Category Archives: Volume Four

Epilogue

“A toast to leaving the hospital,” said Yama as he raised his wineglass.

Rin gently clinked her glass to his and took a sip of Pinot Grigio.

“On second thought, should you really be drinking?”

“You were the one who ordered the wine.”

“I kinda just went with the flow. Sorry about that.”

Rin smiled at him. “No worries. A bit of wine shouldn’t be a problem. I’m sorry too, for making you push me around the whole night.” She tapped the armrest of her wheelchair.

The chair’s mechanical design clashed with the ambience of the fancy restaurant. Though she worked at a rather classy restaurant herself, she rarely had the chance to dine in one. Unsure how to behave, she stuck out like a sore thumb.

“It’s no problem at all!” said Yama. “I’ll escort you everyday if you want!”

The same could be said for her date.

Yama looked uncomfortable in his stiff tuxedo. The restaurant was upscale, but none of the other diners had such formal attire. He was way too overdressed.

It was charming.

Yama was a decade older than her, but the way he tried too hard was endearing and cute.

He was nothing like Ageha. And that was a good thing.

Rin covered her mouth with a hand and giggled. “No need for that. Rehab is going well. I should be up and about in a month or so.”

“That’s great! The head chef will be happy. The new camerieras need someone to show them how the job is done. We’ve been cycling through newbies ever since you got hospitalized.”

“I’m surprised I still have a job, to be honest.”

“What are you on about? Everyone at Sapore loves you.”

“Even you?”

“…More than anyone else, yeah.” Yama managed to say his line straight, but his cheeks glowed red from embarrassment.

Rin laughed out loud. A few of the neighboring diners sent them irritated glances for the ruckus, but she could not care less. It had been a while since she enjoyed a meal so much.

She reigned in her laughter. “Don’t say it if you’re gonna regret it.”

“I don’t regret it.” Still red-faced, he gazed at her with a solemn expression. “I’m serious, Rin.”

She knew he was. His feelings were plain as day.

But what about me?

A buzzing sound came from her purse.

“Sorry.” She took out her mobile and checked the display.

Ageha?

Rin gave Yama an apologetic smile. “I gotta take this.”

“Who is it?”

“It’s Ageha.”

Yama’s expression withered as he mumbled, “What’s with that timing..?”

“I’d take it outside if I could, but it’s a bit inconvenient with wheels. Do you mind?”

“No, no. Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” She pressed a button and put the phone to her ear. “What’s up?”

“I have to ask you something,” said Ageha.

“I thought it was an emergency.” Rin sighed.

“It’s not an emergency, but it’s urgent.”

Then he dropped a completely unexpected question on her.

However, she did not even take a second to reply. “You don’t have to do that.”

“…Understood.” Ageha ended the call.

“What did he say?” asked Yama with a worried look.

“He just asked for my opinion about something.”

“But you seem really happy…”

“Really?” She touched her cheek. “It’s just your imagination. Anyway, back to what you were saying.”

“W-We can talk about that later.”

“Why wait? Please, tell me.”

Yama took the table napkin and used it to wipe his sweating forehead. Rin unconsciously grinned at how panicked he was. He took a deep breath to collect himself.

“I like you, Rin-chan. Would you please go out with me?”

“Sure.”

“Sorry, that was too sudden right? Please forget what I said. Can we at least go back to being frie-”

“I agreed, Yama-san.” Rin took his floundering hand in hers and set it on the table.

“…You’re not joking?”

“Who’d joke about this?”

“I’m not dreaming?”

Rin pinched the back of his hand.

“IT HURTS!!! HELL YEAH!!!” shouted Yama as he shot up from his seat.

Everyone in the dining room glared at him. He sat back down while repeatedly bowing his head to the other patrons.

Really.

So cute.

 

***

 

“You’ve gone up in the world since we last saw each other,” said Ageha.

“It’d be more accurate to say I’ve gone down, considering I’m in the underworld now.” Mei Xing gestured to the chair beside him. “Take a seat.”

Ageha sat down and looked around. The club was empty, apparently reserved for just the two of them. The guards had let Ageha inside surprisingly easily. He had expected at least a pat down before meeting the new dragon head of the resurrected Soaring Serpent Society, not that it really would have mattered given his body.

The bartender took their orders and prepared their drinks.

“I didn’t think you were interested in joining the triad,” said Ageha. “What made you change your mind?”

“I picked up a cat.”

“You mean that woman called Mao?”

“How did you know?”

“A little devil whispered to me.”

“Nikaido-sama is scary.”

“I know right. You better be careful when dealing with her.”

“I’ll do my best not to get in her way.”

The bartender placed two glasses filled with brandy in front of them. They drank down the pungent liquid in one stroke.

“Looks like you can handle your drink better,” said Mei Xing.

“A little bit. Can’t have you drinking me under the table every time.”

“Too bad. I was looking forward to that.”

“I’ll turn the tables on you someday.”

“Maybe Li Xue will be drinking with us by then.”

The bartender refilled their glasses.

Ageha raised his cup an inch from the counter and stared at its contents. “Are you sure about this?”

“I would’ve stayed at the inn if I wasn’t. The triad isn’t a place you can visit, much less lead, on a whim.”

“What did Setsu say?”

“She supported me all the way. She even helps me with the administrative work. Crunching numbers and personnel management is second nature to her. Her experience managing the inn for all those years seems to be paying off. I’m just a little worried she may be pushing herself too much.”

“It’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen. A partner who’ll forgive you for anything is not a reason to indulge but an incentive to improve.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“Maybe.”

Mei Xing chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“What about Li Xue?”

“…Her safety is my biggest worry, actually. But I’ve thought about that ever since we were attacked. I’m already in danger just by being related to my father. Even if I didn’t involve myself in the triad, I think people would still try to use my lineage for their own purposes.”

“Is triad leadership decided by blood?”

“It usually isn’t, but Father was a special case. Even before he took the top seat, he was loved by those under him and feared by those against him. For decades, he was instrumental in expanding and strengthening the triad’s power in China. Most importantly, the infighting between the triads disappeared during his reign, as short as it was. His name alone carries a lot of influence, and I inherited that. That’s why I got to the dragon head seat in such a short time. I’m sure the bosses who agreed to put me on the pedestal are just trying to use my name, but that’s fine for now.”

“You dove into the underworld to protect Li Xue? If it’s just that, I’m sure I can manage something. It’s not too late to change your mind.”

“Don’t misunderstand. It’s not enough for us to be safe. I can’t forget the powerlessness I felt when Zhi Zhu ordered his men to kill my daughter. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do anything to save her. I could only cry and beg, but that didn’t change a thing. I’d rather die than experience that again. That’s why I need real power to protect my family with my own hands.”

Ageha glanced at the ring on his hand, the first and only present he received from Kureha. “I can understand that.”

“I also have other reasons for doing this.”

Mei Xing told Ageha about Mao’s testimony regarding his father in detail. Ageha finally understood why Mei Xing, who used to hate his father, chose to follow in his footsteps.

“Father was protecting me and my family from the shadows, but I abandoned him without knowing anything. I want to clear that debt.”

“I guess even families are not immune to misunderstandings.”

“Of course not. But I believe it’s possible to overcome such mistakes precisely because we are family. It’s a little too late for me and my father though.”

Ageha recalled the faces of those close to him. A lot of things had happened between them, but despite all that, Saya, Kaika, and Arashi had become unquestionably irreplaceable to him.

Family, huh?

Ageha took a swig of his liquor. “So, what am I doing here? You didn’t ask me to fly all the way to China to chat, right?”

“I looked forward to drinking with you again the most, but you’re right. I called you as a representative of Nikaido-sama. I want to give her a gift for saving my family.” Mei Xing emptied his glass and got up from the stool.

Ageha followed suit. Mei Xing led him across the lounge area and inside an employee-only labeled corridor. After turning a corner in the hallway, they reached a closed wooden door. Mei Xing knocked twice and opened it. A familiar stench of rust wafted through the air.

Inside was a woman in a miniskirt qipao. She was surprisingly well-endowed despite her slender physique. Beside her was someone Ageha recognized.

Akane Kogami.

But she looked different than he remembered.

She did not look like this when he had threatened her in her bathroom.

Back then, she was still complete.

Akane was on a chair, completely naked. Rather than sitting, it was more accurate to say she was placed on it. She had no arms or legs.

“I’m sure you already know Kogami, so I’ll skip her introduction.” Mei Xing walked past Akane. “This is my bodyguard, Mao. Mao, this is Ageha Shikimi, the friend I owe my life to.”

Ageha pointed at Mao with his eyes. “Did she do this?”

“No, no. Mao caught her for me, but she is too kind for torture. I had a specialist take care of Kogami.”

The carefree smile on Mei Xing’s face did not falter. His thin eyes made it hard to ascertain what exactly he was feeling as he gazed at the mutilated woman.

Blood seeped out of the sutured wounds on Akane’s shoulders and hips. Her eyes were half-open, but Ageha could not tell if consciousness still existed beyond them.

“This woman owes you too, right?” asked Mei Xing.

“Where did you hear that?”

“From Kogami herself. She told us everything after we took off her fingernails. Our specialist got too excited and kept going, so she ended up like this. I didn’t stop him so I’m equally at fault, I guess.”

“You were watching?”

“Yes, I wanted to hear the information myself.”

