the hell is this!?”

“Oh?” Valeriya raised an eyebrow. “You don’t recognize your own subordinate? Say hi.”

The gynoid moved its left hand and waved. Nick scrambled away from it in fear, almost crashing into the coffee table as he did so. Valeriya laughed boisterously from her chair, as if she savored his every reaction.

“What is that thing!!?”

“Oh, it’s just one of Gen’s old toys. A failed project. AI isn’t advanced enough to control combat robots yet, but I digress. I just thought it’d be funny to spook you with it.”

Nick regained a semblance of calm after seeing Valeriya’s mischievous expression. “What about Noelle? What happened to her? I heard she was killed by Arashi.”

“That’s a long story, but what the heck, I’ve got some time on my hands. You’re half right. She was shot by Arashi during the operation, but it wasn’t fatal. The rifle bullet hit her armored vest, so she got off with just a broken collarbone. She’s lucky Arashi was using a normal rifle back then.”

Nick tore his eyes away from the morbid doll and focused on Valeriya. “Then why is her face… her skin on this thing?”

“Don’t be so impatient. I can’t spoil the ending just like that, can I? Back to my story. Arashi actually shot Viktor too, but only hit his rifle. The shrapnel cut his head, but that’s about it. The strange thing was, he was also shot in the shoulder at the same time! What a mystery, right? Who would do that?”

Nick felt a cold sweat forming on his back. His legs urged him to run away, but he resisted. There was nowhere for him to run to in Valeriya’s building.

“So Viktor’s team took out the bullet and did some tests. What a surprise, it came from your ginger’s suppressed rifle. How mysterious. So they checked the bodies of those killed in combat, just to be sure. Get this, some of them died from the same rifle! How weird is that?”

She knows.

Nick did not need to hear the climax of the story to realize he was in big trouble. They were alone in the room, but Valeriya’s men were probably blocking the exit.

What do I do!?

Sweat rolled down his forehead as he racked his brain for a solution.

As if not noticing, Valeriya continued speaking in a nonchalant, almost jovial tone. “They tortured your subordinate for information and learned a lot of interesting tidbits. Apparently, you ordered her to shoot Viktor. Well, that part wasn’t very interesting. I mean why else would she have shot him?”

Should I take her hostage?

Impossible.

Valeriya was an expert martial artist and killer. Nick did not stand a chance if they fought fairly.

She blew out a puff of smoke and stared at Nick’s eyes. “The shocker was what that redhead did a while back.” Her left hand pressed onto her ample breasts, wrinkling her deep red dress shirt. “She was the one who shot me right here. On your orders. She was the one who made me lose to Ageha.” Valeriya closed her eyes for a moment before glaring daggers at him. “She was the one who stopped me from saving Mitsuki.”

I’m going to die here.

That was inevitable. Valeriya would not let him leave alive no matter what. He had only one choice. He would keep holding onto his pride until the very end.

“And all of that, was ordered by you, Nicolas Estrella. I was so wrong about you. Had I known you were this pestilent, I would’ve snapped your neck long ago.” She shook her head with a disappointed expression.

But I’m taking you with me!!!

Nick reached for the heel of his left shoe and pressed a button. The heel detached from the sole, revealing a tiny gun that looked no different from a child’s toy, but his state-of-the-art plastic pistol was no doubt real and perfectly lethal. It had safely passed through the weapon inspection and metal detectors in the building, justifying its exorbitant price. The pistol only had four ceramic rounds, but that was enough.

Surprise flitted across Valeriya’s face as she hurriedly tried to stand up, but Nick was faster. He shot her in the chest three times. She fell back into her chair from the impact. Not delaying for a second, Nick used the last of his ammo to shoot her in the forehead.

The bullet easily found its mark.

Valeriya’s head snapped backward from the impact, her messy bun untangling. The emancipated long golden locks fanned out and fell limp, curtaining her face as her head lifelessly tipped forward.

Silence returned to the room. Nick, robbed of energy upon realizing his end was near, released the tiny pistol, which fell to the floor with a clack.

All that was left was to wait for the Russian mobsters to burst into the room and shoot him to death. He gazed at Valeriya’s corpse and consoled himself by thinking he had brought down a giant before ending his ambitious run. Her lit cigarette still rested between the middle and index fingers of her right hand. Wispy smoke tendrils gently rose from the cinders before vanishing, as if they carried her soul to the afterlife.

Valeriya raised her head and continued her story. “So now that I’ve finally seen your true worth, I figure I should treat you with the respect you deserve.”

……

…..?

“Huh..? What…”

“Like I said, credit where credit is due.” She combed up her loose locks with her free hand, unveiling her face and bosom.

Nick stared at her, utterly dumbfounded. Her chest had three holes in it, and her forehead had a tear near the middle. A tiny stream of blood trickled from it.

“H-How…” His entire body trembled like a twig in a typhoon.

“Oh you meant this?” Valeriya pointed at her forehead. “I had my skull replaced, along with the rest of my body. I had them reattach my skin and hair after some modifications to stop decomposition.” Her finger swung over to the gynoid. “Just like Gen’s toy over there. But that’s not important. What is important, is I’ve decided to treat you the way you deserve to be treated. I decided to deal with you myself.

She stood.

 

***

 

Valeriya closed her eyes as she tried to suppress her throbbing headache.

Did I get a mild concussion from that?

Meh, who cares.

Warm water rolled down her bared voluptuousness as she scrubbed away what remained of the ambitious Filipino from her fair skin. The bathroom floor dyed pink as blood mixed with soap suds. The damage on her forehead and chest still remained. She had removed the bullets from her breasts herself, but a visit to the lab was required to fix the artificial skin and tissue.

After drying herself with a towel, she donned a red bathrobe and left her spacious dressing room. A quick check of her mobile revealed that Viktor had almost fully recovered from his injuries and wanted to return to duty. She had considered whether to punish him for conducting an operation without her permission, but the results lined up with her final objective, so she decided to be lenient. It did not matter to her in the least who delivered the final blow.

She muttered the words, “Get back to work,” as she typed the same message on her terminal, followed by a few emojis to annoy the old man.

Although still far from peak condition, Valeriya had been feeling better recently. After Mitsuki’s death, she had repeatedly questioned herself about what to do from then on, only to arrive at the same conclusion each time. Life had lost meaning to her, and that brutal truth had shown itself in all her actions. Viktor had clearly been worried about her mental condition, which was why she could forgive his unpermitted attack against Ageha and Arashi. Even she had believed her self-destruction was inevitable, that was, until she found it.

Valeriya opened the top bedside drawer and reached for a folded piece of paper inside. It was a letter from her daughters, handwritten on scented paper. She carefully unfolded it as if it were centuries old papyrus. Her fingers, slightly cut up from her Q and A session with Nick, ran across the rather clumsy handwriting.

The letter had been hidden inside the polar bear plushie gifted by Ageha. Mitsuki had opened up the toy and slipped the letter into the white stuffing before sewing it shut. The piece of paper slept there undisturbed until Valeriya had torn apart the languid polar bear in one of her numerous hysterical fits. She could only call it good fortune that the letter had come out of it unscathed.

Her eyes rested on each word one by one, as if savoring them. She had read the letter countless times by now, but it had never failed to breathe life into her heart and put a smile on her face.

In it lay the answer she had been seeking.

Mitsuki’s written words and their final farewell on that ethereal beach had coalesced into a jewel within Valeriya’s heart. That jewel had become her core, pushing her towards the future she envisioned.

Was that future foolish and naive? Maybe.

But she had decided to seek it.

And Arashi’s death had brought her one step closer.

A few minutes later, she finally reached the postscript. Reading the letter had become a daily habit for her, true, but that was not why she had brought it out this time. She reread the final gift her daughters had given her.

“P.S. Kaika killed her sister~”

It was a rather vague sentence and could be interpreted in a number of ways. The word sister could refer to Saya or Arashi, and killing could mean stealing their humanity or future. Although Kaika actually had a sister named Kureha, Valeriya had never heard Mitsuki or Sakuya mention her. Because of these reasons, She had not given the postscript much thought.

Until today.

Viktor had personally disposed of Noelle and Arashi, a laudable feat, but his victory spoils did not end there. Noelle’s interrogation had also yielded some unexpected information.

Arashi had told Noelle that Kaika killed her real sister, a story that spilled from the redhead’s lips during torture. That by itself meant very little because it could be the enemy camp’s propaganda or a desperate attempt to survive by faking information, but Valeriya’s conversation with Nick had corroborated the story.

There was no longer room for doubt.

Kaika Nikaido had killed Kureha Nikaido.

Ageha Shikimi had deeply cared for Kureha Nikaido, perhaps he still did.

The devil’s heart was finally in her hands.

She still needed to obtain proof, but that was no challenge. Everything left a trace. She just needed to sniff it out and hunt it down. A wolf-like grin blossomed on her face as she lovingly held the letter to her bosom.

“Thank you, my cute daughters.”

 

***

 

Saya approached Kaika’s desk with a mobile terminal in hand. Her mistress rested her chin on her entwined fingers with both elbows on the table.

“So, how are things going?”

It was a casual start to a formal report, but that had always been her mistress’s style. Despite having learned numerous forms of formal etiquette in the modern world, Kaika had always maintained her haughty frankness, a demeanor that sharply contrasted with her true self. That had not changed even after she had achieved her grand objective.

The world had changed.

“Butler has lost most of his supporters because of the incest and child abuse scandal. A coalition crossing both political parties forced him out of office. He and Walker have gone underground.”

“Funny how two parties that are always at each other’s throats can suddenly team up like that.”

“The heaviest opposition actually came from the masses after the news spread. Incest and child abuse are very sensitive topics in that country. No American soldier would fight for a leader accused of those. I believe that is why you chose this strategy, Ojousama.”

“You believe correctly. What about the presidential seat?”

“After rallying opposition against Butler, the former Vice President Selena Hill has risen to the role of leader. She will be inaugurated as president in the next few weeks. That should also signal the end of martial law.”

Kaika nodded in approval. “What about the other side?”

“As promised, Mei Xing’s organization launched a covert attack on a U.S. base in the United Republic of Korea last night.”

“He actually did it, huh? His guilt towards what happened in the Altai mountains worked in our favor.”

Saya failed to hide a grimace. Even without hearing the girl’s name, the wounds from that time still throbbed painfully each time her mind wandered near those memories. A deep breath allowed her to regain focus and continue her report.

“China has yet to claim responsibility for it, but according to my sources, it is only a matter of time. The U.S would demand major compensation in the form of policy changes and trade deals if China admits rogue elements from their country are responsible for the attack. Such a move would also show weakness in handling internal affairs. Since the Chinese and Russians are already planning to attack the U.S. during its political upheaval anyway, it would be better for them to just go ahead and admit they did it.

“It’s about time China made a move. Those politicians are such cowards. Everyone wanted the bomb to go off, but no one dared to light the fuse. Can’t believe I had to dirty my hands with such trifles.”

Kaika’s success had not come easy. Ageha and Saya, even while grieving for Arashi, had gritted their teeth and devoted everything to work. Ageha had personally negotiated with Mei Xing to gain their assistance, on top of getting rid of hindrances through overwhelming violence. Saya had focused on the political aspect and assisted Kaika in managing their various ventures. They had not allowed their suffering to deter them from achieving their goal, just like Arashi had done in the mountains.

Among the three of them, Kaika had been acting most like herself. She required no comforting and spent her time efficiently. That facade had not fooled Saya, but she had done nothing about it. Something had happened to Kaika’s heart that day, but she was too busy with her own emotional turmoil to reach out to her.

Saya barely slept at all since the incident. Each time she did, she dreamt of her times with Arashi. She dreamt of the happiness she had stolen from her due to her petty jealousy. She dreamt of how her carelessness had led to Arashi’s death.

Her waking moments were not much different.

Why didn’t I close the helicopter door myself?

Why didn’t I arrive five minutes earlier?

Why wasn’t I together with them on that plane?

There was no end to her scathing reflections. Even as she gave her report, her mind was battered by torrents of regret and shame.

“Hey, Saya.”

Her mistress’s voice gave her a respite from self-scorn, or so she thought.

“Have you found him?”

Saya clenched her teeth while doing her best to remain unfazed. “No, not yet.”

“That selfish jerk. What the hell is he doing? We’re already shorthanded as it is.”

After ensuring the success of Kaika’s grand plan, Ageha had left the mansion, parting with a short “I’ll be back soon.” He had yet to return.

“He is probably… grieving.”

“…I know that much.”

“He said he will come back.”

“Do you believe him?”

“…Yes.”

“Then I’ll wait a bit more.”

“Is this about Valeriya?”

Kaika’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but her voice underwent a frigid drop in tone. “What else?”

As expected, the tiny tyrant was just as, if not even more damaged than her two remaining pillars.

“Ageha does not desire revenge.”

“Revenge?” Kaika scoffed so hard beads of spit flew from her mouth. “Killing Ria isn’t about revenge. It’s about hate. I hate her. I hate her for killing Arashi, sure, but that’s not why I’m going to purge her from the world. Do you seek revenge when you crush a cockroach under your heel? No. You just kill it because you hate it. The reason you hate it doesn’t matter. You probably don’t even know or care why you want to kill it. You just do it because it’s there even though you don’t want it to be.” She shook her head. “I don’t need relief or justice. I just want her gone.”

“He does not want to be a part of that.”

“Because it isn’t fair? Who the fuck cares!?” Kaika slammed her shaking fist on the table.

“I think he just does not want to lose anyone else. He killed Mitsuki, and Valeriya killed Arashi. He wants everything to end with that.”

“Do you think that Russian wolf will just agree to that? She’s coming for us. So I’ll kill her first. What about you? What do you think I should do?”

“…I trust in your judgment and follow your will, as always.”

Hearing those words, the expression on Kaika’s face softened a little. “Sorry… for shouting.”

“Such words are unnecessary, Ojousama. I will always be your ally.”

Saya did not know whether her decision to stay with Kaika and fully support her was the right one. Was she helping her move forward? Or was she leading her astray? Her own feelings about the matter were still in disarray.

Even so, the butler would never abandon her mistress.

 

***

 

Kaika slumped in her chair after Saya left the office. While rubbing her temples with her fingers, she tried to calm her rough breathing.

Calm down.

I can’t let anyone see me like this.

Kaika hated a lot of things. She hated boredom. She hated rap “music.” She hated stagnation. She hated milk soda. She hated losing. She hated her father. She was quite accustomed to it.

But nothing could have prepared her for what she felt right now.

Kaika hated nothing more than Valeriya Varrenikov. In fact, hating that woman was all she could think about. It had been life changing. It had felt like tasting real white truffle after settling with truffle oil all your life.

Everything else had become mere distractions to prevent the muddy, jet black emotion from devouring her entirety. The moment she stopped her hands, she began sinking into a swirling sludge of loathing. That was why she kept moving, trying frantically to keep herself afloat.

Despite her predicament, she could not show weakness to anyone. She had to act the swan on the surface, not because she wanted to avoid worrying them or some form of petty pride.

She needed to look collected so people would follow her, no matter what hell she led them to. No sane person would heed the words of a lunatic. Therefore, she could not be seen as one.

Whether she truly was insane or not was of little consequence.

A call alert from her phone saved her from slipping into the darkness again.

She took a deep breath before accepting the call. “Congratulations, Selena! I hear your inauguration is coming soon.”

“Stop it with the bullshit. I did as you told me. I tricked that Mashiro kid. Butler is gone. I’ve done my part, so do as you promised.”

“So impatient.” Kaika clicked her tongue mockingly. “That’s why you get in such deep trouble. If you had more self-restraint, you would’ve avoided having an affair, much less actually falling in love.”

“Say what you want. I want to speak to Diego, now.”

“Um, about that. I can’t.”

“Stop playing coy. Just connect me to where you’re keeping him, like you did before.”

“I’d love to, but it’s impossible because I’m no god. You see, your beloved Diego is already dead.”

“…I have no time for jokes.”

“In fact, he’s been dead for a week now. Actually, I’m glad you didn’t ask to speak with him until now. Even you can’t back out of the presidency at this point.”

“Nikaido. You.”

Kaika recognized the emotion emanating from Selena’s voice. It was the same as the tar silently bubbling in her chest recently.

“I killed him myself. I took a gun and shot him in the face a couple times. I was having an especially bad day, and he kept asking me not to hurt you, again and again and again. So I just snapped. You get it, right? It happens sometimes.”

Although she exaggerated a bit, the story was mostly true.

Selena’s voice shook as she forced air out of her throat. “Why? Why did you do that? If you kept him alive, I would’ve done anything you wanted…”

“I don’t need him alive for that.”

“YOU CRAZ-”

Kaika hung up.

Selena was right. If Kaika had kept Diego alive, she would have had a decent amount of control over America, but that was too temporary. As long as Selena abused her power under Kaika’s orders, someone else was bound to usurp her, removing all influence Kaika had in the States.

Staying in power was extremely difficult, as proven by Butler’s fall. That was why dictators resorted to any means necessary to keep their position for as long as possible. A certain desperation was required to be a tyrant, and that was something Selena lacked.