But she already told you everything while her limbs were still attached.

Ageha did not voice his thoughts. Judging from Mei Xing’s expression, it was neither information nor vengeance that motivated Akane’s torture. She was an example.

Akane Kogami had been chosen as the sacrifice to etch Mei Xing’s name into the annals of the underworld.

“Why are you showing this to me?” asked Ageha.

“She is the gift. We’re done with her, so you can take her if you want.”

“…Give me a minute. I need to ask my employer.”

“Hurry up. The boss is a busy man,” said Mao as she sent an irritated glare towards Ageha.

“You can joke with me all you want,” said Mei Xing, “but there are limits. Ageha is my guest.”

Regret flitted across Mao’s face. “Sorry, Boss.” She then bowed to the visitor. “Sorry too, Shikimi-san.”

“I don’t mind. I’m used to unreasonable demands from women.”

Ageha called Kaika on his mobile. After a few rings, she answered.

“I have Akane in front of me right now. Mei Xing is giving her to you as a gift. She lost her arms and legs during the triad’s interrogation. What should I do with her?”

“I see. Just kill her. I have no taste for cruelty. Get whatever info you can from Mei Xing. I’m sure she spilled everything already.”

“Understood.” Ageha cut the call.

“Did you reach a decision?” asked Mei Xing.

“I need to call one more person.” Ageha searched for another name in his contact list.

Rin.

The call connected.

“I have to ask you something,” he said.

“I thought it was an emergency,” said Rin.

“It’s not an emergency, but it’s urgent. I have Akane in front of me right now. She lost her arms and legs due to torture and is practically a living corpse. Kai told me to put her out of her misery. What do you think?”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“…Understood.” Ageha pressed the red button and pocketed his mobile. He turned to Mei Xing. “Can I ask you a favor?”

Mei Xing made a gentle smile. “What are friends for?”

“I was told to keep her alive in that state. Can you do that for me?”

“Natsume-san’s request, I take it? Consider it done.” Mei Xing opened the door leading back to the hallway. “That concludes official business. Let’s go back to the bar and have a few more rounds.”

Ageha noticed Mao’s affectionate gaze on Mei Xing’s back as the two men left the room.

“Isn’t Mao going to join us?” asked Ageha.

“I figured we’d drink with just us guys, but I can ask her if you want.”

“No, I’ve had enough of that condescending stare for one night.”

“That’s just an act. She’s really a kind girl.”

“If you peel away enough layers, every person in this world is kind.”

“Even Kogami?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s unfortunate that people can only see and touch the layers, not the core.”

“Something unreachable is meaningless.”

“I disagree on one point. A person’s core isn’t unreachable. It’s just a matter of time and effort.”

“Like how you reached Mao’s core? It’s obvious she likes you.”

Mei Xing laughed. “I’ve yet to even scratch her surface.”

They arrived at the bar and returned to their seats. Refreshed drinks were waiting for them on the counter.

Ageha took a sip, pacing himself. “Are you sleeping with her?”

“Not yet.”

“The hell kinda answer is that?”

“She just sees my father’s shadow when she looks at me. I won’t take advantage of that. Things might be different if she comes to see me as myself.”

“That’s not what I meant. You’re married.”

“Setsu’s fine with it. We have an open relationship. We’ve never had other partners though.”

Ageha shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“That’s unexpected from a guy who drags around a bunch of beauties everywhere.”

“I only have eyes for Saya. I just tease her because I love the face she makes when she gets jealous.”

“But you were looking at Mao’s breasts earlier.”

“Can you blame me? They’re amazing.”

“You just said you only have eyes for-”

“A figure of speech.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

They laughed.

 

***

 

A knock came from the door.

“It’s open,” said Kaika.

Saya entered the bedroom and shut the door. “You called, Ojousama?”

Kaika rotated her swivel chair to face her butler. “I have something to ask you.”

“I am all ears,” said Saya.

For weeks, Kaika had debated with herself whether to confirm her suspicions or not. In the end, she had decided to ask the dangerous question.

“Who do you think tricked Zhang into thinking that his son died?”

Saya thought for a moment. “It is impossible to say for certain, but it is likely that Zhi Zhu did it to make Zhang come after you. If you and Zhang fell together, he would have had control of the triads. With his level of skill, he was probably confident he’d succeed in killing Mei Xing anyway and sent the information in advance so Zhang could catch us before we left the States.”

“But Mei Xing’s story doesn’t match that. He said Zhi Zhu accused him of being a traitor and was loyal to Zhang to the end.”

“Even if we take Mei Xing’s story at face value, Zhi Zhu’s words are completely untrustworthy.”

“True. Zhang received the false information too quickly, even before Ageha and Arashi landed in China. Not only that, Zhang didn’t verify the info before launching his attack. His source was trustworthy, at least in his eyes. That deception requires extensive manipulation of information within the triad, and Zhi Zhu was in the perfect position to do just that.”

“I believe that is correct.”

Kaika closed her eyes, brows furrowed.

I knew it.

She closely observed her butler. “How did you know that?”

“Know what?”

“Zhang indeed got word of Mei Xing’s death quickly. But how did you know that was before Ageha arrived in China? Zhang explained that detail only to me.”

Saya’s expression did not change one bit. “I just assumed it was correct because you mentioned it.”

“That isn’t like you, Saya. If I mention something you don’t know or expect, you always ask about it. You’ve always been like that. But just now, you agreed with information only I should know.”

“I just considered the timing. If Zhang got the fake news after Ageha’s arrival, it would be near impossible for Mao’s group to catch us at the hotel. They would not have had enough time to prepare the attack.”

“…You’re right. Perfectly right.” Kaika shook her head. “But you also made a mistake.”

Saya did not break eye contact with Kaika, as if confident in her innocence.

Kaika stood up from her chair and approached her butler. “Why are you so calm? I’m interrogating you right now, you know?”

Saya’s eyebrows flinched.

“There,” said Kaika as she pointed at Saya’s face. “That was the reaction I was looking for. But it happened too late. You’re too prepared for this line of questioning. Even an innocent person can appear guilty depending on the situation. Considering our relationship, you should’ve been more aggravated and defensive the moment I doubted you. But you stayed unnaturally calm.”

Saya looked down and closed her eyes without replying.

“Deception isn’t about logic. It’s about emotion. And faking that becomes harder the more a person knows you. And I know you.”

“…My apologies, Ojousama.” Saya bowed deeply. “It is as you surmised.”

Of course it is.

But I didn’t want to be right.

Not this time.

Saya raised her head, not an ounce of guilt in her expression. “I leaked the fake information about Mei Xing’s death to Zhang.”

“I see. I already know, but I’ll ask why anyway.”

“I did it because it was the best course of action. It was something you would have done, Ojousama.”

“But I didn’t do it.”

“That is because you are bound by your oath to Ageha, and Ageha is Mei Xing’s friend.”

“And you’re his lover.”

“But I can lie to him if I need to. Zhang’s death is for everyone’s sake. You will have more control over Guangxi, and Ageha and Arashi will face less danger with one less formidable enemy. It turned out even better than I expected when Mei Xing became the dragon head of the Soaring Serpent Society. Having a true ally in China puts us all in a better position.”

“…Ageha cannot know about this.”

Kaika did not miss the flash of irritation on her butler’s face.

“But what about your oath?”

Kaika knew there would come a time when she would break her promise with Ageha, and that was now.

“I’ll break it. He has to be able to trust you, Saya.”

Even if that means losing his trust in me one day.

“…What is with that? Why are you breaking it so easily? He trusts you.”

“Because I don’t want this to get between the two of you.”

“…He forgave you for faking my death. I am certain he will forgive me for this.”

“He probably will, but it isn’t worth risking.”

My word isn’t that valuable anyway.

“Why are you doing this, Ojousama? This is not like you at all. The plot to kill Zhang using the Americans should have been the first thing you came up with. …You have changed.”

Saya was correct. Kaika had considered the exact same plan but dismissed it. She had grown too afraid of losing Ageha. The extra benefits from killing Zhang were not worth the risk.

“Who hasn’t?”

“…Is it pity?” Saya gave Kaika an accusatory look.

“…Excuse me?”

“Do you think you can afford to break your promises to him, while I can’t lie to him even once? Do you think… he cares about you more than he does for me?” Saya bit her lips as tears gathered at the corners of her eyes.

This is…

Jealousy.

I’m a failure as a mistress.

Why did I let it get to this point?

Kaika and Ageha thought Saya looked adorable when she acted jealous.

But this was different.

There was nothing cute to see here.

Helen of Troy was famous as the face that launched a thousand ships, but that was inaccurate. What caused the Trojan war was her husband’s jealousy. No other emotion ignited illogical anger to such an extent.

“That’s not it at all, Saya! I’ve never thought of Ageha that way!”

“You expect me to believe that after your breakdown at the hotel?”

“That’s different! That’s…”

Different?

Is he family?

But I don’t care about family.

And I don’t have friends.

I just have tools.

Then how is he different?

“See!? You cannot even answer!” Saya wiped her tears on her forearms, soiling her pristine white sleeves.

No, it really is different.

That’s right.

He is myself.

A broken human.

A former human.

Losing him means losing a part of myself.

Kaika could not say that in fear of worsening the situation.

“I care about him as a tool, nothing more. Trust me, Saya.”