She was doing it for her lover, but if that love eventually wavered, she would betray Kaika at the drop of a hat. Love could not be trusted.

Hatred, however, was eternal. It could cool over time or hide itself from view, but it never ended. Kaika believed that with certainty. After all, she felt it intensely even now, and it showed no sign of waning. Selena would definitely stop at nothing to kill her.

Why would being on top of the hit list of one of the most powerful figures in the world be advantageous?

Simple.

Sustained chaos.

If America went to war against China and Russia, the first country that would get crushed was Japan. It was allied to America but in close proximity to both enemy superpowers. Kaika would be placed in a very disadvantageous position if that happened. Mei Xing and his triads also operated in China, resulting in an unavoidable clash.

So Kaika decided to switch sides.

She had attained enough political clout in Japan to change its direction, and the right path to take was obvious. Japan only needed to betray the United States and ally with China. With a united front in the east, the United Republic of Korea would quickly succumb to the pressure. The European countries, addled by decades of peace and prosperity, were too weak militarily to even factor in the conflict.

Since Selena had no chance to defeat Kaika in her hostile homeground, she would naturally resort to acquiring control of that land. The United States would have no choice but to fight against Japan, and its ally, China, until one side was completely defeated, or Selena was removed from office. That was why Kaika made sure Selena acquired the desperation to stay in her seat.

Or that was the excuse.

Maybe Kaika really had snapped and killed the poor guy.

The world had changed.

And Kaika had too.

Her enemy stood at the peak of a high tower with unbreakable walls around it. What better than an endless mad melee below to hide approaching shadows?

I’m coming, Ria.

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Chapter Fifteen: Miracle

Endless street lights flitted past Mashiro’s car window, rhythmically illuminating her solemn face like blinking christmas lights. Her lips gave way to her umpteenth sigh that night, prompting Makoto to break the heavy silence hanging over them.

“You sure you wanna do this?”

Mashiro turned to her right, where her childhood friend kept sending her looks of concern. “I told you, there’s no other way.”

“But something like this… He’s your father, even if you’re not blood-related.”

“I know that.” Creasing her brow, she fought the temptation to bite her lip. She did not want to worry Makoto any more than she already had. “But this is the path with the least amount of sacrifices.”

“For others, maybe. But you’ll-”

“Enough, Makoto. Please.”

“…You’re right. I already agreed to this. I’m sorry.”

Guilt pricked her heart, but she did not have the emotional leeway to apologize. More pressing matters kept her occupied. To prevent her wavering heart from fluttering further, she thought back to her conversation a few days ago with the other person behind tonight’s scheme.

“You were too careless,” said Kaika.

“Hey, you were the one who suggested going after the VP,” grumbled Mashiro.

“Sure, but you were the one who failed to see through her act. I told you it was the best move to make use of her, but you were the one who insisted on making contact with her yourself. Just so you know, I considered the possibility of her working for Butler. I even had a plan to take advantage of her if that were the case, but you told me she could be trusted. How could you not see through her lies after meeting her so many times?”

“I tried reading her tells and expressions, but it’s practically impossible to get an accurate read on a lifelong politician like her. I did find her readiness to help suspicious, but she openly admitted her ambition to become president, so I thought we could at least rely on her greed. And…”

“And?”

“…I’m sorry. I was careless.”

Kaika sighed. “No use crying over spilled milk. Let’s move on.”

“I appreciate that.”

“But you really did screw up in a grand fashion. And after all that posturing too.”

“You really are a bitch, you know that?”

“Just stating the facts.”

Mashiro clicked her tongue. “Fine, fine. It was all my fault. I ruined all your plans. Happy now?”

“Aww… You don’t have to blame yourself that much. Your ridiculous failure might run deeper than the Mariana Trench and extend wider than the Grand Canyon, but it’s still not enough to ruin all my plans. I still have an ace in the hole. You’re not gonna like it though.”

“Hey, we had a deal.”

“‘Had’ being the operative word. I agreed to follow your naive methods, but we don’t have the luxury to be picky anymore. Fortunately, your failure is also an opportunity.”

“What do you mean?”

“Surrender to your father.”

“…So I’m the bait to lure him out.”

“Why can’t you be this sharp all the time? Flirting with Makoto is distracting you too much.”

“Enough with the jabs. What exactly are you planning?”

“Tell him you’ve seen the error of your ways and that you want to meet with him in person to ascertain his good intentions for the country. If it’s for you, a piece valuable not only personally but politically, he’ll agree. Make sure the meeting place is on neutral ground. I’ll handle the preparations for his welcome.”

“That’s-”

“He has us in check right now, and this is the only move to turn the tables. Anything less leads to defeat. Do you really think someone who can murder people by the hordes, who almost killed Makoto, deserves mercy? Don’t forget his crimes: treason, mass murder, warmongering, the list goes on. Each of those alone gets the death penalty in some of your states. Now think about this. What else is he capable of? What other atrocious things is he already doing behind the scenes? You of all people should know that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Are you really okay with a man like him sitting on top of the world’s largest powder keg?”

“…I’m not.”

“Then you have your answer.”

From there, the two girls exchanged insults like lifelong boxing rivals, with some decent ideas in between. Their bout lasted for hours. They covered all possible angles and avenues of attack, from blackmail to propaganda, before arriving at a final plan. In the end, Mashiro was left no choice but to trod the path of inhumanity as penitence for her failure.

She ended her reminiscence by renewing the oath she swore to herself.

I have to do this with my own hands.

I will bear this sin.

To end everything.

That’s my responsibility as his daughter.

It’s a sacrifice I have to make for the sake of a better world.

That was how she continued to convince herself as the moment of truth drew ever closer. Her scrambled thoughts melted into the streaking lights lining the endless darkness of the highway. Before she knew it, they reached their destination.

“We’re here.” Makoto gently nudged her shoulder. “Ready?”

“…As much as I’ll ever be.”

“You do know there’s a good chance we’re not getting out of this alive, right?”

“Yup.”

“And that even if everything goes right, we still might not achieve our main objective?”

“Yup.”

Makoto locked his fingers in front of him and stretched his arms as if he just woke up. “Let’s go then.”

He got off the vehicle and took Mashiro’s outstretched hand, like a knight guiding a princess. Unlike in fairytales, this princess’s gaze held no frailty. Their battlefield, the ruins of an old industrial mill, stretched out before them, with crumbled brick walls serving as a jotted perimeter. Their enemy, her beloved yet misguided father, awaited them at the far end of the dusty, open field.

The power balance was clearly tilted to their opponent’s side. Butler was surrounded by armored soldiers and uniformed officers, with reinforcements likely lurking in the jet-black vans behind them. In contrast, Mashiro only brought Makoto, without his custom armor, and a driver. The vast difference was expected. They did not come to negotiate as equals but merely to pathetically haggle the terms of their surrender, at least as far as Butler knew.

Wasting no time, the armored soldiers, along with several uniformed officers, crossed the open field and approached them.

A female officer went up to Mashiro. “Apologies for the rudeness, but I need to pat you down, Ma’am.” Upon seeing Mashiro nod, the officer proceeded to check her body for weapons. She performed the check with quickness and precision, eventually finding the hard object inside Mashiro’s jacket.

“That’s just my mobile.”

“Sorry, but we need to confiscate this.” The female officer took the mobile terminal and put it inside a leather bag.

Makoto, who underwent a similar check, sported a frown as he watched his phone join Mashiro’s, not knowing if he would ever get it back.

After the pat down, the officers waved a black rod around their bodies to check for hidden electronic devices. Finding nothing, they put away the detectors and led the two to Butler at the other end of the field. The bag with their phones remained with an officer who stayed behind to watch over their car and driver.

“Been a while,” said Butler as soon as they reached earshot. “You’ve been busy.”

“Not as much as you.” Mashiro let a wry smile slip out. “You really got me with the VP. I’m still miffed about that. Can’t believe I was dancing in the palm of your hand the entire time.”

Makoto remained a few steps behind Mashiro to give the family space to talk.

“Trusting anyone, a politician at that, was your mistake.” Butler stood straight and firm, towering over her like an ancient tree. “You should’ve led the opposition yourself, even if that made it more difficult to gather allies. That said, nothing would’ve changed. Your starting position was simply too disadvantageous compared to mine.”

“Are you trying to console me?”

“Perhaps. You are my daughter.”

“…Thanks. For coming out here too, even if I did include it as a condition of my surrender. I need to see you face to face to make sure I can put my faith in your promises, but you could’ve just as easily declined.”

“Indeed, but your offer was too tempting to pass up.”

The offer, as Butler put it, was Mashiro’s full cooperation in his ongoing and future activities. Having trained and educated her himself, he knew how valuable she was. Moving her from the enemy camp into his own was a significant increase in his human assets.

“I’m glad you still think so highly of me.”

“You know I do, which leads me to my next question. What else do you want in exchange for coming to my side?”

“Spare the people Selena captured. Don’t kill their subordinates either. They were only involved because I recruited them to oppose you.”

“Fine, but I can’t free them. It would set a bad example.”

“I’m okay with that.”

“What else?”

“I want you to stop killing people without just cause.”

“I’ve always killed with just cause.”

Your cause is far from being just. You should abide by the rule of law.”

Butler shook his head. “I can’t do that.”

“Why!? You’re already in power. There’s no need for more murder!”

“On the contrary. Staying in power is harder than gaining it. Rulers rise and fall all the time. I need decisiveness and cruelty to remain in a position to guide this country.”

“That’s not true. There’s always another way. I can help you find it.”

“I’m sorry, but this is non-negotiable.”

Sorrowful creases marred Mashiro’s face. “Is there really no way?”

“None.”

“…Then I can’t help you.”

“You do understand that I can arrest you right here if you don’t cooperate? You won’t be able to do a thing in a prison cell.”

“I know. That’s why I have no other choice but to stop you.”

“Are you perhaps referring to the snipers you placed around this area? My soldiers have already taken care of them.”

Mashiro widened her eyes, her mouth agape. “…What?”

“Did you really think I wouldn’t see through such an obvious trap? I wouldn’t have even considered meeting you in person if the sniper Arashi Tanizaki was at large, but according to my intel, she is trapped in the mountains at the moment. I do commend your acting, pretending to adhere to naive idealism when in reality, you were planning to kill your own adoptive father. Kaika Nikaido’s poison is terrifyingly potent.”

“This can’t be happening…” muttered Makoto.

“You allied yourselves with a dangerously intelligent individual, but she’s spread thin at the moment with two of her best subordinates out of action. I can’t blame her for not being able to use you two to your full potential.” Butler approached his daughter and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Isn’t this enough? You clashed against me with your ideals and lost. Victory has proven my path to be the right one. Come and take your place by my side, Mashiro.”

Mashiro’s shoulders sagged under the weight of his palm. Her entire body swayed, like a tiny tree amidst a typhoon. After blinking her unfocused eyes several times, she weakly nodded. “I… understand.”

A fatherly smile, filled with genuine affection and joy, spread across Butler’s face. “I knew you would make the right decision.”

“B-But I can’t betray Kaika…”

“She deserves betrayal. Think of it as punishment for all those she deceived until now.”

Mashiro looked away from her father, creasing her brow as she pondered her reply. “At least let me tell her that our alliance is dissolved before I join you. I owe her that much.”

Butler closed his eyes, mulling over the idea for a moment. “As straightlaced as ever. But that’s also one of your best qualities. Fine.”

“Can I borrow your phone? Mine is all the way over there.” Mashiro pointed her thumb over her shoulder, indicating the officer carrying her mobile at the far end of the field.

Butler glanced at one of his officers, who immediately produced his phone and handed it to Mashiro. Even though he had just attained a crushing victory, he was not foolish enough to lend his own device, filled with confidential information, to his newly reclaimed daughter.

Mashiro pressed on the screen a few times and then tossed the mobile over her shoulder. Before surprise could even register among Butler and his troops, Mashiro topped her act with one more stunt.

She embraced and kissed her father.

Not on the cheeks.

On the lips. With plenty of tongue.

In utter shock, Butler froze in place, eyelids rolled up as far as they would go. His subordinates fell into a state of confusion, unsure what the bizarre display unfolding before them meant and how to react.

Only one person in the audience moved. Makoto, having caught the mobile Mashiro threw his way, proceeded to film and take pictures of the scene. By the time Butler came back to his senses and pushed Mashiro away, Makoto had already raised his hands in the air as a sign of surrender.

Makoto locked eyes with Mashiro, who was busy wiping her lips on her sleeve. “Sent.”

She put away the look of disgust on her face and curled her lips into a victorious grin. “Mission accomplished.”

The soldiers, still unsure of the meaning of what transpired, scrambled to restrain the two of them, but it was far too late.

Butler staggered backward, realization dawning on his face. “The snipers…”

“Decoys.”

“Who did you send it to?”

“Who do you think? I’m sure it’s everywhere already.”

Butler clenched his fists. “How do you plan to escape?”

“We don’t.”

“A suicide mission?”

“Not at all. I trust you. My father is many things, but he isn’t a sore loser.”

“A loser..? Me?”

“Your authority right now is heavily reliant on popular support. How do you think the American people are going to react to this incest scandal? A sex scandal is one thing, but incest… That’s a career ender. Supporting a deviant like you would be political suicide. The sharks looming just underneath you, the VP included, won’t pass up such an opportunity. This is my win.”

Butler stared blankly at his daughter for what seemed like ages. Then the tiniest gasp, a chuckle, escaped his lips. More followed, yet fitting for the stoic military man, his fit of laughter, if it could even be called that, never left the realm of subdued.

Everyone watched the uncommon spectacle in silence, wary of what would come next.

Finally settling down, Butler sighed and looked into his daughter’s eyes. “There are no winners here, Mashiro. We both lost.”

“…What are you talking about?”

“This scandal you fabricated is indeed a heavy, if not fatal blow. But that applies to the both of us. Your reputation is ruined too. Even worse, most of your influence relies on your spotless track record.”

“It was worth sacrificing.”

“What did you sacrifice it for, exactly? Plunging a reeling country into more chaos? Allowing rival nations to take advantage of that weakness? Even if we put all speculation aside, Mashiro, do you really think your reputation was the only thing you cast away?”

Confusion crept into her features. Her mouth dried up faster than a drizzle in the desert.

“You realize, don’t you? We’re both losers. I lost power. You lost yourself. That, even more than this whole farce, was Kaika Nikaido’s ultimate victory.”

“That’s not true. This was my plan. Kaika originally wanted to kill you, but I refused to the very end. We argued about how to attack you, eventually settling on destroying your reputation. But that wasn’t easy to do, which led us to choosing this method.”

“‘We?’ ‘Us?’ Do you really think a plan this disgusting came from your collaboration with her? My daughter is naive, but she’s also more righteous than anyone. I see no trace of you in this plan. Think. Remember how exactly you arrived at this conclusion.”

Mashiro wracked her brain to recall her conversation with Kaika. Like she told her father, it had been her who came up with the plan, not Kaika. All Kaika ever did was reject ideas that were unlikely to work.

Wait…

Rejecting ideas was the same as choosing all alternative ones. By repeating this process, one would eventually be left with one choice. In fact, a choice was basically a rejection of all other options.

That was exactly what Kaika did.

What have I…

What was I made to do..?

Butler shook his head in disappointment, a first to Mashiro. “Kaika never cared about using your talents against me. In fact, she never accepted you or your skills. You’re the personification of everything she hates, so she wanted to destroy you. What better way than to make us clash and crumble together? You’re nothing but my daughter in her eyes, and she was completely right. My defeat was caused by my leniency towards you. I never would’ve shown myself to any other person. Truth be told, I was also worried about defamation. That was why I spent my days away from the public. A mysterious figure is surprisingly well accepted by the masses. People are strangely optimistic, leading them to idealize unexposed details. Kaika used you to attack my shield of secrecy. I lost because I still had a human heart. I can’t defeat someone who can do everything for victory. Even the word “devil” fails to capture how devious that… thing is.”

Mashiro could barely hear her father’s words. A persistent, loud throbbing echoed in her skull, making it difficult to process what was happening. The gaping hole widening in the middle of her chest threatened to drag her into the black abyss of reality, consuming all the joy of victory she lavished in just minutes earlier. Still, she tried her best to escape from the bottomless sludge of hypocrisy and foolishness lurking within. She clambered on the edge, digging her nails into the surrounding flesh as cold, dark tendrils wrapped around her legs, pulling her inside.

A generic alert sound rang from behind her, grabbing the attention of everyone on the scene. The tone came from the mobile she borrowed earlier, now back in the hands of its owner.

“I received a message,” said the soldier.

“…What does it say?” asked Mashiro with a dumb look on her face.

“‘Serves you right, you self-righteous bitch.’”

 

***

 

Ageha parted his heavy eyelids upon sensing a familiar scent. It was hardly noticeable, but with barely anything else in the tiny snow cave, it caught his attention. The smoky aroma, resembling the roasted meat he churned out of several kitchens in his career, emanated from the girl who just entered the shelter. Their shoddily built cave was more cramped than the previous one. The fire inside was also much smaller because smoke could lead to their detection.