“I wish I could.” Saya’s words were broken up by sobs. “But how can I do that after you killed Kureha-Ojousama!?”

Kaika’s mind ground to a halt, but her deeply ingrained training in deception caused her body to move anyway.

“Do you even hear yourself right now? How can you even think that!?”

Righteous rage seethed from Kaika’s gaze. Her breathing got rough from indignation.

Her acting was flawless. She was the picture of innocence.

“It is useless. I knew I could never see through your lies, so I got evidence. I tracked down the sister of the maid you used to leak my absence that night. You invited Kousuke’s attack so Kureha would get killed… All so you could control Ageha!”

It’s no use.

I can’t lie my way through this.

No.

That’s not it.

I don’t want to.

She decided to trust in Saya.

To entrust her beloved sister with the truth.

And so Kaika confessed.

“That’s not it… I didn’t want that to happen. I knew it was possible, but so were many other outcomes. It was just a gamble, like any other… That’s the truth, Saya. Please believe me.”

“I want to believe you, Ojousama. I really do. But please, tell me how?”

“I…” Kaika’s face slackened and lost all expression. “I don’t know.”

The lone devil trusted too little, and thus got none in return.

Changing her ways at this point was too little and too late.

She offered her heart, a thing she did not have a year before, and it got smashed to pieces.

Tears streamed down her face, but she did not cry out. Kaika just stood there, unsure what to think or what to do.

Seeing her state, Saya calmed down. She walked closer to Kaika and bent her knees to match her height.

“I am sorry, Ojousama. I got too emotional… and said too much. I am very sorry.”

Saya believes me.

She believes me!

Kaika extended her right hand. She reached out for her loyal butler, her loving sister, her perfect tool.

But she grasped only air.

Saya had stepped back.

“I love you, Kaika. But that doesn’t mean I can forgive anything.”

Saya’s casual speech and cold tone terrorized her. Kaika trembled.

“If this is about Kureha, I told you, I didn’t want that to happen!”

“It’s not that. We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of. But I won’t give up Ageha to anyone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being this weak. I’m sorry for loving the same man.”

“I don’t feel that way about him! Why can’t you understand that!?”

“I won’t tell him about Kureha-Ojousama. And you won’t tell him about my involvement in Zhang’s death. That’s a fair trade, right?” Saya headed for the door.

It was not fair at all.

Ageha would easily forgive Saya’s plot to kill Zhang, but he would never forgive Kaika for killing Kureha, even if it was half by accident.

Even now, Saya cared for and prioritized her.

“Wait!” Kaika grabbed her vest from behind.

The butler halted. She stifled her sobs with all her might, but she could not stop her shoulders from jerking. Saya seemed like a newborn fawn trying to stand on its own legs for the first time.

She is hurting much more than I am.

Saya did not care for anyone or anything more than she did for Kaika and Ageha. Now she was being pulled apart from both ends by her two-pronged jealousy. The late-blooming queen-of-all-trades had no resistance against it. The green-eyed monster was devouring her from within.

Kaika let go. Saya hurriedly left the room.

Left alone, Kaika sank to the floor. She sat there motionless, a lifeless doll staring blankly at the door.

About ten minutes passed.

Kaika pulsed back to life.

Something like this…

Getting in between me and Saya…

Her fledgling attempts at trusting others had taught Kaika despair.

But they had also taught her hope.

And unlike Ageha or Saya, she was tough as nails.

I’ll crush that jealousy to dust.

She picked herself up and headed for the study.

 

***

 

From underneath the bed, Arashi watched her mistress leave the room.

Half an hour ago, she had come into Kaika’s bedroom while the owner was away to grab some dolphin cookies. Ever since Kaika had used those treats to teach her the legendary skill “Banzai,” she had gotten addicted to them. Whenever she got a craving for some, she secretly took a few pieces from Kaika’s bedside drawer.

Just the other day, Arashi had accompanied her mistress outside to restock the dwindling cookie supply. She knew she could sneak some out without getting noticed.

But Kaika had suddenly entered the room while Arashi was ransacking the stash. With no other escape route, Arashi had rolled underneath the bed before being seen, accidentally bringing the whole tub of cookies with her. Soon after, Saya had entered the bedroom to speak with Kaika. Then a fight had broken out between them.

Crap!

I ate half of them…

She had gotten so engrossed with the rare spectacle that she munched on the dolphin cookies without noticing.

Arashi crawled out of the narrow space and listened through the door for any possible witnesses. Hearing nothing, she grabbed a few more cookies and stealthily left the room.

 

***

 

“Hello?” Mitsuki wiped the sweat off her face with a towel while speaking to her mobile. “Why’d you call so early in the morning? Don’t tell me you wanna eat out again?”

She had just finished the first part of her daily kendo training when she received a call from Arashi. The shouts of men practicing sword swings made it hard to talk, so she jogged to the dressing room.

“I need… some advice,” said Arashi.

“What about?”

“Uhm… Can you keep this a secret? You can’t tell… anyone.”

“I swear on my father’s grave.”

“I have this friend… and another friend. They are really close, like sisters, but they got into a fight. They haven’t been getting along well since then. What can I do… to help them make up?”

Mitsuki breathed a sigh of relief.

I was worried it was about Ageha for a second.

I’m glad it’s nothing big.

“That depends. What were they fighting about?”

“The older one, let’s call her S, planned something… behind her friend’s back. Her friend, let’s call her K, killed someone named Kureha-”

“Wait, did you just say killed?”

“Uhuh.”

So much for nothing big.

Why does everything about Arashi end up with someone dying?

“Okay, I’ve switched gears. Go on.”

Arashi did her best to explain, but Mitsuki could barely grasp the situation. It seemed the circumstances were fairly complex. Moreover, Arashi’s lacking vocabulary made it even harder to understand.

Mitsuki rubbed her chin. “I think it’s just a misunderstanding. Try talking to each of them separately and ask them to talk it over.”

She just made up some random advice to get through the call. Mitsuki did not want Arashi to think she could not be depended on. It had been difficult to convince the sleepy-eyed teen that she was the big sister in their relationship. The process had taken a lot of restaurant bills and antacids. Mitsuki did not want to waste that.

“Thanks… for the advice. K is calling. I have to go. Later.”

“Sure, anytime.”

Mitsuki felt satisfied having helped out a friend in need.

 

***

 

Sakuya opened her eyes. She was in the bath, neck-deep in steaming water. The switching had gotten more frequent and random. Strangely, Mitsuki never seized control while Sakuya was awake. It was always the other way around.

S and K.

Saya Saionji and Kaika Nikaido.

K killed Kureha.

Kureha Nikaido.

Kaika’s sister.

This is going to be fun!

Sakuya dipped her head into the water and blew bubbles with her laughter.

 

***

 

Valeriya briskly typed on her keyboard and hit enter.

“Yahallo~ Nicky!”

Her chat avatar was the orgasmic, goo-speckled face of a heterochromatic goth loli with blond twintails.

A reply appeared on her screen in less than a second.

“My name is Nick, not Nicky. And please stop using that greeting. It doesn’t work when you’re five foot ten.”

“You type ridiculously fast, as usual.”

“I’m not typing. I’m texting on my mobile. It’s an innate skill of my people. BTW, your avatar is NSFW.”

“That’s just cream on her face.”

“Do you expect me to explain that every time someone looks over my shoulder?”

“Is there anyone who would actually do that?”

“Well, no, not anymore.”

“I take it that means you’ve gotten rid of the geezers? /人◕ ‿‿ ◕人\

“Yeah, I control the people’s army now. I planned to inform you after doing the clean up, but your ears are sharper than I thought. As promised, you can have the mines in Palawan.”

“d(*・ω・*)b♪ Glad to see the people and money I gave you were put to good use.”

“Next is the Muslim Congregation. I look forward to having your continued support.”

“You’ll have it as long as you stick to the deal. Kaika is getting bigger by the moment (lol I wasn’t trying to be funny). She has solid ties in China now.”

“I underestimated her. Maybe I should’ve sided with her when I had the chance.”

“And miss out on all this fun?”

“You’re the only one having fun.”

“Then join in! 〜( ̄▽ ̄〜)(〜 ̄▽ ̄)〜”

“Pass. I think I’ll stick to the sidelines for this one.”

A knock came from Valeriya’s door.

“I have a visitor. Chat with ya later. Bye-ni~” Valeriya switched her active screen to the anime series she was watching earlier. “It’s open.”

Viktor entered the study. “I heard Zhang was killed by the Americans.”

“Where’s Mitsuki?”

“In the bath. Don’t tell me you want me to guard her there too?”

“Try it and I’ll rip out your spine. I’ll even shout ‘Fatality’ as I do it.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. The less work, the better. I’m already exhausted from chasing after her when she runs around with that tomboy.”

“Be careful with Arashi Tanizaki.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve seen her in action. Anyway, about Zhang.”

“Yeah, you heard right.”

“Zhi Zhu screwed up?”

“Zhi Zhu is dead.”

“…That monster died? That’s unexpected.”

“No, that part went according to plan.”

“I’ve been out of the loop.”

“Sorry, that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted you to focus on protecting Mitsuki.”

Viktor shrugged. “That’s okay. But can you at least explain this plan of yours?”

“I just pitted a monster against a monster. If Kaika went against Zhang, it was inevitable that Ageha would fight Zhi Zhu. Once Zhi Zhu is gone, Zhang would be defenseless.”

“That kid killed Zhi Zhu?”

“Of course he did. I wouldn’t have chosen him for the part if he wasn’t capable of it. Zhang dying in the States was a stroke of good luck. When I heard about that, I got ready to stick my fork into the triads. The problem is what happened after that. Zhang’s son Mei Xing became the new dragon head.”

“…That’s a problem. If he finds out that we killed his mother-”

I killed his mother. You went on my orders and bear no responsibility. It was an immature decision on my part.”

“You were young. That’s normal.”

“Doesn’t make it any less stupid. I thought losing his wife would make Zhang more vulnerable, but it backfired and made him more dangerous. If the son is anything like his father…”

Viktor’s stern face grew grim.

Valeriya leaned back in her chair. “What’s worse, Mei Xing is in cahoots with Kaika. Trying to kill him might trigger a domino effect I can’t control.”

“You better give up on China for now.”

“Right. That’s a dead end. Talk about digging my own grave.” She rubbed her temples.

“Flustered because you didn’t get what you wanted? I thought you’d matured, but it seems you’re still the girl who tried to pick a fight with me decades ago.”

“Don’t you mean ‘the girl who kicked your ass?’”

“I remember it the other way around.”

“That’s called Alzheimer’s.” Valeriya unwrapped a lollipop and gave it a lick. “Mitsuki should be getting out of the bath soon.”

“I’ll get back to work then.” He opened the door and stepped outside.

“Thank you for coming back, Viktor.”

Keeping his back to her, he waved a hand before disappearing from view.

 

***

 

“Sign the contract with NGC, General,” said a plump woman with curly brown hair. “Make sure to reverse engineer their technology once we get it.”

Walker stifled a sigh. “Yes, Senator Garvey.”

“That’s all. You may go.”

After a perfect salute, Walker left the senator’s office. He felt the urge to smoke because the conversation, if one-sided prattle could be called that, had left a bad taste in his mouth.

How the mighty have fallen.

Senator Garvey was a retired military officer. She had never fought in any wars, but the stories of her valor in peacekeeping missions were abundant. Now she was just a fat pig with a fat brain.

Does she really think Nikaido will provide us with their best technology?

The US is too powerful.

If my read on that girl is right, she’ll favor the other countries to even the field.

But that’s alright.

America did not have advanced cybernetics technology because the government did not invest in its development. The torturous pain involved in nerve alignment and the requirement of body modification did not fit well with their democratic ideals and adherence to human rights. Instead, they had devoted their infantry research on armored suits, which had progressed quite nicely in recent years.

We don’t need help.

But buying some of their supplies at least guarantees it doesn’t go anywhere else.

And the technology we do get will give us a rough idea of what we’re up against.

The politicians, rotting on their thrones of comfort and abundance, had no idea what was coming.

Peace dulled not only the body but also the mind.

Walker, along with many high-ranking US military officers, shared that belief.

The only thing left to do was to make sure the rest of the world agreed with them.

 

***

 

Ageha and Saya arrived at the Nikaido estate courtyard. Arashi was already there, curled up on a hammock. Kaika, the one who called them, got up from her chair and walked over.

The lovers traded glances, hoping one of them had a clue as to what was going on.

“You’re finally here.” Kaika placed her knuckles on her hips. “I was getting sick of waiting.”

“We rushed over because you said you it was important,” said Ageha.

“It is.”

“Then why are we in the courtyard?” asked Saya. “If we are to discuss vital information, the drawing room is more secure.”

“No, this place is perfect for what I’m about to say.”

Ageha crossed his arms. “Then hurry up and say it.”

“Listen! I have an announcement to make!”

Everyone in the garden focused on her. Kaika proudly thrust out her left hand. The platinum band on her ring finger glittered in the sunlight.

“Congratulate me! I got engaged!”

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Chapter Fifteen: Journey

“How’s your ear?” asked Zhang as he waved Mao closer and patted the space to his left on the sofa.

Mao meekly sat beside him. “I can’t hear out of it yet, but I’m okay. I can work anytime… if you still want to use me.”

“What happened to your usual spunk?”

“I screwed up the operation.” A weak smile floated on her face. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you abandoned me.”

“You didn’t screw up. That was my fault. I failed to see through Akane’s scheme.” Zhang let out a carefree laugh.

“But if I had killed that brat Nikaido, you wouldn’t need to give up the factories in Guangxi.”

“I gave her those to repay a debt. She saved my son and his family. It’s not such a bad deal since she agreed to give the society a share of the profits. Besides, if Ms. Nikaido were killed, then that dragon of hers would surely come after us. Do you know of anyone who can match the man who defeated Zhi Zhu?”

Mao fell silent, a troubled frown on her face.

A shade of melancholy darkened Zhang’s tired eyes.

“A part of me wants to take vengeance against Shikimi for killing my old friend, but I also understand that the one who truly deserves to receive this anger is Akane.”

“…I’m sorry, Boss.”

Zhang sighed. “For what?”

“If I hadn’t asked you to take Akane in, none of this would’ve happened.”

“I would’ve made a deal with her even if you hadn’t said anything. It was the best move at the time.”

“I swear I’ll find that bitch and make her pay.”

“Then you’re in luck. I called you for that exact reason. Akane is in China.” Zhang handed Mao a slip of paper with an address.

“Are we finally going back?”

“No, you are. I still have some business to take care of here in the US. I have a plane ready for departure tonight, if you are up for it.”

Mao’s eyes burned with determination and eagerness. “Leave it to me. I won’t betray your trust again.”

“You never betrayed my trust even once, Mao.” Zhang gently touched her cheek and combed a stray tuft of hair over her ear.

“W-What are you doing, you perverted geezer?”

“Nothing. I was just thinking that I never got to introduce you to my son. You two would’ve been good friends, maybe even close siblings.”

It really is a pity.

I never saw my treasures side by side.

“S-Stop being sappy. It’s giving me the creeps.” Mao pushed his hand away and stood up. “I’ll leave tonight. I’ll definitely bring you good news when I get back.” She displayed an exaggerated smirk.

“That’s my girl. I’m looking forward to it.” Zhang smiled and watched her leave the hotel suite.

Goodbye, my little Mao.

A few moments later, someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” said Zhang.

Chen entered the room and approached him. “Are you sure about this?”

“About what?”

“Not giving a proper farewell.”

“That was the best I could do. Anything more and she’ll know something’s up. That girl is unexpectedly sharp. And stubborn. She’d never listen if I explained it to her.”

“She’s become a fine woman. A model of loyalty.”

“That she is. That’s why she mustn’t find out. She’ll definitely insist on staying with me until the end.”

“Right. Only us relics should shoulder disappear in this foreign land.”

“No, you will leave with Mao tonight.”

“Your jokes are as unfunny as always, Boss.”

Zhang chuckled with a laid back expression. “It’s an order. Don’t make me repeat it.”

“But Boss!”

“With Zhi Zhu gone, no one else can support the triads except you. And I need someone to keep an eye on my kids. Take care of Mao and Mei Xing. Give them the freedom to do what they want with their lives. Let this horrible father at least rest without worries, my friend.”

Chen’s face wrinkled in anguish, as if he had been stabbed in the gut. “Boss, we can still try to get away! Please rethink this!”

“It’s impossible. We have no people, and I’m in the middle of their nest. The only reason they haven’t moved yet is because they don’t feel the urgency to do so. Besides, even if by some miracle I successfully escape, they won’t let my trespass go unpunished. If I go back home, I’ll be dragging more people into this mess I caused.” Zhang slumped on the couch, drained of energy. “I willingly stomped on the dragon’s tail. I alone should suffer the consequences.”

“…Are you sure you won’t regret this?”

“I have nothing but regrets. I have yet to find my wife’s killer, get revenge on Akane, see Li Xue grow up, or make peace with my son. Just imagining Mao’s face when she finds out makes me want to rip this old heart out.” Zhang was on the verge of tears, but he quickly hid his weakness with a carefree grin. “But the die is cast.”

Chen stared silently at the carpet, his jaw clenched.

“Can you leave me alone?”

“Yes, Boss.” Chen turned for the door.

“And do not return. Take Mao and go back home.”

Chen rubbed his eyes with his sleeve and left the room.

Zhang lowered his eyelids and let the strength leave his body.

This is fine.

He let fatigue take over and dozed off.

It was his deepest sleep in years.

The repeated vibration of his mobile eventually woke him. He checked the display.

There were several missed calls and a message from Chen that read, “We are boarding the plane in a few minutes.”

The latest timestamp told him it was just past midnight.

That was a good nap.

He felt refreshed, and the worries weighing on his mind had vanished. While stretching his arms, he searched for a song on his terminal and sent it to the room’s centralized speakers.

The Last Wolf Suite.

It was his favorite orchestra piece. The melody started off slow with a foreboding medley of strings. It slowly built up as beat and bass blended into the harmony.

As the tempo sped up, Zhang stood up and headed towards the veranda. It was not his style to take fate lying down. If there was an inevitable destination, he would march to it with his own feet.

The tune reached its climax as he grasped the balcony curtains. The rushing melody roused his heart and filled him with courage. As if welcoming a new day, he spread open the covers.

But there was only darkness outside.