“I found some food.” Arashi took something out of her rucksack.

Contrary to what the meaty aroma foreshadowed, she laid out a bunch of wild plants on the ground and cleaned them with some heated water. Unable to move, Ageha gratefully accepted the leaves and stalks Arashi fed him by hand. As he was chewing on a particularly tough piece, he mulled about the reason for the unexplained smell.

This was not the first time she returned with that scent. The same thing had happened yesterday. Not only that, Arashi had not been eating the weeds she brought back. He had thought that maybe she had eaten her share while foraging, but the peculiar scent of charred protein wafting from her hinted at other possibilities.

A speck of doubt found its way to his heart. He wondered if Arashi had caught some animal, cooked it, and ate it by herself. No one knew the girl’s appetite better than he did. Had she given up on him and prioritized her survival over his?

Impossible.

He shook his head, sweeping away his paranoia. Arashi would never do something like that. Then what was the truth behind this mystery? He was about to ask her when he noticed some fresh blood spatter on her coat sleeves. Following the specks of red up her arm, he saw an unfamiliar submachine gun slung on her shoulder.

“Enemies?” he asked.

“Two groups of three. I eliminated them.”

Ageha had not heard any gunshots, which meant Arashi used a knife to kill her targets. The advanced knife techniques he had taught her during their trainings turned out to be a good investment. She had also killed several enemy scouts the same way yesterday.

“Did they have any food on them?”

“Not even a single ration. If they did… you wouldn’t be chewing on grass like a goat.”

That was strange. It was common sense to bring at least a few energy bars when going out into the snowy mountains. Even he, a city slicker, knew that.

Ageha’s forehead creased upon realizing what the enemy was doing. “They’re trying to starve us.”

“I think so too.” Arashi gently pressed a water cup to his lips. “All the animals disappeared because of the activity on the slopes, so there’s nothing to hunt.”

After taking a few sips, he leaned away from the cup. “Their leader is a ruthless bastard. He knows we can pick off his men a little at a time but still sends them out just to wear us down. He even went so far as to stop them from bringing food to make sure nothing falls into our hands. Good thing they don’t know I’m out of commission yet.”

A rumble from his stomach abruptly cut his line of thought.

Come to think of it, I haven’t heard Arashi’s growling stomach for a while now…

His mind returned to the mystery of her smoky scent. Arashi had been filling her stomach with something in the past two days, but according to her, the enemies carried no food and the animals had gone into hiding. Arashi had always been a terrible liar, so there was no room for doubt about those statements. After narrowing down the possibilities from the info he had, the puzzle clicked together, resulting in a harrowing image.

Roasted meat. No rations. No animals. Only enemies.

It can’t be…

But there was no other explanation.

Arashi was eating the enemies she killed.

Ageha pressed his lips tightly together to stop any knee-jerk reactions from coming out. He did not feel strongly about cannibalism. Human meat was still meat. That said, he never considered eating human flesh himself. Due to their stressful lifestyles and unclean diets, humans likely tasted terrible anyway.

Was Arashi so cornered, so starved, that she had resorted to such a thing?

But then why didn’t she feed me the same thing?

She did not have to tell Ageha where it was from. Despite his trained palate, even he would not be able to differentiate between meats he had never eaten before. With the number of kills she reported, she certainly had enough to go around. That was when Ageha arrived at a more important question.

Why did she even keep it a secret?

And that question led him to the truth.

The only reason for Arashi to keep it a secret was because she herself saw cannibalism as taboo. Despite her terrible upbringing, she still acquired some basic human knowledge and qualities. The reason she had not shared her meals with Ageha was because she did not want him to do something she herself saw as disgusting. She wanted him to keep what remained of his dwindling humanity. Feeding on your kin was clearly another step away from that.

Assuming all that was true, why had Arashi resorted to cannibalism in the first place? Although scarce, there were still wild plants they could subsist on.

That mystery was quickly solved when Ageha recalled Arashi’s actions throughout their isolation in the mountains. She had always prioritized his well being and safety. She had broken her forearm and ribs trying to get food for them. She had taken care of his every need because of his paralysis. Her recent dietary choices were no different.

Unlike Ageha who barely burned any calories lying still in the cave, Arashi needed fuel to fight the enemy. She had opted to break a taboo just so she could protect him, who was currently even more powerless than a child.

The back of Ageha’s eyes burned. Taking a deep breath, he managed to hold the tears in. After blinking a few times to clear his vision, he stared at Arashi until the latter took notice.

“Is there something on my face?” Arashi wiped her cheek with her sleeve, ironically soiling her skin with the blood on her cuff.

“I’m sorry for being such a burden. A girl like you is wasted on me.” He smiled like he meant it, showing a gentle expression almost never seen on his face. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

The smeared blood on Arashi’s cheek slowly turned invisible as her blushing skin gradually matched its hue. “W-What are you saying all of a sudden? Are you going crazy… from hunger?”

“It actually feels like I’m thinking right for the first time in a while. Come over here for a second.”

Blinking a few times, Arashi patted her chest down and crawled to him.

“Closer.”

Thinking he was going to whisper something, she obediently leaned over his head, placing her ear near his lips.

Ageha turned to face her cheek and softly kissed the corner of her mouth.

The unexpected action prompted Arashi to jump up, bonking her head on the cave roof, before scampering away while still on her butt. “What was that about!?”

Ageha licked his lips, tasting the faint flavor of smoke and grease from her skin. That was not nearly enough for him to properly share her burden, but at least it gave him an idea of what her sin tasted like.

“It’s a thank you. For keeping me alive. For everything.”

“Y-You’re welcome!?” screeched Arashi in an uncharacteristically shrill voice.

That was the first time Ageha had kissed her of his own accord. Clearly shocked by it, Arashi remained motionless by the cave wall, like a frightened spider. Despite her strange, almost comedic pose, Ageha felt he loved her from the bottom of his heart. With both of them seemingly unable to move, an awkward silence fell upon the tiny cave. Only the sound of Arashi’s rough and rapid breathing traveled through the stiff freezing air.

The noise of crunching snow from outside broke the stalemate. Ageha gave her a look, prompting a nod in response. She quickly but silently gathered up her equipment, including the newly acquired submachine gun and her trusty custom sniper rifle, before heading out to check for intruders.

Cursing his powerlessness, Ageha could do nothing but watch her tiny back, covered by the enormous weapons it shouldered, until she vanished from his view. The desire to call out to her bubbled up to his throat but never formed words. The need for silence in their situation was paramount, but that was not what made him hold his tongue. The girl he met many months ago was no more. Arashi truly deserved his complete trust, and as such, tactless whispers of unnecessary concern would do nothing but tarnish their sweet and surely short parting.

 

***

 

Arashi kept a low profile while surveying the shelter’s vicinity. They had certainly heard movement, and she was not naive enough to chalk that up to imagination. In the battlefield, the paranoid survive, a lesson her father drilled into her in childhood.

No signs of activity could be seen around the entrance, so she silently moved around the snowdrift to check the upper area. As she slowly walked up the slope, two curved, pointed objects appeared just on top of the snow hill. Closer inspection revealed that the unusually long horns belonged to a large mountain goat. The spine-like bumps covering its greyish brown horns and long beard beneath its chin told Arashi the animal was an ibex.

The enemies searching for us must’ve scared the animals downhill.

Realizing the animal was the source of the suspicious sound, she relaxed her shoulders and breathed a sigh of relief. The goat quickly looked in her direction, ears twitching. Despite the camouflage provided by the white coat she stole from an enemy, the animal easily spotted her and turned tail.

Arashi clicked her tongue as the goat bounded on the snow, heading uphill with impressive ease. A huge chunk of meat like that could feed them for weeks. It would be a long awaited protein meal for Ageha, but most importantly, she did not want to eat mobster meat any longer than she had to.

Roasted human flesh turned her stomach every time she tasted it. The very idea of consuming humans, something disgusting even to the girl who happily ate endangered dolphin jerky, had made her vomit the first few times she put it in her mouth. However, she had forced the badly needed protein down her gullet to recover from her injuries and gain energy to fight. That had been the only way to save Ageha.

She had not fed it to Ageha because she did not want him to experience the same self-loathing. That noble goal did not change the fact that Arashi had been tearing out chunks of her humanity with every human morsel she gulped down.

The escaping ibex was her ticket out of that hellish rut. It was still within the range of her guns, but gunfire would alert the enemies to their location. A knife kill was her only alternative, but she needed to get within arms’ reach for that. A person had no way to win a foot chase against most animals, much less a creature completely adapted to its terrain, but unfortunately for the fleeing goat, Arashi was both a little less and more than a typical homo sapien.

She bolted towards her prey while ignoring the sharp pain shooting from her broken arm and cracked rib cage. The animal heard her rapid footfalls and sped up, eventually diving into a patch of trees. Slowed by the obstacles, Arashi desperately weaved through the maze of tree trunks while focusing on not losing sight of the ibex.

Half a minute into the tree patch, Arashi sighted a clearing up ahead. Thinking it was her best opportunity to catch up to her prey, she dropped her hefty weapons and prepared to sprint the moment she escaped the bush. The ibex slowed down, hesitating to leave the cover of the forest, but quickly resumed its escape upon seeing Arashi rocketing closer. The delay allowed her to shorten the distance between them to about twenty feet when she burst out from the foliage. Arashi drew her knife and pushed her legs to the limit.

Just a few more steps!

An unexpected impact tossed her body into the ground like a rag doll, peppering most of her torso in snow. Her brain barely registered the sound of a gunshot. Searing pain prevented her from fainting from the fall. She wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, but her survival instincts and training forced her into action. Recalling her father’s teachings, she rapidly switched gears.

First, forget everything unnecessary.

Forget the ibex.

Forget the pain.

Second, analyze the situation.

I was shot at, but it missed.

I tripped on a large root hidden under the snow.

It missed because I tripped unexpectedly.

Realizing that dumb luck saved her life, a sigh of relief built up in her lungs, but she postponed that and moved on to the last step.

Third, take immediate and appropriate action.

Arashi launched herself off the ground and ran back into the forest. The second gunshot hit the tree inches behind her as she dove into cover like a panther. A third shot never came, but that was not good news. The enemy sniper was formidable. Realizing it was near impossible to hit her from outside the dense foliage, the sniper decided to forgo shooting to avoid revealing his position.

After retrieving her weapons from the bush, Arashi rested her back on a large tree trunk in the middle of the tree patch and steadily caught her breath.

Should I go back to camp?

She shook her head. The chase took her relatively far from Ageha. Going back now risked leading more enemies to him. The sniper had likely alerted his allies to her position. The best course of action was to lead them away and then take them out one at a time.

Her biggest problem was the sniper. She could not tell his exact location just from those two gunshots, especially because she was focused on running. The tree patch was fairly dense, but it was too small and could easily be surrounded, which meant waiting for the enemy was out of the question. She had to shake the sniper and lead the enemy away from Ageha.

But how?

Arashi replayed the last few minutes in her head. It took her a couple of minutes to find something useful. On the left side of the tree patch, there was a familiar cliff edge. If she was not mistaken, that was one of the ravines she had explored before in search of food. It had a gentle slope and the valley extended a few miles with branching paths. That was a reasonably good place for an ambush.

Arashi’s path-plotting was interrupted by the sound of engines.

Jeeps..?

No, the snow is too thick for jeeps.

And there are too many of them.

The noise rapidly grew louder.

Snowmobiles!

Realizing her shortened time limit, Arashi headed straight for the ravine. Without knowing where she would emerge, the sniper would need a few seconds before opening fire, assuming he was even in a position to do so. It was a race to the valley in those few seconds.

She exited the foliage from the edge closest to the cliff. Her top speed was hampered by the weight of her numerous armaments, but she still managed to make it to the ravine without getting shot at. Glancing behind her, she saw two snowmobiles coming from one edge of the tree patch. As expected, they intended to surround her before going in for the kill with sheer numbers.

Seeing her figure, the snowmobiles changed course towards the cliff. The gentle slope allowed the snowmobiles to chase her, but going downhill was still her best option.

I gotta put some distance between us!

Arashi reached the bottom of the gorge after a few leaps. Her boots cracked the thin ice covering the edges of the stream running along the valley. Eyeing a narrow pathway with the width of about three cars, she left the sound of her pursuers behind.

Her head start would quickly vanish if she kept running due to the speed of the enemy vehicles, so she opted to set a trap instead of going deeper into the river vein. She found a blind spot behind a snow-laced rock and shot her rifle’s grappling hook across the path, hitting the wall on the other side. Then she slackened the thin wire just enough for it to barely sink into the snow, hiding it from view. Concentrating on the sound of the engines, she patiently waited for the snowmobiles to arrive.

Soon enough, the sound grew much louder, telling Arashi the enemies were seconds away from the trap. With her left hand, she took out a grenade she stole from one of the enemy scouts she had killed and removed the pin.

Now!

Arashi braced herself by pinning her leg into a crack in the rock and pulled the wire tight. Her first pursuer fell for the trap magnificently, catching his neck on the wire and falling off his snowmobile.

Seeing what happened to his comrade, the second snowmobile slowed down and ducked to avoid the string, but that was exactly what Arashi wanted. She freed her leg and activated the pull mechanism of her rifle. Arashi hurtled across the valley and intercepted the second rider, who was too busy ducking his head to notice her approach.

Arashi dislodged the grappling hook and slammed the rifle into the rider’s body, tossing him off the vehicle and killing her momentum. Due to the snowmobile’s reduced speed, she managed to hook her leg onto its side and pull herself into a riding position. She then casually tossed the live grenade behind her and sped away. A loud explosion echoed in her wake, taking out the two dismounted riders and one incoming snowmobile.

Unlike motorbikes, Arashi had never ridden a snowmobile outside of Kaika’s video games. Still, her reflexes compensated for her inexperience. A bit of fiddling around gave her a rough idea of how to drive the thing properly. That said, she was too green to shake off the numerous enemies on her tail with driving skill. After slinging her rifle to her back, she armed herself with a stolen submachine gun and started shooting using her alloy hand. She did not look at her targets in fear of losing control of the vehicle, but the spray of bullets still somewhat kept her pursuers at bay. A lucky shot even killed one rider, eliciting a smug smile on her mildly frostbitten face.

Unfortunately, Arashi’s choice of venue proved to be her undoing. The river vein eventually became narrower and narrower until a sheer rock wall blocked her path. Even worse, the enemies’ coordination exceeded her expectations. Engine sounds came from above the ravine, meaning more pursuers had been following from above the valley to attack from higher ground. Her path forward was completely blocked, and going upward was not an option.

In that case…

Her hand reached for the concussion grenades in her jacket. She armed and then tossed them into the piles of snow building up on both walls of the ravine. With an explosive roar, the grenades launched the powdery snow into the air, creating a faux smokescreen that hid her from view. Arashi quickly turned the snowmobile around, carving a sharp U in the snow, and accelerated towards her pursuers beyond the white mist.

An instant before she was enveloped by the falling snow, she shot her grappling hook, hitting a spot high up the ravine wall a fair distance away. With the flip of a switch, the rifle pulled her into the air like an airplane taking off the runway.

Her snowmobile broke through the falling snow, drawing the attention of the enemies. In just a moment, the vehicle was peppered with bullets. Arashi watched the scene while clinging like a spider on the ravine wall.

Should I shoot them from here?

No, I’m a sitting duck in this position.

Should I drop grenades on them?

But I have to save my limited ammo.

Ageha’s shadowy figure surfaced in her mind.

I’ll do it his way.

The enemies were no fools. As soon as they realized the snowmobile was unmanned, they quickly stopped their vehicles and surveyed the area. It did not take them long to spot Arashi above them. Before they could react, Arashi dislodged her grappling hook and fell from the sky like a diving falcon. She sprayed the enemies with bullets from her submachine gun and landed on top of one of the enemies, crushing his head with a cringe-worthy crackle. A total of three hostiles had been taken out in an instant.

Gritting her teeth, she pushed her injured body to move and pounced on the nearest enemy, like a jaguar going in for the kill. Knife drawn in reverse grip, she slipped past the enemy’s muzzle and sliced his neck open before dashing to the next target.

That fighting style was something Ageha used a lot. Diving into the middle of enemy groups created confusion and prevented them from shooting in fear of friendly fire. Arashi’s speed allowed her to rapidly move from target to target, effectively using them as cover whenever the enemies secured their aim.

The moment she reached her third target, a series of powerful impacts rattled her alloy leg and shoulder, tossing her backward. She immediately righted herself and took in the situation. Her target had been transformed into a beehive, limply convulsing on the snowy ground.

They shot through an ally!?

The enemies did not stop there. They continued their barrage of fire, forcing Arashi to duck behind the closest unmanned snowmobile. Even then, a few of the bullets hit her hips and arm, which were fortunately cybernetic.

She had underestimated her enemies. They were no mere thugs. She was facing hardened professional killers with unshakeable loyalty, clearly several cuts above the fodder Ageha massacred during their battle with Valeriya.

Arashi forcefully bit her lip as she set her rifle to assault mode. She had intended to save ammo for the battle with the sniper, but bullets only had value if she remained alive to pull the trigger.

The enemies were annoyingly coordinated. They used their snowmobiles as cover and never reloaded at the same time, systematically wearing her down. She needed a gap in the firestorm to shoot her way out of the rut she was in, and quickly too, before they decided to toss grenades at her.

Digging into her jacket, Arashi pulled out four grenades, everything she had left, and liberally tossed them over to her enemies. A shout in a foreign language, likely Russian based on a few movies she had seen, silenced the gunfire. She dashed out during the lull and expertly picked off three of the remaining six enemies. As predicted, one of her victims died holding an armed grenade. It rolled out of his fingers and exploded, scattering shrapnel and death. As for the grenades she had thrown, they harmlessly sank into the snow because she had not armed them.

The two surviving hostiles bravely returned fire. Slowed by her own shooting, Arashi took a few hits on her thighs. A bullet grazed her left arm, dying her white coat bright red, before she finally finished off the stragglers.

The sound of engines above the ravine stopped her from reveling in her small victory. She rushed to gather her spoils from the defeated but was only given less than a minute to do so. Enemies started shooting at her from above, forcing her to board a working snowmobile and retreat.

Arashi sped out of their range while mentally checking her condition. Aside from her fractured left forearm and ribs, her left arm bled from a bullet graze, a wound she needed to take care of soon. The numerous hits on her ARMS also rattled her human parts, leaving behind a constant dull ache where metal met meat.

Her battered body creaked and trembled from pain and cold, but she pushed forward. The grenades she threw earlier were back in her jacket, and a new submachine gun was slung on her back. She needed to eliminate her pursuers, not for victory, not for survival, but for him. His image blazed within her breast hotter than the sun, driving away the bitter cold of despair.

Please be safe, Ageha.

I’m coming soon.

 

***

 

Noelle gently removed her gloved finger from the trigger. “That’s ten.”

She observed the situation from her perch on a jutting rock. Arashi was still in heated combat against the army sent to hunt her down, which incidentally, included Noelle herself.

A soldier peeked over the cliff just above Arashi, giving him a good shot. Noelle nudged her rifle ever so slightly and pulled the trigger. A relatively muffled bang erupted from her silenced muzzle, which also concealed the flash. The hapless soldier unceremoniously tumbled to the ground, never to rise again.

“And eleven.”

Instead of following Viktor’s order to hunt down Shikimi, she had been moving solo, eliminating major threats approaching Arashi. That said, she did not have to do much. The girl shattered her expectations splendidly. Being her master’s daughter, Noelle expected Arashi to be quite formidable, especially due to her cybernetic enhancements. However, Arashi completely exceeded the capability of her father, or maybe even humans in general. She no longer fought on the level of a single soldier.

Even so, Noelle endeavored to make it as safe for the girl as possible without revealing her actions to her so-called allies or Arashi herself. Viktor was also a skilled sniper, making Noelle a vulnerable target if he discovered her treachery, and Arashi might get confused if she found out there was a sniper on the scene.

Noelle could not find where Viktor was currently hiding. She had heard over the radio that he was the first to engage. Fortunately, he had failed to hit Arashi in the short encounter, giving Noelle time to catch up to them and lend the girl a helping hand.

Finding Viktor was important not only for Arashi’s sake. Her current commanding officer, Nick, had given her a secret directive.

“About your field CO, Viktor… When you get the chance, kill him. Do it clean. No one else can know.”

It did not matter to Noelle who died first, Shikimi or Viktor. She would kill them both as the mission dictated, that was inevitable. A soldier should stake their pride in every mission. That was a lesson granted to her by her most respected master.

Two snowmobiles running side by side appeared from the far end of the ravine while Arashi was busy fending off attacks from several soldiers. If given free reign, the snowmobiles could flank Arashi and put her in a dire situation. Noelle decided to take them out.

Providing aid in this situation was risky. After eliminating one of the targets, the remaining soldier could report the ambush to Viktor, who would probably figure out that there was a rogue sniper on the battlefield. With Arashi engaging a different group, all suspicion would likely fall on Noelle. She had been able to fool the old veteran so far by killing as few soldiers as possible. Even the capable Viktor could not keep track of all his units in an operation so large and chaotic, which was also why he depended on reports from his subordinates when the situation changed. Noelle could not allow that crucial report to reach his ears.

Shooting through both enemies at the same time was impossible due to her elevation. That left only one option. Noelle slowly emptied the air in her lungs, as if releasing a soundless moan during pillowtalk. She held her breath midway and took her shot. The bullet hit one of the riders in the rib cage, causing him to jerk his body sideways. His snowmobile careened into his partner’s, causing them to crash into each other. Before the rolling mess of metal and flesh came to a stop, Noelle planted a bullet into the torso of the other soldier, a feat of inhuman skill.

“Thirteen.”

The firefight below soon died down. During the break in combat, Noelle planned her next steps. She found it strange that the infamous Shikimi had yet to make his appearance. Was he trying to use Arashi to whittle down their pursuers until she died?

How utterly despicable.

Being part of Nikaido’s gang of freaks, he was certainly capable of such cruelty. He used Arashi’s feelings for him to his advantage.

I have to do it.

For Arashi’s sake.

She might cry for a while…

But that’s better than being a disposable pawn.

I’ll definitely bury Shikimi here.

 

***

 

Viktor tilted his neck side to side, popping several of his vertebra. He had been in position outside of the ravine, waiting for his men to exhaust and then flush out the Tanizaki girl. Things would certainly go faster if he joined them in the valley, but he could not do that because of the enemies’ ace in the hole.

Ageha Shikimi.

That man, no, that monster defied common sense. He had proven this time and time again, culminating in his victory against Valeriya.

Tanizaki fighting alone in that ravine could be a trap to lure Viktor out. If he revealed himself, Shikimi might suddenly pop out from underneath the snow and kill him. That risk was not worth taking. He felt sorry for his subordinates, but extreme caution was the only way to fight against the absurd. Exhausting and then capturing Tanizaki to be used as a hostage would also be an effective way of dealing with Shikimi, from what Viktor knew of him, at least.

Of course, it was also possible that Shikimi died in the plane crash.

Viktor immediately shook his head.

Tanizaki would not be fighting like that if Shikimi had died. Judging from her affection towards him, she was more likely to follow him to the afterlife.

Maybe he’s injured?

Viktor stifled a chuckle. That monster was an invincible killing machine. Just the idea of him resting in some cave somewhere was laughable.

“Sir, squads two and five were annihilated.” The report came from the radio affixed to his collar. “Squad six lost sight of her, but she should still be close by, definitely within the ravine.”

That leaves only two squads in the vicinity…

“What’s her last known position?”

“She was heading northeast again. We still have no clue about her final destination. She seems to be going in circles…”

Going in circles..?

It can’t be…

But Tanizaki’s actions make no sense otherwise.

That monster really was…

“Squad seven, go around the other side and find her. Six, continue pursuit down that river vein.” Viktor stood up and slung his rifle.

“Understood. Should we continue our attrition tactics?”

“No, attack her full force. I’m joining the battle. It’s time to end this.”

 

***

 

Arashi’s gruesome battle had lasted for hours, in what ultimately resulted in the most hellish battleground even a veteran like her had ever experienced. The finish line for her marathon of death ended up being at the edge of a small cliff area within the ravine. She had finally reduced the enemy count to one, excluding the sniper, who had yet to make an appearance.

Scarlet dotted her clothes and exposed skin, crusting into pink crystals from the freezing cold. Her human hand was missing its ring and pinky fingers, but the wounds had frozen over, preventing blood loss. Her frazzled hair had scorched edges, and light burns blanketed her sleepy face. The last enemy lay passed out in front of her, his face brutally bruised by her metal fist. She spat out blood from her cut up mouth and proceeded to deal with the unconscious man.

I did it…

I really did it…

Things had seemed impossible several times during the continuous battles, and she had considered giving into despair more than once, but her luck pulled through in the tightest situations. Just when she had thought they had her cornered, an opening had appeared. Just when she had stumbled and exposed herself, no enemy had taken the shot. Her victory was born from skill and fortune, but she did not feel ashamed of it. She knew it was her indomitable will, her desire to see him again, that carried her to the end.

Is it the end?

It is, probably.

The ravine had gotten quiet. There were no signs of movement around her either. Arashi flopped to the ground butt first and relaxed her breathing for the first time in what seemed like forever. Several minutes passed, or so she thought. She could no longer tell how much time ticked by. Her senses had been dulled by the cold and fatigue, but they were still in better shape than her body.

So sleepy…

Maybe I can nod off for a few minutes…

Arashi tightly shut her eyes, scrunching the bridge of her nose, and shook her head vigorously.

No, no, no!

Can’t lose focus now.

Gotta go back to Ageha.

As she used her rifle to prop herself up, a faint rumbling reached her ears.

No way.

No way no way no way.

The sound of engines.

She knew the sniper who shot at her earlier was still out there but optimistically hoped the enemy had run out of assault troops. Arashi cursed herself for being so weak. Hope had no place on the battlefield.

“Plan for the worst, prepare for the impossible.”

Or so her father had said.

Blaming her naive self would do her no good now. Arashi checked her equipment and carefully jumped down from the cliff she was on. The small jutting rock was a good hiding place, but it would not fool her pursuers for long. She would be completely cornered if found in that spot.

The sound of engines came from opposite directions with Arashi caught right in the middle. She would be surrounded If she waited for them to reach her, so she adopted one of the tactics Saya taught her to use when surrounded.

Don’t run. Don’t hide. Attack.

Crush one side before the encirclement is complete.

The sounds were louder behind her, so she rushed back the way she came, or so she tried. Her cheetah-esque sprinting had degraded into a wobbly jog. Her shoulders heaved with every step, and each foot felt like miles. The scenery in front of her blurred from time to time. Bionic eyes did not blur without direct damage, so it was likely her brain lacking oxygen and sugar. She shut her eyes tight and scrunched her facial muscles, forcefully driving away the fog in her vision.

Focus!!!

It worked, but only for a few moments. She repeated this several times before spotting the enemy squad’s vanguard with her built-in zoom. With a quick rummage of her coat pockets, she pulled out two impact-triggered grenades, armed them, and threw them into the air in a high arc. She then aimed her stolen bolt-action rifle at the enemies just behind the front line. Four gunshots later, the second line of snowmobiles had swerved into the valley walls, their drivers dripping blood from their necks or heads. One of her shots had missed due to the pain from her missing fingers triggered by the recoil.

The enemy vanguard paid no heed to their defeated allies and continued their approach, guns drawn. As they trained their sights on Arashi, who had not taken cover at all, two small dots fell from the sky and landed right in front of them. Before they could identify what the objects were, dozens of shrapnel pierced their bodies as two crisp bangs melded into one.

Arashi did not face the enemies head on out of courage. She simply lacked the energy to keep running around and dodging bullets.

The last line of the pursuers, a four vehicle cell, swerved around the wreckage and aimed their weapons. Due to the lack of nearby cover, Arashi challenged them to a quickdraw contest. Even before the debris from the explosion fell, she took out an enemy with her rifle. Out of bullets, she switched to her submachine gun and exchanged fire with the last two enemies. Both sides suffered damage, but being half metal, Arashi got off relatively lightly. A few rounds hit her alloy forearm and shoulder, further rattling her innards, but that was nothing compared to the rain of bullets that slammed into the enemies’ torsos. Since they wore protective vests, Arashi finished them off by emptying the clip of her submachine gun into their skulls. She traded in her weapon for a new one her last victim so kindly brought her.

While reloading her rifle, Arashi jogged away from the squad coming from the other side and tried to find a good spot to ambush them. Unfortunately, no such convenient space existed nearby. The enemy had caught up to her before she could find cover. She swung her submachine gun behind her and scattered bullets at her pursuers, hoping to slow them down. The strategy barely had any effect, so she opted to focus on running instead. Her alloy legs technically could not feel fatigue, but due to her various injuries and lack of food, they felt like jelly beneath her. Even so, she bore with it and somehow sped up.

Arashi no longer had any grenades. Her last weapons were a standard bolt-action rifle and a submachine gun, both low on ammo, and a combat knife. There were six enemies behind her, a few short of the other squads she had been facing. Thinking about it, she realized the enemy groups varied in number, which was unusual for such an organized regiment.

Did some of them get left behind due to accidents?

It certainly was not unusual to run into trouble in the mountains. She decided to accept that explanation and focused on the task at hand.

She abruptly braked and turned while lowering her butt to the ground, essentially sliding into a sniper crouch. Her rifle was already trained at the closest enemy before she even secured her shooting stance. The muzzle flash signaled the end of her target. She pulled the bolt and chambered another round, all while taking aim at her next target. Bullets battered her alloy legs, which lay in front of her body, shielding her torso. A shot grazed the side of her head, causing warm blood to dribble down her ear and neck. Fortunately, it did not flow into her eye. Even bionic eyes would be affected by the thick opaque liquid.

Her second shot missed its mark but luckily connected with the collarbone of another rider further back, tossing him off his snowmobile.

Four left..!

The closest rider continued to fire while driving his vehicle towards her. Realizing she was about to be rammed to death, Arashi rolled to the side while switching to her submachine gun. At the end of her roll, she fired at the snowmobile as it zipped past her. The bullets hit the engine, causing the vehicle to suddenly slow down. The rider behind it did not anticipate the abrupt change of speed and was forced to swerve around. Arashi unloaded the submachine gun into that rider’s exposed flank, and then she emptied the last clip on the driver of the damaged snowmobile.

Last two..!

That was when it happened.

Two bullets struck the left side of her abdomen, cleanly passing through. Judging from the location of the wounds, they did not hit any organs, but the two holes started spilling what little remained of Arashi’s life. Instead of squirming in pain, she shut her pain sensors down for a few moments through sheer will and killed the enemy closest to her with a rifle round.

The last pursuer stopped shooting and focused on driving his vehicle into her. Gathering what remained of her energy, Arashi quickly spun around, dodging the snowmobile’s frame by a hair’s breadth, and grabbed onto the rear end of the vehicle with her right hand. Her alloy fingers sank into the metal, giving her a literal iron grip of the hurtling snowmobile. The heel of her boots skidded along the snowy ground as she tried to climb onto the moving vehicle. The enemy looked behind and aimed his weapon. Arashi twisted around just in time to avoid the initial burst. Her mangled left hand held onto her rifle like her life depended on it, mostly because it did. With adrenaline reinforcing her injured human arm, she clubbed the driver’s head with the rifle stock. The driver toppled over and fell from the vehicle, breaking his back as he did so.

After slinging the rifle to her body, Arashi released the snowmobile and tucked in her head to protect it from the inevitable tumble. The fall was not as rough as she expected because the snow cushioned the few low bounces she took. As soon as she stopped, she hurriedly got up and looked around for remaining hostiles. There were none.

They’re gone.

They’re all gone.

She ended up quite a ways away after being dragged by the snowmobile, but no more engine sounds could be heard. All of the six enemies were either dead or incapacitated.

She won.

Energy drained from her body, and her feet began to feel as if they were rooted to the ground. A warm breath escaped her lips, quickly becoming mist. Tears of relief formed at the corner of her eyes.

Then her cheek ached.

It was not actual physical pain but a lingering sensation from a distant memory. It came from the first time she had cornered her father in combat. At the very last moment, he turned things around with a well-timed eye gouge.

“You dunce! The moment a soldier feels victorious is when he’s most vulnerable! Don’t ever let your guard down!”

He hit her cheek with a rock-like fist back then. She hated it. It hurt, badly. And because it hurt, she remembered.

Arashi dove forward. In that instant, a bullet whizzed by the top of her head, blasting her unruly cowlick to shreds and embedding itself on a nearby rock. She did not bother looking at the attacker because she knew who it was.

Fighting a hidden sniper from lower ground with no cover was impossible, so she scrambled to find shelter. Arashi deduced the rough location of the enemy from the angle the bullet hit her hair and then the rock, and scanned her surroundings for anything that could be used as a shield. She found a small protruding rock on the ravine wall. It was barely large enough to cover her body, but it had to do.

With a speed surprising even herself, she slipped into the snow-capped rock’s shadow, barely avoiding the sniper’s second bullet. But there was nothing to celebrate. Now she was trapped behind the small rock with a sniper waiting for her head to pop out.

Being an accomplished sniper herself, she knew there was no way out. The enemy sniper was ridiculously patient, cruel, and shrewd. He had sacrificed his men just to get the best shot possible. That meant he was not moving from his current spot, lest he allow Arashi to escape in that short gap. The sniper would surely wait for her to come out or die from her wounds.

Despite the fangs of despair nipping at her heels, Arashi still moved her hands. She checked the gunshot wounds on her flank. After confirming there was no organ damage, she tore off a piece of fabric from her pants and pressed it against the entry wound. She did the same for the exit wound on her back and then leaned on the rock to put pressure on it. After bandaging both wounds with more ripped fabric, Arashi gathered the snow beneath her and packed them densely, almost into ice, with her alloy hand. She then applied it on top of the cloth and added more pressure. The cold rock on her back served as the cooling agent to aid in the closure of the blood vessels for her exit wounds.