The fulfillment of a grand finale was nowhere to be found.

Why did it come to thi-

A bullet through the heart silenced his thoughts.

 

***

 

“He decided not to put up a fight, huh?” said Kaika as she walked down the Nikaido mansion hallway. “Thanks for the update. Continue observing how things go over there.” She cut the call with her informant in the States and pocketed her mobile terminal.

Zhang is gone.

It was the expected result. Even she had no confidence surviving a manhunt by the US military on American soil.

But I don’t like this one bit.

Ageha cared about Mei Xing. He had insisted on flying to China and protecting him himself, after all. Kaika had lost the desire to kill Zhang after realizing that.

Mei Xing disliked his father, but that could change in the future if he found out how much Zhang had loved him. She did not want to sow any seeds of conflict between Ageha and his friend.

By stopping Akane’s plan to kill Mei Xing, she had planned to put Zhang in her debt. The triad greatly valued reputation and honor, so the dragon head would be left with no choice but to give her Guangxi. Zhang had done exactly that.

Everything had gone according to her scheme except for one thing: Someone had given Zhang false information, fooling him into thinking his son had been killed.

As expected, the father had gone berserk and attacked Kaika in US territory, not caring for the consequences. That action led to his death by the hands of American peacekeepers.

Mei Xing had been robbed of the chance of ever making peace with his father.

But in reality, this was the best outcome for Kaika. Dealing with a less capable and less stubborn leader would make managing her affairs in China much easier. Starting a new relationship with a new partner was better than leaving an important base of operations in a former enemy’s hands.

The ideal conclusion to the incident had confirmed her suspicion about a certain secret, one she wished she never realized.

While mulling over what she should do with that knowledge, Kaika arrived at Arashi’s door and opened it without knocking.

The scruffy-haired teen, who was holding a mobile to her ear, glanced at the unannounced visitor.

“I gotta go, Mom. Kai… is here.” Arashi’s mouth formed a subtle smile. “Yes, I will. You take care too. Bye.” She ended the call.

“Sorry, did I interrupt you?”

“No, Mom was about to… head out anyway.”

“How is she?”

“She’s doing great! She’s on an overseas trip right now.”

I know, I’m paying for it.

“Really. Too bad you couldn’t join her.”

Arashi shook her head. “I like being here… with everyone, the most.”

“You’ve gotten better at talking recently.”

“I’ve been practicing… by calling people with this.” Arashi showed Kaika her mobile terminal.

“I’m glad you’re putting it to good use.”

“Thanks for getting this… for me, Kai.”

While the main reason Kaika bought Arashi a mobile terminal was to prevent another misunderstanding like Ageha’s “death,” she genuinely enjoyed spoiling the cute mute.

“It’s nothing. Anyway, we’re going out. Saya’s busy and I need to buy some, uhm, supplies.” Kaika’s words faded into a mumble. “They’ve been running out strangely fast recently…”

Arashi nodded and followed her mistress out the door.

 

***

 

Mao, drenched to the bone by the rain, dragged her feet down the road. Her waterlogged braid drooped down her hunched back. She was still wearing her clothes from yesterday. She had not changed since departing for the address Zhang gave her. The room had been empty, but that was to be expected.

It was a lie, after all.

A lie so typical of her boss.

A kind lie.

“Boss Zhang is dead.”

She could not believe it when Chen had said those words a few hours ago.

She did not want to believe it even now.

But she knew it was true.

Zhang’s awkward farewell that night was undeniable proof.

Why did I leave?

Why wasn’t I by his side?

Why couldn’t I protect him?

Why can’t I protect anyone?

Chika’s and Shouko’s faces, half-eaten by rats, had haunted her mind for years. Now, Zhang’s carefree grin had joined them.

He had given her the power of choice, but that power was not enough for her to choose a future with him.

Even revenge felt too troublesome to her current self.

Mao had nothing left.

The only thing driving her feet was Zhang’s whimsical wish.

“I was just thinking that I never got to introduce you to my son.”

She reached her destination. A few steps in front of her stood the inn where Mei Xing lived. Chen had readily given her the location when she asked.

Mao looked at her dripping dress. She would make a mess if she entered the building in that state. Unsure what to do, she just stood there, blankly staring at the signboard above the doors. Rain continued to batter her body, but she barely felt a thing. The combination of weariness and despair had robbed her of such trivial sensations.

“Excuse me,” said a familiar voice.

Mao turned to see who it was.

A tall man holding an umbrella smiled at her. It was a nostalgic carefree smile, one that she thought she would never see again.

“I knew it. You’re that girl from that one time at the pancake shop,” he said. “Did you forget your umbrella?”

So that’s why he caught my eye.

It’s because he looked like you, Boss.

“Thank you for helping me out that time, Zhang Mei Xing.”

Mei Xing’s body tensed. But that only lasted for a moment.

“Would you like to come in?” he asked. “I can at least give you a towel to dry off.”

“…Are you always this careless? I might be here to kill you, you know.”

“You wouldn’t make such a face if you came here for that.” He reached out and brushed away the wet hair sticking to her cheek.

How can you be so similar?

Mao felt like her heart would crack.

Mei Xing opened the door and gestured for her to enter. Her first few steps were reluctant, but she eventually gave in.

She removed her waterlogged shoes at the entrance and used the slippers Mei Xing placed in front of her.

Mei Xing spoke to the woman at the front desk. “Can you get me a towel? A friend of mine got caught in the rain.”

“Right away, Boss.”

“They call you ‘Boss?’” asked Mao.

“Well, we got into some trouble a few days ago. A bunch of masked men took over the inn and tied up my employees. I’m guessing you know about it.”

Mao nodded. “But we… I wasn’t involved.”

“That’s good to know.” He flashed her a smile. “Everyone found out that I’m related to the triad because of that. I thought they’d all leave. Some did, but the crazy bunch that stayed behind started calling me ‘Boss.’ Doesn’t fit me at all, right?”

“Fits you perfectly.”

“I don’t know about that.” He laughed.

A staff member handed Mao a towel. She unbound her long braid and dried her hair with the cloth. Mei Xing led her to the guest area of the inn, telling her not to mind the trail of rainwater she left behind.

“There are very few guests right now because of the attack, so we should be fine here. Please take a seat.” He lowered his hips on a rather comfy-looking sofa.

“But I’ll get it wet.”

“Chairs exist for sitting, not decoration.”

Convinced by his simple rebuttal, Mao took a seat. It was warm, surprisingly so.

“So, what brings you all the way out here?” asked Mei Xing.

“Uh… Well… He told me, well not exactly told me, but he kind of mentioned that I should meet with you, and I, I…”

Mao had difficulty explaining herself, as if she had returned to good old Braids.

“He?”

“Your father.”

Mei Xing’s pleasant expression disappeared. “I thought he finally understood that I want nothing to do with him.” He wrinkled his eyebrows and shook his head. “Is this about me succeeding him?”

“No, that’s not it.”

“You don’t have to hide it. That cold blooded bastard has nothing else on his mind but his organization.”

“Stop saying such things! He isn’t like that!”

“Spare me. It was probably his fault that my family was attacked.”

“No! That was my… my fault. He was really angry about it.”

“Bullshit. I bet he didn’t even bat an eyelash. Actually, he might be the one behind the whole thing. Did he plan to kill my family to make me go back to him? He’s probably pissed off it didn’t go so well, huh?”

“He was killed yesterday, betrayed by someone he saved.”

“…So that’s why you look like that. I’m sorry. It seems you cared about him a lot, but we’re different. I’m glad there’s one less scum like him in the worl-”

Mao stood up and slapped him. The blow had no power behind it. It was similar to a mother’s affectionate spank.

“He loved you!!! More than he ever cared for me or anyone else! He always said you were the last treasure his wife left him! How can you not understand that!?”

Mei Xing stood up, his face a mess of angry lines. “Loved me!? Treasure!? What a joke! He didn’t even come to my mother’s funeral! All because of his stupid organization! That kind of father is nothing but trash! Trash!”

“That was a lie!” Mao buffed away the tears running down her cheeks with her wrists. “It was… a kind lie. That’s so like him.”

“A lie? What are you talking about?”

“Do you know why your mother died?”

Mei Xing replied in an icy tone. “How can I not know? She died protecting me in a car crash.”

“I asked why, not how!” Mao grabbed his collar and pulled his face down to her eye level. “That wasn’t an accident! The car you were riding in was forced off a cliff!”

“…Let go of me. I have no time for this nonsense. If you have nothing else to say, please leave.”

“It’s the truth! Boss didn’t go to your mother’s funeral because he was frantically trying to find the culprit!”

“Then why didn’t he tell me that?”

“Because it was your mother’s wish to give you freedom! Didn’t you ever wonder why Boss never tried to force you into joining the triad? If he really wanted to make you his successor no matter what, do you think he’d let you travel around the world or stay at this inn for so long!? He knew that if you found out the truth behind your mother’s death, you’d join the underworld to get revenge. But your mother wanted you to choose your own path. Boss respected her wish, so he lied to you even if you hated him for it!”

Mei Xing stared into her eyes, as if trying to see through to the truth within them. “…How do you know all this? How do I know you’re not lying?”