Arashi kept putting pressure on it for about fifteen minutes and then felt around, without removing the cloth cover, to check if the bleeding had stopped. She breathed a sigh of relief after successfully stymieing the blood loss. However, the real challenge had only just begun.

She did not know the exact location of the sniper. Even with the most optimistic estimate, the sniper would still blow her head open first in a straight up duel. There was no other decent cover nearby, so dashing out and running away was also imprudent, not to mention her current condition slowed her down significantly. The only silver lining was that her rifle was still in usable condition.

There was nothing she could so.

Or rather, nothing was exactly what she could do.

No choice but to wait for help.

My father taught me to trust myself…

The faces of Ageha, Kaika, and Saya flitted behind her closed eyelids.

But my family taught me to trust in others.

So she waited.

For minutes.

For hours.

Her consciousness almost escaped her on occasion, but she held fast. Even with the winter gear she stole from her enemies, the cold still gradually robbed her of heat, slowly but surely dragging her closer to eternal slumber. Despite all this, she kept her rifle ready, her finger on the trigger.

She did not waver. She trusted the time she spent with those she loved. She trusted in their words.

So she waited.

More minutes.

More hours.

Her remaining fingers, nose, and ears, now bluish white, were succumbing to frostbite. She could barely feel them anymore. Even so, she kept her left hand wrapped tightly around the barrel of her rifle. The feelings of hunger and thirst had long left her. Her mind focused on one thing.

Survival.

I will survive.

No matter what.

To return to that place.

To return to him.

She waited.

 

***

 

Is she dead?

Viktor did not let his concentration waver for a moment. He had already called for reinforcements upon cornering Tanizaki behind that rock. A helicopter would be arriving soon, so he could just wait it out until they confirmed her corpse. He had kept that in reserve because it was useless for search operations. Helicopters, even more so than snowmobiles, were loud. They were great at finding people in the mountains, assuming they wanted to be found. Conversely, if the people wanted to stay hidden, they would simply run away and take cover upon hearing a chopper approaching.

But Tanizaki had nowhere to run, and based on Viktor’s deduction, Shikimi was out of commission, so he could simply pin her down there until she died from exhaustion or was killed by the chopper.

From what he knew about the girl, he slightly expected that she would face him in one final gambit, but it appeared she was too spent even for that. It was an anti-climactic end to a grand battle, but it did not matter to him in the slightest. All that mattered was to eliminate the targets of Valeriya’s vengeance, the last strand of hope to save his former pupil.

A loud bang rang across the ravine.

The sound did not come from a typical rifle. If anything, it sounded like it came from an anti-materiel weapon. Viktor only knew one person in this battlefield who wielded such a weapon.

Tanizaki!?

Did she find a way to escape from behind that rock!?

Did enemy reinforcements arrive!?

With dozens of disjointed thoughts flooding his mind, he could not help but turn his head towards the direction of the sound.

If Viktor had thought about the situation more calmly, he would have realized that Tanizaki had been using a standard rifle after he decided to join the battle, which meant the loud gunfire could not have come from her. She was still stuck behind a rock, after all.

However, the human brain reacted to stimuli first before any logical processing kicked in, and it did eventually kick in for him. Realizing he was tricked somehow, he put aside the questions about how, when, and where, and immediately resumed his watch over the rock.

The first thing he saw was the scope of a standard bolt action rifle. It was a perfect black dot amidst the background of chaotic nature. It was almost artistic, and certainly beautiful.

 

***

 

Found you.

Noelle had spent the better part of the last few hours sneaking around the ravine, hoping to catch a glimpse of Viktor or Arashi. After killing a few snowmobile riders who were lagging behind their squad, she had carefully traveled to the main stage of the battlefield on foot. However, things were already quiet when she got there.

Judging from the last few gunshots she had heard, Viktor and Arashi were likely engaged in a sniper battle. That, or one of them was pinned down. If so, Arashi was likely at a disadvantage, factoring in her physical condition.

Noelle had wanted to hurry and kill Viktor to save Arashi, but she could not be careless. If Viktor spotted her scurrying around, he would figure out her betrayal and shoot her down. Noelle could not very well ask Viktor for his location. From his perspective, she had no reason to know.

After painstaking scouting, she had finally found Viktor. He was expertly hidden, with a winter mask and white camouflage blending him with his nook. His rifle was curtained by a white furry cloth dotted by black, making it practically invisible.

Wasting no time, Noelle got into a prone firing stance and aimed at Viktor’s head.

And that’s twenty one.

An explosive sound swept across the valley.

Noelle blinked in surprise, something uncharacteristic for a sniper her caliber. She had not pulled the trigger yet.

There’s another sniper!?

Despite her surprise, Noelle pulled herself back to the task at hand. She adjusted her aim and fired, an action so unceremonious to her it was no different from brushing her teeth in the morning.

Three gunshots overlapped.

She missed.

After checking the condition of her target, she immediately pieced together what happened in that instant.

Another sniper took the shot a split-second before she did. Viktor lay prone on the snow, bright red blood dripping from his head. His rifle was destroyed by the shot, causing his head to jerk, which led to Noelle’s astronomically rare miss.

Instinct compelled her to immediately find the other sniper. It did not take long because she had a rough grasp of the location from the sound of the gunfire.

She peeked into her scope, like she had done millions of times before.

In it was Arashi, the girl she wanted to protect.

And that same girl had a rifle pointed at her.

Did she recognize me?

Impossible, not with her helmet and camo.

And even if she did, would she hesitate to shoot?

Of course not.

After all, Arashi was also trained by Noelle’s master.

Case in point, Noelle’s finger had already begun pulling the trigger even as her thoughts raced. There was no hesitation.

Then there was darkness.

 

***

 

After taking out the second sniper, Arashi dropped to her knees and then fell sideways. Her left ear was missing. The first sniper’s bullet had taken it, but she had landed a decisive blow so it was not a bad exchange.

Arashi had not expected another enemy to show up. Finding and killing the second enemy had taken everything she had, every ounce of concentration, every last remaining fiber of energy. She did not have the leisure to confirm her kills. The fact that she was still alive despite being sprawled out in the open was proof enough of the enemies’ defeat.

Her everything had been spent as she waited behind that rock, sharpening her senses, compressing them all into one single point, all to be released when help came.

And help had come.

That was no surprise because she had set it up herself.

The last enemy she dealt with at the small cliff, the one she knocked out with her fist, had performed his role admirably.

Several hours ago, Arashi gagged and bound the wrists and ankles of the unconscious enemy with the grappling hook wire from her custom rifle. Then she stripped him, propped his back onto the cliff wall, and tied his neck with the rest of the wire, leaving a few feet of wire dangling down. While grimacing at losing her weapon yet again, Arashi jammed her rifle in between two rocks, holding it securely in place. The dangling end of the wire on the soldier’s neck went around the rifle’s trigger, tied in place by a simple knot. Arashi pulled it taut, making sure even the slightest movements from the soldier’s neck would cause the weapon to go off. Because her high-caliber rifle had only one bullet left, it was the ideal weapon to use for the mechanism.

After giving the contraption a once over, Arashi adjusted the man’s sitting position into a precarious kneel and woke him up. She made sure to support him as he regained consciousness to avoid triggering the rifle by accident. Confused, the man looked down and saw his unusual state of undress. After a few moments of studying the situation, he sent Arashi a blazing glare as he angrily bit into the gag around his mouth. She ignored him.

All that was done in preparation for her battle against the enemy sniper. A moment of distraction was all one needed to win fateful encounters. That was why she applied everything she had learned from one of her mentors: Her mistress, Kaika Nikaido.

Kaika had taught her to trust in others, specifically, to trust in enemies.

From their repeated clashes, Arashi knew the enemies were fiercely loyal and thoroughly disciplined. Moreover, they were smarter than your average thug. The naked man had taken stock of his situation and figured out that Arashi wanted him to trigger the rifle by trying to escape. Being the loyal comrade he was, he did the exact opposite. He sat stiff in order not to play into the enemy’s scheme.

That went exactly as Arashi envisioned.

She needed an ace in the hole, and a delayed distraction was perfect for that. It was pointless if the rifle went off before she faced the enemy sniper. That was why she left the man there in his birthday suit. Once he died or fell unconscious because of hypothermia, an easy feat considering his attire, he would fall down and consequently pull the rifle’s trigger. Still, she did not expect the soldier to hang on for so long. That was an impressive feat. He truly had been a trustworthy enemy. She owed her victory to him.

However, Arashi’s struggle was not over. She was injured all over, with frostbite threatening to take her remaining fingers and parts of her face. Her consciousness hung on by a thread.

Even so, she forced herself to get up. She pushed off the ground, desperately clung to the rock she had used for cover, and got back to her feet, only to fall after taking her first step. Her cybernetic legs were impervious to fatigue, but hypothermia had robbed her of coordination and balance. She tried again and failed again. And again and again, until snow totally covered her face from her numerous nosedives.

Walking was not working out so well, so she crawled. Ageha could not move at all, so she had no choice but to go to him. She clawed at the snowy ground and dragged herself onward, ignoring the severe frostbite on her chin, which scraped on the ice. She crawled like her life depended on it. No, she was more desperate than that. She crawled like it was the only thing left for her to do in this life.

All to see him again.

To save him.

Her fingers, ears, chin, face, none of them mattered, as long as she could be by his side.

If she needed to tear away each of her limbs to be light enough to reach him, she would.

If she needed to rip apart her soul to find him, she would.

I killed the enemies…

I just need to go back…

Wait for me, Ageha.

Her eyesight blurred and shook. Her hearing became distant and hollow. Her body felt numb despite its incessant shaking.

Yet she soldiered on.

Until finally, an end to her suffering, her road to salvation, arrived.

Her ears caught a familiar sound. A constant rumbling came from above, slowly increasing in volume.

A chopper..?

Arashi flipped over and looked at the sky. Sure enough, a military helicopter appeared from beyond the ravine’s cliff and loomed above her.

Of course, it was the enemy. They had come to end her, along with her hopeless plight. In a way, she was grateful to be saved from her hellish crawl, but more than that, she was downright pissed.

Stop getting in my fucking way..!

Arashi willed her legs to stand. With her half-frozen left hand, she grabbed her rifle barrel and aimed it at the helicopter. In return, the chopper aligned its built in machine gun in her general direction. It did not have to be aimed accurately. The spray of bullets was guaranteed to coat the area with lethal rounds, turning her body into scraps of meat.

The multi-barreled machine gun began to spin as Arashi put pressure on the trigger. Her body could barely move. There was no escape. Instead of the chopper’s morbid visage, his face appeared in Arashi’s eyes.

Ageha..!

Arashi’s vision turned white.

A wave of heat enveloped her body followed by a ripple of sound.

She blinked and saw a peculiar sight. Instead of surprise, the scene evoked a sense of nostalgia within her. It was not the first time she had seen a helicopter fall from the sky. The sights and sounds were quite familiar, almost endearing. The mass instantly turned into garbage upon crashing to the ground.

“There you are!”

An even more familiar sound reached her ears.

“…K-Kai..?”

Another aircraft, a personnel transport helicopter, flew into view. Two familiar faces, the stoic one nuzzling a missile launcher, could be seen from the chopper’s open door. The voice had come from a loudspeaker attached to the aircraft.

“Not in the best shape, huh?” Kaika bit her bottom lip, a subtle change of expression only visible from that distance due to Arashi’s bionic eyes. “Don’t move, we’ll come get you.”

Tears gushed down Arashi’s cheeks despite how dry her eyes were just a moment ago. Her knees buckled, causing her to flop to the ground. She did not bother wiping away her tears, or rather, she could not feel them anymore because of the frost damage to her facial skin.

The chopper soon landed a short distance away. After the helicopter blades slowed down, Kaika and Saya, dressed in furry white and black winter coats respectively, alighted from the aircraft and rushed to her. Saya immediately carried her back inside, and Kaika closed the door behind them.

The interior of the transport chopper had a long bench attached on each side of the fuselage. Fabric netting served as the backrest for the benches and also a handle for stability in case of sudden aircraft movements. Arashi gave them a quick rundown of her physical condition. As Saya checked on the gunshot wounds on Arashi’s flank, Kaika gingerly embraced her neck.

“Good job staying alive.”

Arashi closed her eyes and nodded her head twice in response.

Kaika gently released Arashi and cleared her throat with a cough after taking a step back. “Where’s Ageha?”

“He’s in a cave. I lured away the enemies… so he should be safe.”

Kaika frowned. “Is he injured?”

“Some burns.”

“Burns? Leave it to that guy to get burns in the snowy mountains.”

“Actually, he-”

“He overused his overdrive to protect you, burning himself and completely draining his batteries in the process.”

“How did you…”

Kaika raised an eyebrow. “We haven’t been apart long enough for you to forget who I am, right?”

Arashi managed to form a smile, the first in what seemed like forever. “No, I remember.”

“Good. Show us the way.” With visible impatience, Kaika whipped out her mobile terminal and displayed a map with a blip signifying their current location.

Arashi made use of the map reading skills she inherited from her father and immediately pointed out the approximate location of their hideout. Kaika immediately informed the pilot of their next destination via the cabin radio.

“Thank you for protecting him,” whispered Saya as she applied a fresh bandage patch to Arashi’s flank.

“…Don’t you blame me for all this? He told me everything on the plane. It was all my fault… If it wasn’t for me… he would be okay. If I… didn’t doubt everyone, if I didn’t lash out at him…”

“Who cares? At least that’s what he would say, don’t you think?”

Arashi chuckled slightly. “Yeah.”

“So… did you rape him?”

“What.”

“Distracting me by doing an Ageha impression isn’t gonna save you. Did you? He can’t move a finger, right? Should be easy for you.”

“…I only thought about it.”

Saya smiled. “You’re too nice for your own good.”

“He kissed me though- Ouch!”

“Sorry, my hand slipped.”

“Are we sharing or not!? Make up your mind!”

“We are… but you can’t blame me for being a little bitter about it. It’s my nature.”

As the chopper engine began roaring in earnest, Kaika’s head popped in between them. “You two are getting along well. That’s sister-wives for you.”

The two women’s faces reddened every so slightly at the word wives.

Kaika seemed unsatisfied from their reactions but continued on. “Here, wear this so we can hear each other better. Choppers are too loud.” She stuffed a small earpiece into Arashi’s intact ear as the helicopter ascended and escaped the ravine. “So what did Ageha protect you from? I can’t imagine he’d have to go beyond his limits against normal enemies.”

“An avalanche.”

“What?”

“An avalanche, a landslide with snow. A big one too.”

Kaika pinched Arashi’s cheek. “I know what an avalanche is. I’m asking what exactly do you mean he protected you from one?”

“He hit away boulders and trees and stuff.”

“I feel that sentence doesn’t give justice to just how absurd of a feat that is.”

“Yeah, he was really cool. I… fell in love all over again.”

Kaika pinched her harder. “Even I’m jealous now. I’m the boss! He should be displaying his best work for me!”

“Stop, Kai! You’re gonna rip off my cheek..! It’s half-frozen!”

“Oh, right. Sorry bout that.” Kaika placed her hands on her hips. “So, who exactly is the enemy?”

“Well-trained. Very organized. I heard them speaking Russian, or what I think is Russian.”

“That matches the info we got from interrogating the pilot’s brother. Did Viktor show up?”

“Baldymort?”

“I’ve never heard that nickname before, but yeah. And you should start reading better books.”

“I didn’t see him… but maybe he was one of the snipers I killed.”

“One of? You mean there were several?”

“Two. Both highly skilled. I beat them though. One after another too.” Arashi forced her still thawing face into a smug grin.

Kaika ignored the bragging and held her chin. “It’d be great if Viktor really did bite the dust, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. It sounds like you didn’t confirm your kills anyway.”

Arashi nodded curtly. “I could barely move, so…”

“I’m not blaming you. You did well fighting against so many. Actually, we followed the trail of dead bodies to you.”

Saya moved to treating Arashi’s badly frostbitten left hand, grimacing upon seeing the extent of the damage. “This probably needs to be amputated…”

Arashi tried to assuage her grief by raising the corners of her lips. “I’m due for an upgrade anyway.”

The co-pilot exited the cockpit to inform the party about arriving at the designated area. Arashi would have to check by eye to direct them to where Ageha was located. Saya helped her get up and over to one of the chopper’s many small round windows. After half a minute of surveying the terrain, she pointed at the exact location of the cave. Due to the trees surrounding the entrance, the chopper had to land quite a distance from it. Since the cave interior was not visible from the chopper, Saya left alone to avoid exposing Kaika to danger. Arashi was in no condition to help, so she stayed in the aircraft, warm under several layers of blankets and warmers. Her thirst had been quenched by a few gulps of warm water.

A few minutes passed in silence. Neither Arashi nor Kaika said a word while waiting for Saya and Ageha to come out. Saya appeared from the cave entrance, looked around, and then returned inside. Seconds later, she exited again, this time with Ageha on her back. The sight prompted sighs of relief from the two who stayed behind.