“Because you’re the child I could never be! Do you know how much it hurt each time he told me stories about you and Li Xue!? Do you know how envious I was when he told me what I told you just now!?” Mao’s face crumpled, sadness screaming from every crease on it. She bumped her forehead to his chest. “He loved you more than anything else, so please… please don’t insult him anymore… Please don’t make me feel even more pathetic and worthless! Please don’t make my desperate efforts to take your place meaningless! Be a son worthy of your father!!!”

“You’re… telling the truth…” Mei Xing lost strength and fell back onto the couch, pulling Mao, who was firmly gripping his shirt, on top of him. “Then that means, all this time… Father has…”

“He’s been protecting you. Watching you with a smile on his face. Waiting for you to introduce his granddaughter to him. He… loved you… your mother, your family… I wasn’t even a proper replacement..!”

“Then the neighbors that were killed during that attack…”

“They were triad members Boss sent to guard you from danger. They died doing their duty. Boss put family above everything else. He even took care of someone like me..! And now, he’s… he’s gone..!”

Mei Xing leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling while Mao continued to cry into his chest, as if a dam of despair within her had burst.

He shut his eyes tightly, squeezing out his budding tears. “What have I been doing..?”

“Actually, I’d like to ask that myself,” said a clear, feminine voice.

Mao released his shirt and hurriedly stood up. A woman carrying a sleeping girl was watching their embarrassing display.

“Setsu,” said Mei Xing. “I don’t think I can stay here anymore.”

“Don’t tell me you were having an affair?” asked Setsu, her face as calm as a mountain lake.

“No, this is-”

“I was joking. What’s on your mind?”

“I… misunderstood my father. I owe him a debt I can’t repay if I stay here.”

“So you’re going to where he is?”

“To where he was. He was killed.”

“Are you going to get revenge?”

“Boss wouldn’t want that!” said Mao. “I didn’t come here to drag you into our world!”

“I’m not going to do something so pointless. I’m just going to follow my father’s footsteps.”

“That’s what I’m talking about! Didn’t you hate the triad? That’s why you ran away and hid here, right!?”

“Don’t misunderstand. I never hated the triad itself. I hated my father for not going to my mother’s funeral. I hated him because I thought he didn’t love her, or me. But thanks to you, that misunderstanding has been resolved.”

“But he wouldn’t want you or your family to be in danger!”

“‘Be a son worthy of your father.’ Those were your words. I’ll heed that advice as thanks for showing me the truth. Think of it as my gratitude for telling me I lost family just yesterday.” Mei Xing stood up and approached Setsu. “I’ll tell you the details later, but that’s what I’ve decided.”

“Okay, I’ll go pack our things. I’ll find a manager and a chef to take our place here as soon as I can.”

“It’ll be dangerous.”

Setsu made a wry smile. “I think it’s too late to say that after our forest outing the other day. Li Xue is probably safer surrounded by burly men than by waitresses.”

“But what about the inn? You love this place.”

“I do. To save my parents’ inn, I married you for your cooking. But it wasn’t your cooking that I fell for.” Setsu gently put a hand on his chest.

Mei Xing’s laid back expression returned. He wrapped his family in his arms and gave Setsu a kiss on the lips. After spending a few seconds sharing each other’s warmth, Setsu stepped back.

“When do we leave?” she asked.

“As soon as we can.”

“Then I’ll leave you two. I have to prepare for our departure.”

Mao, still shocked by the turn of events, could only nod with her mouth slightly ajar.

Setsu shot her husband a playful frown. “I don’t mind if you mess around with that girl, but don’t keep it a secret from me, okay?”

“Sure,” said Mei Xing.

What’s wrong with this couple!?

Setsu carried the sleeping Li Xue upstairs.

“The hell’s with ‘Sure,” you dickhead!” shouted Mao, her cheeks pink.

“What a change in attitude.” Mei Xing laughed. “By the way, what were you to Zhang Wei Long?”

Surprised by the sudden question, Mao blinked her eyes several times before answering. “I was his bodyguard.”

“Not your job. How did he treat you?”

“I… think he saw me as a foster daughter. At least I hoped so.”

“Then I shall treat you as my sister, my family, from now on. Putting that aside, I leave the protection of me and my family to you, hmm, what was your name again?”

“Mao. Wait, what the hell are you ordering me around for!?”

“Weren’t you the dragon head’s bodyguard? It’s only natural you protect me, along with my family who are part of me. That includes you too, so you are henceforth forbidden to die.” He locked eyes with her. “Mao, I will give the life you lived with my father meaning. In exchange, you will become my fangs and claws.”

Despite Mei Xing’s cheerful smile, the gravitas flowing from his words permeated her flesh and shook her core.

Dragons give birth to dragons.

That had been one of Zhang’s favorite Chinese proverbs.

“Now tell me about the one who betrayed and killed my father.”

Mao’s lips twisted into a half-sarcastic, half-grateful smirk.

“Yes, Boss.”

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Fourteen: Brawn and Brains

“Something’s wrong,” said Mei Xing.

Setsu, with Li Xue in tow, stopped walking just a few steps in front of him. Their house was just a few doors away.

They had gone out for a late morning walk at Li Xue’s stubborn insistence. The summer heat was not ideal for such an activity, but the child’s energy had been impossible to contain indoors. Fortunately, there were few guests checked in, so the staff could take care of things while they were away.

The humidity left by a daybreak drizzle had made their stroll quite uncomfortable, but a single carefree smile from Li Xue had completely blown away Mei Xing’s dissatisfaction.

But that pleasant time had ended.

Setsu, who knew about his past, faced him with a trace of unease. “…You’re right. The street is empty.”

Though not the busiest place, it was very odd for their neighborhood to be completely deserted at this time of day. A disgusting sensation made its way into Mei Xing’s gut. A scowl surfaced on his normally laid back face.

They’re here.

He did not know who or why, but people were waiting for them. Judging from the wet tire tracks on the ground, they were numerous. He thanked the corrupt local government in his heart for leaving potholes on the road that collected rainwater. Without the tracks, Mei Xing might have dismissed the odd silence as coincidence.

“Papa?” asked Li Xue, staring at his tightened face.

Mei Xing felt a swirling anger in his chest. It was directed both at his own naivety and at the unknown enemy.

Should I have left the country with my family even if I had to force Setsu to leave the inn she loves?

No, maybe I never should’ve lingered here in the first place.

He focused his mind and cleared away his pointless regrets. The most important thing right now was to protect his family. There was a chance they were also being targeted by being related to him, so leaving their side and acting as a decoy would only expose them to more danger.

He approached Setsu and whispered, “Get ready to run on my signal.” He pointed with his eyes to a small alley between the closest houses. “We’ll go through there, head down the hill, and into the forest.”

Setsu nodded and carried Li Xue in her arms.

“I’ll take her. It’s faster.” Mei Xing picked his daughter up by the armpits and held her to his chest. “Li Xue, we’re going to play a game.”

“A game?”

“Yeah. it’s like hide and seek, so I need you to close your eyes and keep quiet until the game ends.”

“Okay, Papa.” Her pigtails bounced as she vigorously nodded.

“Setsu, let’s walk normally first. Maybe they haven’t noticed us yet.”

“Alright.”

The three of them turned into the alley. A second later, the sound of boots thumping the ground came from behind them.

No luck!

“Run!”

They rushed through the alley, down the hill, and into the bushes lining the forest. Mei Xing knew the forest well. He went foraging for mushrooms there during the cooler months. The forest was not dense enough to lose their pursuers by simply running away, especially in daytime. They needed to find a place to hide.

After a few minutes of running, Mei Xing and Setsu began slowing down. Even adrenaline could not sustain their sprint. They came upon a large tree with a hollowed area near the base. Mei Xing turned around to check for pursuers. No one was in sight. He decided to hide in the sizable tree hole before anyone caught up to them.

After passing Li Xue to his wife, Mei Xing pulled out a few branches from a bush nearby to use for cover. The three of them huddled inside the tree hollow. He hurriedly covered the opening with the branches as best as he could. The camouflage was not perfect, but they had to make do with the little time they had.

“Mama, did the game start?” asked Li Xue, her eyes still tightly shut.

“Shh…” Setsu gently held her head closer, burying it into her chest.

The sound of footsteps, muffled by the soft earth and fallen plantlife, gradually became louder. Only a few sets of boots thumped nearby. The enemies had probably spread out to find them.

Sweat beaded on their skin and soaked their clothes. Li Xue squirmed in Setsu’s arms, clearly irritated by the damp heat enveloping her. The couple tried to keep their breathing as quiet as possible and perked their ears for the movements of their pursuers.

Seconds felt like hours, and the short time they spent inside the dark hole seemed like an eternity.

The rustling around them gradually faded.

“I think they’re gone,” whispered Setsu.

Mei Xing thought for a moment. “Let’s wait a bit more.”

They spent another few minutes focusing their ears for any unnatural sounds coming from outside, but heard nothing.

“I’ll check if the coast is clear,” said Mei Xing.

“It’s dangerous!”

“I’ll just take a peek. We might be able to sneak around behind them and escape.” Keeping the bush cover in place, he peeked out through the leaves and surveyed the surroundings.

There were no people in sight. They could make a break for it while their pursuers were searching deeper within the forest, but more enemies could be waiting at the edge of the forest. He decided to endure inside the hole until the pursuers gave up.