“That jerk, always doing things that give me trouble,” mumbled Kaika.

“Don’t you mean ‘make you worry?’”

“Y’know, I think I liked you more when you were mute.”

Strength gradually left Arashi’s body. Ageha’s safety was confirmed, so the tension preventing her from proper rest had finally vanished. That moment of peace allowed her to reflect on the fact that she had overcome a terrible ordeal, and she had done so not by her own power but by using everything she had learned from others. She used to be a blank slate, but with each person she met, she had grown. The person she was now was an accumulation of everyone in her life, and that person was the one who managed to protect Ageha.

She felt proud.

Saya and Ageha soon reached the chopper. The corner of Saya’s eyes were slightly red. She had probably turned off her comm device and bawled upon seeing Ageha safe. She pretended to be calm all the time, but Arashi knew she was very emotional and anxious. Their time together had taught her that much. Arashi felt a renewed regret for doubting and worrying her true family, but she immediately cast it away, deciding to make up for it in the future.

“Long time no see,” said Ageha as Saya laid him down on the bench across from the door.

Kaika puffed out her chest. “My breasts grew two centimeters!”

“Still a liar. Glad to see you haven’t changed.”

“I heard most of what happened from Arashi.” Kaika stepped aside, revealing Arashi sitting behind her.

Ageha’s expression instantly turned grave. “Who did that to you?”

“Doesn’t matter… They’re all dead.”

“…I see.”

“Yup.”

“Thanks… for protecting me.”

“It’s nothing. Think of it as payment for that kiss.”

“Don’t tear off my hair! I can’t move!”

“Whatever do you mean, Ageha-sama?”

“Gotta say I missed this,” said Kaika.

The co-pilot closed the door and returned to the cockpit. As the engine and blades began blaring again, Kaika equipped Ageha with the same earpiece she had given Arashi. The chopper promptly lifted off and began gaining altitude. They cleared the closest mountain and approached a wide frozen lake. Arashi had not scouted that far because traversing the mountain would take too long and involved too many risks.

“Brace for impact!!!”

The chopper tilted sideways. An ear-splitting boom shook the aircraft. Arashi fell to the ground as the helicopter wobbled around in the air.

Surface to air missile!?

The blast had not been a direct hit. They would all be dead if that were the case. A proximity-fuse triggered missile likely detonated a fair distance away. That said, they did not get out of it unscathed.

Kaika scrambled to the radio in the cabin and pressed the large rubber earpiece to the side of her face. “Damage report!”

“We’re losing engine power!” replied the pilot. “It’ll hold out for a while, but our speed and mobility are greatly compromised! We can’t dodge another one of those!”

“It won’t end with just one.” Arashi used the bench to get to her feet and peeked out the window.

The short time between the alert and the actual detonation indicated that the enemy was nearby. Arashi quickly spotted the assailant with her enhanced vision. He was not even trying to hide anymore.

It really was Baldymort.

Viktor, his shaven head coated with blood, was in the process of grabbing another missile launcher from several by his feet. At the chopper’s current speed, he would be able to launch another one before they could reach a safe distance.

Arashi grabbed her rifle and headed for the door.

“What are you doing!?” Saya, who had also seen the enemy, rushed to stop her.

“I’m the only one who can make the shot.”

Saya furrowed her eyebrows but proceeded to open the door. “Ojousama, please grab onto something!”

“You don’t have to tell me!”

The immobile Ageha was secured by a single belt. That was worrisome, but they had no leeway to address it at the moment.

Arashi quickly aimed her rifle, not bothering to crouch down to save time. It was the right decision. Viktor already had them in his sights. Before she could pull the trigger, the missile burst forth from the tube on his shoulder. It was pointless to shoot him now. The missile was already headed their way, signaling certain doom.

No.

I won’t let them die here.

The girl denied fate with all her might, with the entirety of her soul.

So what if it’s impossible?

I just have to do it, right?

Then it won’t be impossible anymore.

Not caring about her faulty logic, Arashi devoted her everything into the next second. All her training, battles, wins, and losses were condensed into a single moment.

Time stopped. Even the missile that should have been traveling at mach speeds seemed to be as still as the frozen lake beneath them.

She pulled the trigger.

The missile and bullet met midway and exploded into a mess of flames and debris.

“Unbelievable,” whispered Saya. “You shot down a missile…”

Arashi lowered her weapon. “I guess I did.” Despite her achievement, no trace of pride showed on her face. She looked as shocked as the butler.

The helicopter continued to ascend and gain distance. Shoulder-fired missiles would no longer reach them soon. Saya went to the cabin radio to explain the situation to the pilot, while Kaika finally relaxed her hold on the fabric webbing. Arashi volunteered to close the door after confirming that they had escaped Viktor’s effective range.

“Is it really that amazing?” asked Ageha, still strapped to the bench.

Arashi turned to him and nodded. “It is.” She flashed a bright smile as she reached for the door handle.

The world tilted.

No, it was only her world that suddenly twisted sideways.

She lost balance. That was no problem. She could simply adjust her footing to right herself.

But her legs would not move.

It took a mere instant for Arashi to realize what had happened. She had seen it happen in front of her recently.

Her batteries had run out.

Without so much as a word, her body slipped through the open door and was absorbed by the sky.

 

***

 

He was the only one to notice. Saya had gone to the cockpit, and Kaika was too far away. Unfortunately, he was also the only one who could not move.

Was that the end?

Was there no way to change destiny?

Arashi was about to fall to her death.

And only he could stop it.

No, even he could not.

He was trapped in his metal shell, cursed with petrification.

Only a miracle could save Arashi now.

But he had to try.

Ageha screamed at the top of his lungs, plunging his entire will and being into his frozen limbs.

Move.

Move..!

Move!!!

Move!!!!!!

“MOVE!!!”

Kaika stood dumbfounded as she witnessed a miracle.

As advanced as they were, ARMS were still electronic devices. Sometimes, even a dead mobile terminal could turn on for a few moments after a long rest. That phenomenon was what allowed Ageha to move one last time.

He rushed towards the falling Arashi, ripping off the belt keeping him in place. It took him just two steps to reach the edge of the chopper. Arashi was still there, just barely within arms reach. She extended her human hand, badly frostbitten and missing fingers.

He reached for it.

Their fingers overlapped.

Then.

Then…

Then he stopped.

His cursed body’s last drops of fuel had burned away.

Arashi’s hand felt farther than the stars in the night sky.

And then it was.

She instantly turned into a dot and crashed into the frozen lake below, breaking through the ice and disappearing into the dark depths.
Ageha and Kaika did not move. Saya, who had turned around after hearing Ageha screaming, also froze in place.

It was Ageha who finally broke the silence. “W-We have to save her…” He wanted to immediately jump out after her, but he could not move an inch. “What are you two standing there for!? We have to save her!!!”

Saya slowly opened and closed her mouth like a dying fish before finally regaining her voice. “We… We can’t… Neither of us can swim, and if we stop now…” Her voice trembled terribly as tears dribbled from her eyes. “If we stop now… we’re all gonna die…”

“That… That… That can’t be… Kai! You have a plan right!? Do something!!! You’re the genius here! We have to save Arashi!!!”

His words jolted the frozen Kaika back into motion, but her face displayed no emotion. The genius had naturally analyzed the situation faster than any of them. She probably knew the best course of action.

She did.

With the blankest face imaginable, she walked over to the cabin radio and said, “Keep going.”

“What… What did you say..?” Ageha’s confused expression smoldered into one of rage.

“Keep going.”

“Don’t do this, Kai!!! You can’t leave her behind!!! We have to-”

“Do you want Saya to die along with her?” The lack of movement on Kaika’s face made her look like a perfect porcelain doll. She stared into his eyes, prodding him to answer.

“I… I…” His voice broke into tiny irreparable shards. “I…”

Kaika turned away from him and muttered, “Keep going,” again and again and again.

 

Next Chapter

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

Chapter Thirteen: Bonds

“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.”

“Details please.”

“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.

“Any updates?”

“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.”

“How meticulous.”

“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.

“I refuse.”

“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!?”

“Not anymore.”

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.”

“Very well.”

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…

A clue…

Anything…

The image of Ageha facing-off against a force of nature, his body clad in a white misty aura, formed in her head.

That’s it!

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.

“Ageha! Ageha!”

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.”

“What.”

“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…”

“Arashi…”

“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?’”

“N-No.”

“That’s you.”

“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.

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Twelve: Downhill

Kaika stretched her back as she walked away from the meeting room. The two-hour emergency conference with several Chinese generals had yielded positive results. Due to rumors about NGC’s connection to Mei Xing, who was selling rare metals to the U.S. military, the Chinese government had sent representatives to Tokyo to speak with Kaika. It had only been a matter of time before the Chinese connected the dots, so she had not been caught unprepared.

With masterful acting, she had managed to allay doubts about NGC’s neutrality by adamantly denying any political alliance with the Chinese mafia or the U.S. government. She had insisted that everything NGC did was in the name of business and monetary gain. That had convinced the generals that her corporation would act predictably and respect confidentiality, a considerable assurance in the field of politics.

Saya followed a few steps behind her. “I have prepared another jet. Would you like to leave for the United States tonight?”

“You miss Ageha already? Sheesh. It hasn’t even been a day.”

“That is not true!”

“Then why did you keep peeking at your mobile during the meeting? And why did you prepare a jet even though I haven’t said anything about flying out tonight?”

“That’s..!”

“Geez. I thought you’d feel betrayed when he outed you to Mei Xing, but you two seem to be getting along just fine. I wasted my energy worrying.”

“I have no right to feel betrayed. Ageha kept that secret for my sake at great cost to himself. It was a privilege, not a right. Only a spoiled child would complain when a privilege is taken away.”

“Makes sense. It was a gigantic strategic blunder though.”

“He already apologized for that many times.”

“I know, I know. Good thing Mei Xing didn’t back out of our supply contracts. That guy truly understands what it means to lead an organization. Too bad he still won’t speak to Ageha.”

“Indeed. Still, I am thankful that Ageha is feeling better recently. Despite how cold she acts around him, I am sure Arashi’s presence is a big factor in his recovery.”

Kaika nodded in agreement. “I hope their trip together helps them patch things up, even a little.”

Saya did not know about Rin’s visit. Ageha had wanted to tell her, but Kaika had pleaded with him to not make things any more complicated in exchange for forgiving his reckless confession to Mei Xing.

“So Ojousama, are we flying out tonight? I will call the flight crew to cancel if not.”

“We leave tonight. I need to meet with Mashiro asap to deal with Butler. I hope Ageha and Arashi are done scouting by the time we arrive.”

“You asked them to check certain locations for kill points, correct?”

“Yeah. We need to draw Butler out and kill him.”

“Mashiro will not agree to that.”

“It’s our last resort. First we’ll try to depose him some other way.”

“Forgive my ignorance, but why are we going so far to remove a leader we helped put in power?”

“Elementary, my dear butler.” With a smug grin, Kaika raised an index finger. “It’s all about balance.”

Saya tapped a fist into the palm of her other hand, showing her understanding. “Butler was needed to consolidate the American military and spark a war, but with him at the helm, the U.S. is too powerful an adversary for the other nations.”

“Well done. I don’t want an all-out war, Saya. That’d be a nice show too, but very short lived. A regulated, drawn-out conflict between many countries is ideal. Butler is too competent, and consequently, too dangerous. He may win the war in an instant, or he may force the other nations to yield without conflict. Both options sound rather boring to me.”

“Is entertainment the only thing that matters to you?”

“I’d like to say yes, but that’d be a lie. What I really want is actually very simple. It’s something everyone wants.”

“I find it hard to imagine you wanting anything that can be remotely considered simple, Ojousama.”

“But I do. I just want to leave a mark on the world that is proportionate to my self-worth, no different from the next guy. The only difference is I’m worth a lot more than most. Considering that, what better way is there to prove my worth than to change the world that evaluates it?”

“Many would say you went a little overboard.”

“The many are stupid. That’s exactly why I took the approach of minority influence. Even a tiny minority can change the minds of the majority if they stick to their guns long and hard enough. Ever heard of flat-earthers?”

“Are they not a group of people who believe that the earth is flat?”

“Yes. Do you know how they can gather enough people to make an organization despite the absurdity of their claim?”

“Human stupidity?”

“There’s that, but it’s mostly due to the almost fanatical fixation of the existing believers to the idea. They adamantly defend their beliefs in every occasion and appear to be completely sure of what they assert. Can you imagine a normal person defending that the earth is round with that much passion?”

“I believe very few would put in that much effort.”

“And that’s where their power lies. If a person is faced with a minority viewpoint that is explained in an intelligent, apparently well-informed way, and when the proponents don’t deviate from their opinions no matter what, they can be very influential. The majority will start believing the illusion bit by bit.”

“Is that what you want to achieve?”

“Maybe. This world is a disgusting and boring place, Saya. I’m merely taking the shortest and most efficient route to fix that.”

As if on cue, Saya’s mobile rang. Her face instantly paled upon taking the call.

Noticing this change, Kaika stopped walking and faced her properly. “What happened?”

“The plane… Ageha and Arashi’s plane disappeared.”

 

***

 

“The plane crashed!?” shouted Noelle.

Nick moved the receiver away from his ear. “You don’t have to scream. I hear you just fine.”

“What happened to Arashi!?”

“I don’t know yet. The plane was en route to Russia. The satellite breadcrumb trail it left behind shows that it crashed in the Altai mountain range, close to the Chinese-Russian border.”

“How can you do something like this!?”

“I didn’t. I had operatives inside the plane, but they were only supposed to strike when an opportunity arose. The main plan was to take Kaika’s entire party to Russia, where they would land in hostile territory and be eliminated, except Arashi if at all possible. It goes without saying, but something went terribly wrong. I’m going to send in a team to search for survivors.”

“Do you think Arashi is alive?”

“The chances are decent. Both Shikimi and Arashi are extensively modified. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t bet on either of them kicking the bucket just like that.”

“Let me join the search team.”

“I knew you’d say that. You can go on one condition.”

“Kill Shikimi? Assuming he’s alive of course.”

“You get a gold star.”

“I have a condition of my own. If I find Arashi, I’ll be taking her back to the U.S. with me. I need your help to give her a new identity and get her into the country safely.”

“Done.”

“I knew letting her go back to that psychopathic witch was a mistake. Someone who can kill her own sister can never care for another human being.”

“…What did you just say?”

“I said someone who could kill her own sister-”

“You’re talking about Kaika Nikaido, right?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Where did you get that information?”

“Hm? Well, Arashi told me a bunch of things while she was here. She mentioned overhearing Nikaido and Saionji fighting about Kureha Nikaido’s death. Arashi didn’t know she was Nikaido’s sister though.”

“Are you sure this isn’t disinformation? It might be Nikaido’s trap. She’s infamous for such schemes.”

“Arashi was in no condition to lie at the time. Besides, she only brought it up because I asked her to tell me about her conversations with her friend Mitsuki. That was the first real secret they shared, supposedly. Why is this so important anyway? We already know that Nikaido is scum.”

“We do. Thing is, do the people around her know that?”

“Of course they do. They’re all scum for using Arashi like that. Birds of a feather and all that.”

“Maybe. Either way, thanks for that tasty tidbit. Can’t hurt to have more cards in my hand.”

“Where should I go for the mission briefing?”

“I’ll send you the airfield address. Report to the man named Viktor when you get there. He’ll be your CO for this mission. Make sure to bring back Shikimi’s head. I don’t care if it has a bunch of holes in it. I’m sick of people coming back from the dead.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t worry about it and focus on your mission. I have one more top secret directive for you. You’re forbidden to repeat these words.”

“I’m listening.”

“About your field CO, Viktor…”

 

***

 

Ageha struggled up a snowy slope, carrying both Arashi and her rifle on his back. The parachute had gotten stuck in the branches, so he had left it behind. The combined weight of his load hardly burdened him, but the thick snow underfoot slowed his progress. He took a peek at Arashi’s face. The small gash on her head had stopped bleeding, but her cheeks and chin carried scratches and scrapes from their fall.

Despite his thick winter coat and pants, the cold mountain air chilled his highly conductive metal limbs, robbing him of energy. Unfortunately, he had no knowledge about how to survive in the mountains. Even though he learned combat from his grandfather’s training exoskeleton, there had been no chips related to surviving in the wild.

I have to get to high ground.

He wanted to check the area and find the plane crash site. That was the first place rescuers would check, and he might find useful items onboard, hopefully intact. Snow-covered peaks blocked his line of sight in every direction. Patches of trees, similar to the one they had landed on, were few and far between.

After traversing the third steep slope, Arashi began to squirm on his back. He thought about putting her down, but there was nowhere to let her rest in the endless snowfields and cliffs surrounding them.

Arashi gently opened her eyes with a high-pitched groan.

“Finally awake.” Ageha resumed walking.

“A-Ageha..? What’re yuh doin? Whur… are we?”

Arashi’s words were slightly garbled, likely due to a concussion. She had woken up fairly quickly considering the blow she took, but that was probably because of her father’s abusive military training. Her body prioritized regaining consciousness over rest and recovery in critical situations.