Mei Xing turned to Setsu. “We’re safe for now. Let’s wait here until-”

Something grabbed his hair and pulled him out of the hole with incredible force. He cried out in pain as the force uprooted a bunch of his follicles. The shock from the unforeseen assault froze his thoughts, rendering him immobile. Woken up by Setsu’s scream, he struggled with all his might. His flailing fingers and feet kicked up the soil around him.

“Settle down,” said a nostalgic voice.

He knew the man restraining his head.

“Z-Zhi Zhu?”

“I’m honored you remember me.”

Setsu ran out of the hole and jumped at Zhi Zhu, but he easily swatted her away. She crashed to the ground, her cheek dark red and her lips broken. The blow had knocked her out.

“You bastard!!!” shouted Mei Xing. He tried to pull off Zhi Zhu’s arm, but it felt like lead and would not budge.

“It wasn’t a bad idea to hide in there, but you should’ve used soil to cover your bodies instead of breaking off branches. The young ones completely missed you because they don’t know the forest, but I trained in the mountains when I was younger. Animals don’t break branches like that.” Zhi Zhu pointed his thumb at the oddly shaped shrub Mei Xing had used for his makeshift camouflage.

“What do you want from me!?”

“Your life, you traitor.”

“Traitor..? What are you talking about?”

“Don’t play dumb. I know you’re working with Kaika Nikaido to overthrow your father.”

“Kaika… Nikaido..?” Mei Xing realized what Zhi Zhu was referring to.

“That look on your face confirms it. Akane Kogami was telling the truth.”

“No! Ms. Nikaido visited the inn once. I don’t know anything more about her!”

“But her bodyguard visited your inn at least twice. I have video proof of that.”

“That was…”

True. Ageha had indeed visited twice, and the second time was to confess to killing Zhang Wei Long. Mei Xing had forgiven him for that. In a sense, he had indeed betrayed his father.

Taking his hesitation as admittance, Zhi Zhu slammed his head on the ground, rattling his consciousness.

“You disgust me. You abandoned your father years ago without even knowing how much he cares for you. Now you even stabbed him in the back!!!”

Several men had formed a circle around them while they were talking.

Zhi Zhu pointed at one of his men. “You, pin him down. I’ll go fetch the kid.”

“Don’t you dare touch her!!!” shouted Mei Xing. “I’ll kill you!!! I’ll rip your heart out!!!”

One of Zhi Zhu’s subordinates grabbed Mei XIng by his clothes and pushed him face first into the ground. Mei Xing swallowed dirt as he screamed with all his might. His left arm was twisted behind his back.

“If he keeps struggling, break his arm.”

Ignoring the warning, Mei Xing continued to kick and claw at the ground. His elbow twisted unnaturally bit by bit, but his desperation to stop Zhi Zhu anesthetized him.

Zhi Zhu looked at him from above. “If you had this much guts, why did you betray your father?”

“I didn’t betray anyone!!!”

“Be quiet.” Zhi Zhu kicked him in the face.

One of Mei Xing’s teeth flew out of his mouth. He could feel a few more rolling on his tongue, but he did not care. He screamed curses at the man threatening his daughter.

His courage backfired.

Hearing his cries, Li Xue ran out of the hole and embraced him, covering his head with her tiny, fragile frame.

“Don’t hurt Papa!!!”

She was crying, snot dribbling down her nose and chin.

“…How brave. Boss’s blood, the blood of a true dragon, still runs through both of your veins after all.” Zhi Zhu shut his eyes tight and inhaled deeply. He slowly released the air inside his lungs, his cheeks and lips contracting into a stiff frown. “It would be a shame to spill it at such a place.”

Mei Xing stared at the face of the man he had once called uncle. Glimpsing a faint glimmer of hope in Zhi Zhu’s mercy, he relaxed his clenched jaw.

“But betrayal means death.” Zhi Zhu motioned to his men. “Shoot the girl and rape the woman before killing her. Be as brutal as you can.”

“No…” Mei Xing’s voice was withered and hollow. “Please, Zhi Zhu… I’ll do anything you want..!” His throat shook, releasing a low moan, like a wandering ghost unable to find salvation. “Kill me… Just please… please don’t hurt them… Not my daughter..!”

Mei Xing desperately reached out for Zhi Zhu’s ankle, but the latter lifted his shoe and crushed the chef’s dominant hand underfoot.

“You should’ve thought about that before siding with the foreign enemies.”

Mei Xing, his head wrapped in Li Xue’s body, was enveloped by his daughter’s calming fragrance. It was the aroma of innocence, purity, and youth. It inspired images of her boundless potential and vibrant future behind his tightly closed eyelids.

“Do it.”

A gunshot rang out.

Li Xue’s body flinched violently.

Something warm splashed on Mei Xing’s nape.

Her scent vanished.

Nothing but the odor of rust remained.

Mei Xing unleashed a soundless roar, cursing everything in existence, before succumbing to the darkness.

 

***

 

“Right there, yeah, that’s good,” said Zhang.

Mao pressed her thumb deep into his shoulder muscle, relieving the tightness accumulated from stress. “You work too hard for a geezer. You should let the young ones do more. They’ll never rise up the ranks because of your grandstanding.”

“Thanks for worrying about me, but I’ll be fine. There’s still some oomph left in these old bones.”

“Who said anything about worrying? And don’t say oomph. It’s disgusting coming from a relic like you.”

Two knocks came from the hotel door.

“Later, I’m busy right now,” said Zhang.

“Boss, it’s… urgent.”

Chen, the man behind the door, had served Zhang for decades. He would not bother him with anything trivial.

“Come in.”

Chen entered the room and approached them. Mao continued with her massage, not minding the audience.

“What’s with that terrible face, Uncle Chen?” asked Mao. “Want a massage too? I’ll give you a discount. How does ten thousand Yuan sound?”

“This is not the time, Mao.” Chen pressed his lips together, as if damming up the words about to spill from them.

“…What happened?” asked Zhang.

Chen glanced at Mao, but Zhang dismissed his concerns about confidentiality with a wave of a hand.

“Mei Xing was attacked.”

Mao’s fingers stopped.

All emotion in Zhang’s face evaporated. “How is he..?”

“Dead.”

“…His wife and my… granddaughter..? Li Xue?”

“Dead. According to the report, it was a horrible scene. I beg you not to ask me anymore.”

“What about the lookouts?”

Zhang had several men living near the inn, pretending to be locals. Their job was to protect Mei Xing and his family. Out of respect for his son’s privacy and freedom, they had been strictly ordered to limit their intervention to protection. They only gave the most basic reports about Mei Xing’s life.

“All killed. Reinforcements arrived too late, but they managed to catch one of the culprits.”

Zhang lamented his naivety. He should have caged his son and granddaughter if he knew this would happen.

“Who did it?”

“It was Nikaido’s group.”

“Oh.”

“What should I-”

“Gather everyone.”

“Boss, we’re in enemy territory. We must wait for the right time-”

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“Yes, Dragon head.” Chen marched out of the room.

“What can I do?” asked Mao as she embraced his neck from behind, her cheek pressing onto his.

“Mei… Mei was my hope.”

He was the last treasure my beloved left me.

Cold tears fell from his eyes. “And Li Xue was my dream.”

She looked so much like her grandmother.

“I… I no longer have anything.”

“Then drown in vengeance. I will sink with you.” Mao gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Tell me, Boss. Tell me what to do.”

Though Zhang often told Mao stories about his son and granddaughter, she had never met them. Nevertheless, he could tell that the anger in her voice was genuine. It was as if she had taken on a chunk of his despair, preventing him from breaking right then and there.

“…Destroy Kaika Nikaido and everything she cares about. Make them regret ever living.”

 

***

 

Mao had arrived a step ahead of the other triad members. She watched the main entrance of the luxury hotel Kaika was staying at from an empty balcony of the building across the street.

According to surveillance, Kaika was still inside the hotel. Likely confident in her safety while on American soil, the girl had put little effort into concealing her location.

You’ll regret that arrogance.

Minutes later, the rest of the triad members, numbering a dozen in total, pulled up a block away from the hotel. Almost everyone available had mobilized, but they could only gather that many because very few members had accompanied them to the US.

Zhang had stayed behind at Mao’s fervent request. While she understood his desire to see his vengeance delivered, he was utterly useless in combat and would only be a hindrance.

Mao affixed a small comm device on her ear. “Is everyone here?”

“I’m here! Ying is with me,” said Ying.

“Can’t you do something about your names? Having twins with the same name is too confusing. It’s a pain calling either of you.”

“But Ying is Ying. What can we do?”

Mao sighed. The twins were hard to handle and downright strange, but their abilities were dependable. She decided to not waste time scolding them for things they would never change anyway.

The twins got out of the car closest to the hotel entrance. They were wearing the exact same clothes and hairstyle, a white open collar shirt topped with a black suit and a short bob cut. It was impossible to tell them apart. Even their high-pitched voices sounded the same.

Their androgynous yet well-arranged features made them look a little older than their actual age. The seventeen-year-old brother and sister had killed enough people to give their faces a mature, worn-out tint.

“Ying, let’s go!” said the brother as he tried to rush off towards the hotel.

The sister grabbed his shoulder. “Not yet, Ying. We need to wait for Mao’s signal.”

Mao silently thanked the sister’s calm personality. They did not know which room Kaika was using, so it would be unwise to blindly go inside.