“Don’t you remember? We fell from-”

“Leggo of me!” Arashi thrashed around behind him, trying to pry off his hold on her legs.

“Stop struggling! I’m just carrying you until you regain your bearings!”

“What did yuh do t’me!? Why’re we here!?”

Loss of memory related to the traumatic event was also a common symptom of a concussion, one he was very familiar with due to his battle with Valeriya. Ageha had no idea how severe Arashi’s injury was. Considering their current situation, he could only hope it was a temporary problem.

Before he could reply, Arashi ripped the rifle from his back and swung it at his head. Left with no choice, Ageha released Arashi and rolled forward, barely avoiding the gun-turned-club.

“That’s dangerous! You almost got me!”

With glazed eyes, Arashi shakily aimed her rifle at Ageha and loaded a bullet. “I’m not… falling for your tricks again!”

“This isn’t a trick.” Ageha took a step closer, his hands raised to show his lack of hostility. “If you just let me explain-”

“Don’t come closer! Noelle… was right. This trip is a trap!”

“…You don’t remember what we spoke about on the plane?”

“…Huh? Plane?”

“I explained everything to you. About Mitsuki and your mother.”

Arashi’s left hand reached for her head and grasped her messy hair. “Th-That’s… I…” Her knees buckled for an instant, but she managed to stay on her feet.

Realizing the danger of a customized sniper rifle, one that could kill him in one shot, in the hands of a bewildered Arashi, Ageha decided to disarm her. Considering the distance between them and her confused state, it was an easy task. He dashed forward while ducking her line of fire. Arashi reflexively lowered her aim but did not make it in time. He slipped past the barrel of the rifle and then reached for her wrist.

A loud bang echoed across the snowy mountains.

The rifle accidentally went off during their brief struggle. Ageha disarmed Arashi and pinned her down to the ground.

“Calm down.”

Arashi shut her eyes, her eyebrows knitted together. After a few moments, the tension in her body gradually disappeared. Her eyelids slowly parted, revealing more focused pupils. “…A-Ageha?”

“Looks like you’ve come to your senses.”

“We… jumped from the plane… What was I doing?”

“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“My head… hurts…” Arashi emitted a pained moan. “My ears… What’s that rumbling?”

“Probably due to your concussion. Your ears should go back to normal with some rest.”

Wait.

Rumbling?

Ageha strained his ears. He had suffered no head injuries during the fall, but he also heard the rumbling noise. Not only that, it was getting louder by the second.

Shit.

The gunshot..!

Ageha jumped to his feet. “Arashi, get up! We need to get outta here!”

“Huh? Why?”

“Avalanche!” He swung his head to the source of the sound.

At the peak of the mountain they had been climbing, a gigantic white slab came rolling down towards them, breaking into large pieces as it plummeted. The tremendous force of the surging ice and snow dragged along rocks and trees, creating a potage as deadly as lava but hundreds of times faster.

Arashi perked up the moment she saw the terrifying spectacle. She quickly stood up but wobbled after taking a single step.

She’s in no condition to run.

Ageha gently tackled Arashi’s abdomen, lifting her up to his shoulder in one smooth motion. As he sprinted down the slope, he handed her the rifle, which she promptly took and embraced with both arms.

“Don’t lose it!”

“R-Roger!”

Keeping a tight hold of Arashi’s thighs, Ageha vaulted down the slope, leaping a dozen feet at a time. Even so, the roaring snow wave chasing them drew ever closer.

“Run sideways!” shouted Arashi, trying her best to be heard over the deafening noise. “There’s less snow at the edges!”

Ageha nodded and changed direction, running in an oblique line from the flow of the avalanche. Even with his cybernetic legs, the thick snow affected his running form, hampering their speed. After dodging a few stray trees in his way, he found a rock jutting out from beneath the snow. Using it as a launch pad, he rocketed into the air and landed a good distance away. Thinking he had put some distance between them and their relentless pursuer, he peeked over his unoccupied shoulder, only to see an enormous white mass looming right behind them.

We’re not gonna make it!

Despite being confronted by that inevitability, Ageha refused to give up.

I have too many things left to do…

To atone for…

To come back to.

“Overload mode, activate!”

Heat surged from within the skeletal power cells in his limbs, filling them with volatile energy. Exerting his alloy muscles to the maximum, he blazed across the crumbling slope, a line of smoke trailing behind him. Arashi forcefully embraced his torso along with the rifle, hanging on for dear life. For a second, Ageha considered throwing away the weapon to lighten the load, but in this situation, even the act of tossing it would cost valuable seconds, resulting in their demise.

The deadly race between them and the white wave continued. His overcharged limbs allowed him to keep the landslide from engulfing them, but there was no end in sight. Per Arashi’s instruction, Ageha traced a diagonal line down the mountain, but even the farthest edge of the avalanche seemed massive enough to bury them in dozens of feet of snow.

I need to find shelter!

Ageha strained his bionic eyes to find anything that could shield them from the freezing onslaught. Ten seconds of frantic searching rewarded him with a possible refuge, a short ridge on the mountain face.

“We’re hiding behind a ridge!”

“That won’t work! Some of the debris can still hit us!”

“I’ll take care of it!”

“But the snow will end up burying us anyway!”

“The avalanche is right on our tail. We have no choice!”

Ageha beelined to the twenty-foot high ridge and jumped down. The ledge would at least protect them from most of the snow and debris because the momentum would carry those past them. That said, heavier objects could still fall on them, not to mention any rocks with unlucky bounces.

As soon as he landed, a dense stream of white gushed past their heads, covering them with a thin layer of powder snow. The ridge face was not steep enough to allow them to lean their backs on the wall. Several pieces of debris rolled down the cliff edge, almost hitting them. Still, the ridge protected them from the worst of it. Waves of snow and rocks barreled down their two unshielded sides, creating a small pocket where they stood.

After setting Arashi down, Ageha turned to face the unstoppable behemoth. “Stay down. I’ll stop the debris.”

Even though he said that, he knew it was suicide to smash into rocks falling at ridiculous speeds head on. He needed to parry them just enough to prevent them from hitting Arashi. To do that, he had to hit them at the right angle with perfect timing, a feat that required significant calculation and coordination. Fortunately, he had just the thing to do that.

He took out the portable injector from his jacket pocket and shot a dose into his neck. The thought-acceleration drug pulsed into his arteries, instantly changing how he perceived the world. The rocks did not fall any slower, but his accelerated analytical ability and bionic eyes allowed him to predict trajectory and avoid most of the falling debris.

A triangular slab of stone tumbled off the ledge and rushed towards them. Ageha sidestepped the rock with ease. The moment it passed by his side, he slammed his shoulder into it, diverting its course just enough to miss Arashi.

I can do this!

As if reprimanding him for his premature celebration, three ragged rocks rolled off the cliff just above them. This time, the trajectory headed straight for Arashi, forcing Ageha to jump backwards to defend her. Fortunately, the three rocks were much smaller than the first one, so he opted to fend them off with a two kick combo. The first kick shattered the smallest of the three, and the second kick knocked the largest one into the remaining one, causing them to safely pass over Arashi’s head.

Ageha continued protecting Arashi from the brunt of the relentless tsunami of snow and rocks. However, snow gradually built up on the ground of their small refuge, hindering Ageha’s movements. Some of the smaller rocks hit Ageha on his body and legs, chipping away at his endurance. Worst of all, his overload mode had surpassed all limitation guidelines. The searing heat burned through his artificial skin and singed his clothes.

Tsubasa had designed the heat release system to direct the thermal energy outside, safeguarding Ageha’s internal organs and the flesh connected directly to his ARMS. The concept was similar to how one could place a finger right beside a candlelight without getting burned, yet holding a palm a few inches away from the top quickly damaged the skin. Be that as it may, overload mode was not meant to be used at maximum capacity for an extended period of time.

His overheating limbs lit his clothes on fire. Ironically, the avalanche threatening their lives prevented his death. The snow showering his body melted into water and soaked his burning clothes. That did not mean he was unharmed. The steam produced by the evaporating water roasted his face and neck, scalding his throat and lungs with each breath.

Ageha failed to parry a chunk of ice. The block, as hard as concrete, collided with his left shoulder. He flew backward and tumbled past Arashi. Despite his grievous injuries and depleted stamina, he wasted no time on the ground. He sprung back up, shoulders heaving, and stood in front of Arashi again.

After swatting away numerous smaller rocks, Ageha finally fell to one knee. His consciousness sunk into a haze. The feeling gradually disappeared from his arms and legs. Even so, he saved Arashi from a hunk of wood by using his body as a shield. Again, he was knocked down. The pain from his burns and oxygen deprivation shattered his concentration. His accelerated thoughts slowly ground to a halt.

But still he stood up.

To protect one thing.

His brain barely functioned.

His body was in tatters.

Thoughts of survival or the future had already vanished from his mind like a fleeting dream.

He only moved to protect the one thing within his arm’s reach, the defenseless girl behind him.

“Arashi!!!!!!”

He screamed as he tore apart countless blocks of ice heading their way. His second wind proved not inferior to the first, like a star blazing the brightest before death. If he held his ground, the avalanche would eventually end, and both of them would be saved.

Alas, reality loved pouring ice water on naive fantasies.

A thick tree, larger than the one Ageha had held up at the school courtyard to rescue Rin, rolled off the ridge in an almost lethargic manner. Jumping over it was out of the question. Not only was Arashi too far away to carry, a steady stream of snow and debris gushed just overhead.

He could only look up at his impending doom, lacking the energy to curse his luck.

 

***

 

The smell of sizzling meat entered her nostrils. Usually, that aroma immediately activated her salivary glands and roused her stomach acids. This time, it triggered intense agony in her heart, for the wafting scent came from the severe burns of her ruined protector.

Ageha could have escaped the avalanche if he had abandoned Arashi. Carrying her and her oversized rifle around had slowed him down significantly. Dodging the debris from under the ridge would have been much easier if he did not have to protect the useless baggage sprawled behind him.

Arashi wanted to help him. At the very least, she did not want to be a burden. However, her legs refused to move the way she wanted them to. Every time she stood up, her world tilted and twirled. If she joined the fray in that condition, it would only drag Ageha down.

All she could do was watch.

Watch Ageha burn to cinders because of her.

Watch him thrown around like a ragdoll because of her.

Watch him whittle away his life for her.

For her.

The girl who had accused him of deception, rejected his pleas, and avoided his presence. The fool who had cursed him, called him a disappointment, and conveniently forgotten everything he had done for her.

What was I thinking..?

No.

I wasn’t thinking.

That’s why it ended up like this.

A large tree peeked out from the ledge before tumbling towards them. Ageha was completely spent. There was no way he could stop it. Even so, he did not abandon Arashi. He stood in death’s way to protect her.

That confirmed the truth about everything he had said on the plane. Everything he had done, everything she had blamed him for, all of it was for her sake.

He had been, and still was, her hero.

A rival she longed to surpass.

A mentor she deeply respected.

The man she loved.

A man would never be defeated by something like this.

Or by anything else, for that matter.

There was only one thing she could do.

Arashi screamed at the top of her lungs. “Don’t lose!!!”

The piercing cry traveled through the rumbling air and hit Ageha’s back. He flinched, as if zapped by electricity, before raising both hands to the sky.

“Roger.”

He caught the tree with both hands. His fingers sank into the tree bark as his feet slid on the slope. He overexerted his alloy muscles to resist the momentum of the tree, eventually forcing it to a stop, but the danger did not end there. A giant boulder, larger than anything that threatened them before, followed right behind the tree.

With a beastly howl, Ageha embraced the tree trunk and swung the entire thing into the boulder. The tree splintered into pieces but successfully altered the rock’s trajectory. Several large chunks of ice, probably parts of the very first slab that started the avalanche, fell towards them. Ageha dodged the ones not headed for Arashi and kicked away the ones that were. He split a small piece in half with an uppercut and ducked under a flurry of smaller rocks. Arashi rolled sideways to avoid the shower of tiny debris, stopping just shy of their safe zone’s boundary.

The rumbling slowly dissipated, foretelling the end of the avalanche. Before Arashi could sigh in relief, the final obstacle, a thick plate of ice, about a dozen feet across, slid off the ridge. Ageha took a stance, preparing to smash it to pieces, but then abruptly stopped moving. The steamy haze constantly hanging around him slightly thinned.

What’s going on?

Oh no…

Even if Ageha’s indomitable will seemed to fuel him endlessly, there was one thing it could not do.

His power cells!!!

Overload mode consumed absurd amounts of energy, and Ageha had been using it at maximum output for almost the entire duration of the avalanche. Without energy, ARMS were nothing more than pillars of alloy. No amount of willpower could move them.

Arashi forced her wobbly legs to move. Unlike Ageha, it was impossible for her to break the slab with the amount of cybernetics she had. Instead, she decided to gamble on the fact that the landslide was nearing its end. She tackled Ageha’s immobile form, launching both of them outside the protective area of the ridge. A river of snow, albeit much slower than earlier, engulfed them in an instant.

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Eleven: Closing Distance

Ageha tapped his foot while waiting for the private jet’s door to open. Powerful gusts rolled through the secluded airfield, kicking up a thin layer of dust. He squinted to avoid getting dirt in his eyes. The girl beside him, whose eyes defaulted to half closed, did not bother. Noticing his gaze, Arashi quickly turned away, her lips pressed into a tight line.

Well this is awkward.

The prickly atmosphere between them was nothing new. For the past week, she had been treating him like air and only replying to questions relevant to her duties. Although there was no hostility in her demeanor, it was still a far cry from how much she fawned over him before Mitsuki’s demise. Arashi had been avoiding his cooking like a plague, surviving on take out and snacks.

The situation was still manageable when Saya and Kaika were around, but unfortunately, the tiny tycoon had received an urgent business call before they left for the airport, forcing her to stay in Japan. Naturally, the loyal butler had accompanied her mistress, leaving Ageha and Arashi alone together for the long haul U.S. flight.

Ageha would have preferred to delay the trip so that everyone could go together, but he and Arashi had been tasked to scout out several locations that might be used for Kaika’s plans.

The jet’s plug door opened with a deflating sound, alerting Ageha to an escape route. He quickly climbed the stairs and entered the aircraft, careful not to bang the oversized rucksack housing his armor and weapons on the walls. The lone female flight attendant tried to take his luggage, but he insisted on stowing the hefty bag into the spacious luggage compartment himself. The flight attendant told him he could choose any of the rather luxurious seats, so he took the one closest to the exit, a habit he picked up from his underworld work.

Arashi’s messy hair appeared from the doorway, reminding Ageha that his refuge was actually a prison of unease designed to hold him for half a day. After parking her rifle case in the luggage compartment, she strode along the wide aisle and took the seat all the way in the back. She clearly had no intention of interacting with him for the entire trip, significantly lowering Ageha’s spirits.

He could not blame Arashi for her cold attitude. He himself had reacted extremely upon finding out that Kaika had faked Saya’s death. Not only had he slapped Kaika in the face, he had also resigned from his job and joined Kaika’s rival. From Arashi’s perspective, he was the culprit behind Mitsuki’s death and her fake mother, so distrust was inevitable.

After his conversation with Rin, Ageha had realized that punishing himself would lead nowhere. The first thing he had to do was set things right, and that started from telling Arashi the truth. Respecting his initial decision, Saya and Kaika had not revealed anything to Arashi yet. She might not believe his story at first, but with enough persistence, he might just get through to her. The biggest problem was that Arashi had avoided all conversation with him for the past week, always silently running off whenever he started one.

Wait a minute.


This is my chance!

Arashi had nowhere to escape to in a pressurized metal tube thousands of feet in the air. He simply had to wait for the plane to take off before approaching her. He would explain everything truthfully, hoping that would reach Arashi’s heart.

“Please fasten your seatbelts,” said the flight attendant. “We will be taking off shortly.”

Ageha glanced at Arashi, who followed the instructions like a soldier, before fixing his own seatbelt. He had boarded a lot of flights in his life, but never had he felt so eager to get off the ground.

 

***

 

Noelle, perched on a makeshift platform attached to an electric pole about a mile from the airfield, watched the jet’s door close through her rifle scope. “The target didn’t show up.”

Nick’s voice flowed from her earpiece. “I see. Who boarded the plane?”

“Ageha Shikimi and Arashi.”

“You didn’t shoot Shikimi?”

“The target for this mission is Kaika Nikaido.”

“Indeed.”

“You don’t sound disappointed. Why is that? Thought you’d want a consolation prize.”

“Then why didn’t you shoot him?”

“I wasn’t ordered to. Arashi shouldn’t have to see the man she loves die in front of her. Killing Kaika Nikaido alone will solve everything, right?”

“True. Oh, I haven’t answered your question, have I? I’m not disappointed because I prepared something in case your sniping attempt failed. Kaika not being there is a surprise, but I’ll take what I can get.”

Noelle lowered her voice, adding a chill to her usually bubbly tone. “What are you planning?”

“You have your agenda, and I have mine.”

“…If you hurt Arashi-”

“Sergeant Truman, you’re forgetting your place. I did ask you to speak more casually, but that doesn’t exempt you from my command. I believe I’ve been more than lenient with your requests, but I can’t waste a rare opportunity like this. You will stand down and wait for your next orders. Understood?”

Noelle bit her bottom lip as hard as she could, causing blood to trickle down her chin. “Yes, sir.”

 

***

 

Why is he coming over!?

Arashi tried her best to appear calm as Ageha walked towards her. She instinctively looked for a way out, but her seat at the back end of the plane provided no escape. Her only real refuge would have been the bathroom located at the cabin midsection, but Ageha had already passed that door.

“Can I take a seat?” He put a hand on the backrest of the seat beside her.

She turned her head and tried to look out the window, forgetting she had not opened it. Essentially staring at a blank plastic cover, Arashi tried her best to stop a blush from forming on her cheeks. She knew her behavior was childish, but she could not help it. Being close to Ageha confused her profoundly. She loved him unquestionably, but the seeds of doubt and contempt had taken root in her heart, torturing her whenever they were together.

Taking her non-reply as a yes, Ageha gingerly sat down, as if afraid of scaring her away. “Can we talk for a bit?”

“…Is it about the mission?”

“Not exactly.”

“Then please… leave me alone.”

“This is important, Arashi. I want you to know the truth.”

The truth.

That was exactly what she wanted. However, could she trust his words?

“You don’t have to believe me, but at least hear me out. Please.”

It couldn’t hurt to listen, could it?

Don’t worry, Noelle.

I won’t be tricked so easily.

“Okay.”

Ageha reflexively did a small fist pump. It was such a cute gesture Arashi almost flashed a smile, but Noelle’s stern warnings helped her rein it in.

“Thanks. Now then… Where should I start?” Ageha interlocked his fingers on his lap, a strange show of nervousness from the eternally composed man. “First, everything I told you when you visited the mansion a while back is true.”

He confirmed it.

Noelle was right.

They really did lie to me…

Confirming her suspicions did not give her relief. Instead, a suffocating sadness pressed down on her heart.

“But it wasn’t the whole truth. I did kill Mitsuki, but we never intended for that to happen. The plan was to kidnap her and force Ria to surrender. The reason I threw that knife… was to save you.”

What did he just say?

To save me..?

Ageha had just confirmed the possibility she had been desperately denying.

“The larger robot was about to attack you. I had no other way to stop it aside from disabling Mitsuki. Even then, I never intended to kill her. I was aiming for her leg.”

“Liar! You wouldn’t miss at that distance!”

“Ria interrupted my throw.”

“But… that can’t…”

“Don’t get me wrong. Mitsuki’s death is still my responsibility. I knew the risks. I made the choice. I brought her into the fray. You and Ria have nothing to do with it.”

T-That’s right!

Even if what he is saying is true…

It’s still his fault!

Arashi’s mind frantically tried to make excuses for herself, trying to outrun the pitch black shadow of guilt looming over her shoulder. Ironically, Ageha claiming responsibility had given her a head start.

“As for hiding the plan from you… It was true that I pushed for it the hardest, but the idea came from Kai. I’m not blaming her. It was the right decision. Wavering during combat leads to death. I didn’t want to put you at risk by telling you to fight a friend… You weren’t supposed to find out until after I’d secured Mitsuki. If we could’ve done the operation without you, we would’ve. But Ria is too cunning and strong. Even with all of us busting our asses, we came up short.”

Arashi began shaking.

He hid the truth for my safety..?

That can’t be…

If it is, then what have I…

What have I been doing?

“Finally, about your mother.”

There’s that!

He can’t explain away something like that!

“I did tell Kai to hire that actress indefinitely, but the actress was already posing as your mother even before I found out about her. After you became blind from fighting Akane’s cyborg, Kai could’ve restored your vision immediately with bionic eyes. Your optic nerves were perfectly fine. She lied about your blindness being irreversible to take away your ability to fight.”

“That doesn’t make sense! Why would she do that!? I’m her bodyguard!”

“She wanted me to work for her again. She did it to prevent us from killing each other. Then she hired that actress to give you some consolation. I can’t find any excuses for Kai’s actions. She was completely wrong.”

Kai… was the one?

“That’s why I had to fix it. As a condition for my reemployment, I asked Kai to restore your vision, make the actress take plastic surgery to imitate your real mother, and have her act out that role for life. I promised Kai that I wouldn’t let you kill me, and I wouldn’t kill you no matter what. She agreed after that.”

“What..? Why?”

“I… didn’t want to rob you of the happiness you finally regained, and Kai didn’t want you to leave her. In the end, we lied to you for our own benefit. I’m sorry.”

“No way…”

“That’s everything. The whole truth.”

“Th-Then why did you say it in such a misleading way before!?”

“…Because I wanted to be punished for killing Mitsuki. I thought I deserved your hatred, all of it. But I was wrong. Reveling in my guilt won’t bring Mitsuki back. The best I can do for everyone I’ve wronged is to make it up to them moving forward. That’s why I’m trying to set everything right. I don’t want to deceive you anymore, Arashi.”

Arashi violently shook her head, her fingers grasping her hair. “I don’t believe this. I don’t believe you! Everything you just said makes you out to be some kinda hero! There’s no way I can accept it just like that!”

“You can ask Kai. She’ll confirm everything I said.”

“Of course she will! You’re all in cahoots!” She looked down, tears dropping onto her lap. Her fingers dug into the checkered skirt covering her black tights.

Ageha made a bitter smile. “…I guess things won’t go that easily.” He sighed as he stood up. “Like I said at the start, you don’t have to believe me. Thanks for letting me say my piece.” With heavy steps, he returned to his seat at the far end of the cabin.

Arashi curled up in the spacious leather seat, hugging her knees to her chest. The alloy limbs lent her no warmth, but that was fine. She desperately needed to hold onto something right now. Her entire world rocked and tilted from the clashing stories inside her head.

It can’t be true…

If it is…

Then I blamed Ageha for restoring my eyes.

I called him a liar for trying to keep me safe.

And… I killed Mitsuki.

No!!!

 

She clung to Noelle’s warning, words that foretold a plethora of lies Ageha, Kaika, and Saya would use to cajole her.

Lies!

Lies!!!

All lies!!!

She unconsciously reached for the mobile Noelle had given her. Even though she could not call the redhead in flight, the feeling of being connected to someone she could trust gave her a modicum of comfort.

I should’ve listened to Noelle…

Arashi had informed Noelle that she would be leaving the country to prevent her from worrying. The redhead had cautioned her about going on a trip with her manipulators, asking for details so she could help in case of an emergency. The show of concern had reminded Arashi of the old times, when everyone in her team got along so well.

Some time later, the flight attendant offered her a blanket, which she gratefully took. The world felt so cold to her that any warmth was welcome. She set the backrest as far as it would go and hid underneath the sheet. Within the darkness, she prayed for sleep to take her, but confusion and anxiety relentlessly rattled her mind. Hours of that torture passed.

An appetizing aroma caught her attention, stopping her waking nightmare. She peeked out of the blanket to see the flight attendant offering her a tray of food.

“Would you like to have a meal?”

Still in a daze, Arashi nodded without much thought and sat up straight, leaving her backrest lowered. The flight attendant placed the tray on her wide foldable table and poured her some wine. After making sure Arashi had everything she needed, the flight attendant brought out another plate of food for Ageha.

Feeling peckish from the long flight, Arashi prepared to dig into the meal. As she sliced up the hunk of roast beef on her plate, Ageha asked the flight attendant the strangest request.

“Can you try the food for me first?” He handed the flight attendant the utensils. “Being a chef, I’m a very picky eater. I refuse to put anything less than sublime in my mouth. You look like a cultured person. Can you give me your evaluation?”

“I’m very sorry, Shikimi-san. By policy, I’m not allowed to do that.”

“Policy? Isn’t this a private jet? Who cares about that?”

“I guarantee the food is up to par. It was prepared by a professional chef and loaded right before take off.”

“Which was more than four hours ago. How do you expect this to be any good?” He withdrew the silverware with a sigh. “Whatever.” Ageha took a spoonful of the mashed root vegetables and dipped it into the sauce. “How long til we land?”

“About eigh-”

Ageha shoved the spoonful of food into the flight attendant’s mouth. Visibly shocked, the flight attendant hopped back and spat the food out, a rather natural reaction. However, the flight attendant continued to spit saliva out, desperately trying to clean out her mouth, as if the food was…

“Poisoned,” mumbled Arashi.

“Arashi, don’t touch your food!” Ageha stood up and grabbed the flight attendant’s wrist. “Who sent you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! Please stop this!”

“Oh please. Flight attendants generally don’t have such thick calluses on their hands.”

“What do you mean!?” The woman struggled within his grasp, clenching her hands into fists to hide her palms. “You can’t tell something like that with just a glance!”

“Unlike most people, I have built-in zoom.”

The frightened expression on the flight attendant’s face instantly disappeared. A slim blade slid out from the sleeve of her free arm. She grabbed it and swung the tip at Ageha’s eye.

What an idiot.

This woman clearly doesn’t know who she’s dealing with.

Who else would attack Ageha while stuck in a metal tube with no exits?

The assassin screamed like a banshee as Ageha crushed her wrist. He did not even need to block the blade because the woman immediately crumpled to the floor.

A man in a jumpsuit with a parachute burst from an extra luggage compartment at the rear of the main cabin. He held a gun with both hands, aiming at Ageha. Arashi, who sat at the rearmost row, was watching from the gunman’s right side. Normally, she would find no reason to help Ageha fight against such fodder, but with one look at the man’s weapon, she realized the danger it posed.

“Ageha, stun gun!” Arashi leaned back onto the lowered backrest and kicked the gun out of the man’s hands.

The familiar sound of clanking metal told her his arms, or at the very least his hands, were cybernetic, explaining why they did not break on impact. She quickly twisted her torso sideways and launched another kick, this time aimed for his knee. The gunman swiftly raised the targeted leg, avoiding the blow.

This guy’s good!

In one swift motion, the gunman drew a compact electroshock baton and swung it at her. Still awkwardly sprawled on the chair, Arashi could not dodge it properly.

It had been a while since Arashi’s last fight. She had not trained or sparred at all since the battle against Valeriya. Moreover, her muscles had slightly atrophied due to malnutrition. They had recovered significantly since her return to the mansion but were still not in optimal condition.

In the world of athletics and martial arts, missing just a few days of training led to a significant decline in performance, and she definitely felt that in this unexpected conflict. That said, for a fighter that could keep up with two of the world’s deadliest melee fighters, that loss was inconsequential except for the most formidable of foes. Her current opponent did not belong in that category.

Arashi rolled sideways, dropping to the floor. The shock baton missed her by a hair and bounced off the seat. Using her momentum, she swung her elbow towards the man’s knee, a part she knew was likely human because he protected it earlier. The gunman raised his leg again to avoid the blow but failed to foresee Arashi’s follow up kick, which resembled a single leg raise.

The man managed to cross his cybernetic arms at the last moment to defend his lower abdomen, but the collision pushed him off balance. Taking advantage of the opening, Arashi rolled backward and performed a vertical kip-up kick with both feet, hitting his chest squarely. She maintained a handstand as the man flew up and slammed into the plane’s ceiling, denting the metal. The moment he hit the floor, she flipped out of her handstand and landed on his back.

“Looks like you still got it,” said Ageha as he searched the unconscious flight attendant-cum-assassin’s pockets. “I’ll tell Saya her capoeira lessons bore fruit.”

“Small fry don’t count.” Arashi stepped off the unconscious, likely dead, man.

The cockpit door opened, revealing the co-pilot with another stun gun, a weapon ideal for fighting against advanced cyborgs and within pressurized airplane cabins. The co-pilot pulled the trigger without hesitation. Ageha used the flight attendant as a shield to block the wired darts and tossed her aside. He did not even bother approaching the enemy, who practically had his back against the wall.

With a desperate yell, the co-pilot drew a stun baton and dashed towards him. Right before their respective reaches overlapped, Ageha stepped forward. It was the most basic of moves but when done at such speed, it appeared as if space itself contracted. Without even taking a stance, Ageha threw a lazy punch, almost akin to a friendly smack, hitting the co-pilot square in the nose. His solid metal knuckles broke most of the man’s facial bones and knocked him out cold.

Several gunshots echoed within the cabin. Alarms went off as the plane suddenly tilted. Air began rushing towards the cockpit.

“Shit!” Ageha ran towards the open cockpit door and peeked inside. “We have a problem.” He made room for Arashi, who followed behind him, to see inside the tiny space.

The pilot had shot himself in the head, but not before blowing holes throughout the cockpit and the control panels. The plane quickly lost pressure, and the malfunctioning controls forced the aircraft into a rapid descent.

“Can you do something about this!?” Ageha shouted over the loud sirens and gusts.

Arashi shook her head. Although her father’s comprehensive military training included basic aeronautical subjects, he had not taught her how to fly planes. Saya might be able to pilot one, but considering the extent of the damage, it was clear the plane would not land in one piece.

“Dammit!” Ageha slammed his hand into the pilot seat backrest. “I refuse to die here!”

“There’s still a way.”

She studied the working monitors and gauges. Fortunately, the damaged controls left the air brakes engaged, slowing the plane down. However, their altitude was still dropping quickly.

Arashi ran back to the man in a jumpsuit and took off his parachute. After quickly equipping it on herself, she took out her rifle case from the storage compartment and unboxed her rifle.

“Hold this.” She tossed the weapon to Ageha. “I’m not losing it again.”

He strapped the rifle to his back. “You’re pretty calm considering the situation.”

“My father taught me to skydive from high altitudes when I was thirteen.”

“Great. Then we’ll be okay.”

“Not exactly. The plane is moving too fast, we’re too high up, and we only have one single-person parachute. The chance of us surviving the jump is low.”

“Business as usual.” Ageha shrugged.

Judging from the enemies’ preparedness, there were probably spare parachutes hidden inside the plane. However, they did not have the time to look for them.

Arashi pulled the emergency lever by the cabin door. The door disengaged and instantly got sucked into the atmosphere. If they were to survive this ordeal, they would have to time their jump perfectly.

Arashi faced Ageha with a serious expression. “Carry me by the waist and hold on tightly.” She embraced his neck as he gently lifted her off the floor. “You have to jump up from the ledge… to avoid hitting the wing and engine. After we clear the plane, spread your legs wide to increase air resistance. Now hold your breath until I say otherwise.”

Ageha took a deep breath from the still oxygen rich cabin air and nodded.

“Jump!”

With a running start, Ageha leapt off the plane. The tip of his boot almost grazed a tail flap as they tumbled through a cloud. Arashi extended her arms to correct their position. Ageha, a complete newbie at skydiving, forgot to open his legs, so Arashi tapped his knee with her foot to remind him. They achieved a proper X stance, with Arashi’s arms spread out on top and Ageha’s legs at the bottom, after several tries.

Due to their trained cardiovascular systems and limited oxygen-consuming body parts, holding their breath for around five minutes was an easy feat, eliminating the threat of hypoxia.

They soared through the clouds until the land underneath them came into view. Endless snow topped mountains consumed their vision, reminding Arashi of the brutally cold winds ravaging them. Swathes of green and brown could be seen dotting the black and white expanse below. Upon reaching the ideal height, Arashi wrapped her legs around Ageha’s and then pulled the parachute cord.

A powerful jolt ran throughout their bodies, but ARMS could easily handle that amount of tension. Unfortunately for them, the parachute was not as dependable.

We’re falling too fast!

Arashi tried her best to control the parachute, but it was not designed to carry more than one person, much less two cyborgs and an oversized custom rifle.

Should I ask Ageha to drop the gun?

She shook her head. If they were going to get marooned in a mountain range, they would need a way to defend themselves and survive. The rifle was critical for that.

I can do this!

With skilled maneuvering, she successfully avoided getting thrown around by the wind and gradually lowered their altitude.

Then she felt something odd from the parachute. Looking up, she saw a small tear in the canopy gradually grow larger due to the unnaturally fast descent and heavy load. Their  speed increased as they fell closer to the ground. The objects on the ground, from bushes to boulders, increased in clarity. The canopy tear widened into a gaping hole, turning their parachute into a glorified tent.

“Ageha, I’ll guide us towards the trees! Can you use your legs to break our fall!?”

“I’ll try!”

She pulled on the cords and flew them to the closest patch of trees. Ageha extended his right leg and kicked off a tree trunk, barely slowing them down. Changing tactics, he shifted his body to Arashi’s flank raised his legs forward and used it to ram the branches blocking their path.

It’s working!

Arashi guided the parachute as Ageha used himself as a contact brake. This went well for a few seconds, but the parachute got caught in the branches behind them, causing them to stop abruptly. With the forward momentum gone, they swung backward towards a thick tree trunk. Ageha quickly rotated their bodies and took the brunt of the impact on his back, but Arashi’s head snapped sideways from the clash and hit the barky wood.

She groggily looked up to see a beautiful silhouette of the forest canopy backdropped by the cerulean sky before fading into unconsciousness.

 

Next Chapter

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.”

 

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