Years ago, Mao had found the two Japanese orphans during one of her missions. Seeing her old self in them, she had asked Zhang to take them into the organization. A few summers later, they had become very efficient, albeit hard to handle, killers.

Dozens of people commuted to and from the hotel. Luxury cars stopped at the front curb for valet parking several times a minute. A couple of security guards were stationed at the main doors.

“Is everyone in position?” asked Mao.

“Not yet. We haven’t secured the rear exit,” said one of the subordinates.

“Hurry up you imbeciles! They might slip away while you’re dawdling!”

Having rushed to the hotel to prevent Kaika from escaping, the triad assault team had not been able to fully arm themselves. Their firearms were limited to pistols and submachine guns. The enemy had someone who could fight equally with Zhi Zhu, a god of battle without exaggeration, so she felt a little uneasy. However, that did not affect her resolve to carry out Zhang’s order.

I’ll make them regret being born.

A white car with tinted windows pulled up at the hotel curb. A valet driver got out of the vehicle and headed for the main doors. Before he could go inside, the eyes of almost everyone around him, including himself, focused on a small group walking out of the building.

An almost six-foot man, sporting a black helmet with matching body armor, led the party of four. Behind him were three females. The one on the left had scruffy hair and a plain white mask on her face, and the one on the right was someone Mao recognized.

Saionji!

In the middle of the mobile huddle was a small girl. She was hardly visible with the human barrier around her, but Mao was certain she was the target.

Kaika Nikaido.

“Nikaido is at the main entrance!!!” shouted Mao as she leapt from the balcony.

Seeing her jump from the fifth floor, some of the approaching cars braked, causing a chain collision on the road. Like a cat, she bounded off the railing of the balcony a floor below. She grabbed onto a street light and swung herself across the street. Faithful to her name, Mao landed on a stopped taxi cab on all fours, her cybernetic limbs crushing its thin metal roof.

Screams erupted around her.

Saionji drew a micro pistol and shot at her, but the bullets bounced off her forearms. The armored man, Ageha Shikimi, placed himself between Mao and Kaika. Mao engaged him without hesitation.

The twins rushed at Kaika’s group from the side. Not caring about the people in the way, the brother drew his dual compact submachine guns and started shooting. Men, women, and children fell to the ground like puppets with strings cut. The masked girl grabbed a passerby and used him as a shield against the bullets. The twin sister drew her pistol and followed after Ying.

The hotel guards drew their weapons to aim at the brother but got mowed down by his submachine gun before they could fire a shot. Ying’s magazines ran out, so he quickly moved to reload them. In that moment, the masked girl blazed towards him. He blocked her turning heel kick with his cybernetic arm, but the impact launched him to the side and onto the door of a parked car.

His sister appeared in the space he vacated, surprising the masked girl. She landed a jab, cracking the girl’s mask. Not even flinching from the blow, the masked girl threw a right straight. The sister weaved past the punch and entered zero range. Before the enemy could react, she shot her point blank in the abdomen twice and then aimed the pistol at her face.

“For my brother.” Ying shot the masked girl in the forehead.

The girl toppled to the ground. Pieces of her shattered mask scattered around her.

Ageha, who had been easily avoiding Mao’s blows, showed an opening after seeing the girl’s death. Mao took advantage of it and attacked his head. He swayed left to avoid her claw. The sharp blades landed on his right bicep.

His arm flew off.

Surprised by the unexpected amputation, Mao leapt back to distance herself. She analyzed the situation. The masked girl was dead. The male twin had gotten back on his feet. Saya and Kaika had returned inside the hotel with triad members hot on their heels. Ageha had lost an arm.

Lost an arm?

According to Akane and Zhi Zhu, Ageha’s body was almost fully cybernetic. Naturally, that included all his limbs.

“Guess the jig’s up,” said the masked man. “‘It’s just insurance’, he said. ‘A simple deterrent.’ I even wore this stupid hot helmet and armor, but nooo, you had to come anyway.” He, no, she removed the black helmet.

Her pale golden mane, balled into a tight bun behind her head, glistened under the bright hotel lights. Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead and nose. She blinked a few times, as if adjusting her sapphire eyes to the lighting.

Mao gasped after realizing the enemy’s identity.

Valeriya Varrenikov.

“This is so hard to move in,” said the Russian as she disengaged her body armor. “With this, I’ve paid back what I owe Ageha and more.”

Her voluptuous bosom, wrapped tight in a dark grey body suit, jiggled out.

Mao and the twins were confused by the turn of events and failed to take advantage of her momentary vulnerability.

Valeriya grinned. “That was your last chance to defeat me, kiddies.”

Mao instinctively put up her guard. She sensed great danger from the one-armed enemy before her, as if she were facing a lion on the hunt.

I mustn’t fall for her bluff.

Mao glanced at Valeriya’s dead ally.

She’s alone.

We have the advantage!

Valeriya glanced at her lifeless companion. “How long are you gonna take a break?”

“…Dammit. I was gonna surprise them!” said the dead girl. Her voice sounded like it came from a speaker.

Mao and the twins widened their eyes as they watched the dead girl speak.

“It wouldn’t be much of a test if you stab them in the back, right? And unfair fights aren’t exciting. Stop sulking. In exchange, you can go all out.”

“…Really? You won’t take that back?”

“Yes, really. It wouldn’t be much of a test otherwise.”

“Thanks, Mom.” The girl hopped to her feet.

Her face was blank, with no visible eyes, nose, or mouth. And it was metal.

“Geez, you only call me that at times like these. I guess I’m the stupid one for feeling really happy anyway.” Valeriya rotated her left shoulder. “Weapons free, Sakuya.”

 

***

 

The soldier pinning Mei Xing down popped like a water balloon, bathing the father and daughter in blood.

“Target one down,” said Arashi.

“Enemy sniper!” shouted Zhi Zhu as he leapt behind a tree.

Arashi had wanted to kill the leader first, but she had not had the time to get a clear shot. She had prioritized saving her protection targets.

Ageha jumped down from the treetops and landed in the middle of the Chinese group. He scooped up Setsu and zoomed towards Mei Xing and Li Xue.

The armed men around him moved. Three of them overlapped in Arashi’s sight for a tenth of a second. It was enough.

“Targets two, three, four down.”

As geysers of blood erupted around him, Ageha grabbed Mei Xing and Li Xue with his other arm and fled the chaos. Zhi Zhu and his men scattered. Arashi killed two more before losing sight of all targets.

“I have them,” said Ageha, his voice coming from her earpiece. “Let’s meet up.”

“Roger.”

Using a gps map in the brand new terminal Kaika had gotten her, Arashi stealthily traveled to Ageha’s group. After joining up, they took cover within a dense patch of trees.

Ageha laid his load on the ground. He did not have his helmet or armor. A black form-fitting suit covered his body from wrist to ankles.

Arashi wrapped the unconscious Mei Xing’s injured hand with a bandage. When she tightened the gauze, his eyes snapped open.

“Stop! Zhi Zhu-”

Ageha covered his mouth with a hand. “Be quiet.”

Mei Xing stared at his face, confused, but he nodded after a few moments. Ageha removed his hand, allowing him to talk.

“Ageha..? Where are Li Xue and Setsu?”

Ageha pointed at the wife and daughter lying a few feet away from Mei Xing. “They’re fine. Li Xue just lost consciousness because I ran too fast.”

Mei Xing scrambled to his family. After carefully examining them with his eyes and hands, he sat on the ground and heaved an enormous sigh.

“Sorry for being late,” said Ageha. “I had to wait until our substitutes got to the states.”

“…You knew about this?”

“It’s a long story. I wanted to call and warn you ahead of time, but I wasn’t sure how you’d react. If you went into hiding without telling us where, the triad would definitely find you first. You can blame me all you want later, but for now, let us protect you.”

Mei Xing’s rigid expression softened. “Thank you for saving us.”

Ageha shook his head. “I don’t deserve your thanks. Arashi, guard them here until I get back. ”

“No,” she said.

I refuse to wait here without doing anything!

Arashi did not want to experience the terror she felt when she saw Ageha lying on the ground in the drug facility again. Just thinking of the possibility that she might never kiss him again filled her heart with inexplicable dread.

“This is no time to be stubborn.”

“She’s right,” said Mei Xing. “This forest isn’t dense enough to hide us forever. Zhi Zhu won’t give up. He’ll call in reinforcements and trap us here.”

“But we can’t leave the forest either. There are enemies stationed at the treeline and around the hill.”

“You have to kill Zhi Zhu.”

“The leader? Easier said than done, especially with pests buzzing around him.”

“I guess that means you’ve already seen him fight.”

“I fought him once.”

“And survived? Then we might really have a chance here.”

“I only survived due to luck back then. But this time is different.”

Mei Xing looked at Arashi. “You, um, what was it again…”

“Arashi,” she said.

“How good are you with that gun?”

“I’m… awesome, dood.” Arashi gave him a thumbs up, her expression the epitome of boredom.

“Dood..?” Mei Xing glanced at Ageha, his eyebrow raised in doubt.

How rude!

I’m telling the truth!

“It’s true,” said Ageha. “She sniped the enemies around you earlier. I just picked you guys up.”

“…Then I have a plan. I know this forest, and I know the enemy.” Mei Xing placed a hand on the tree they were using for cover. “The upper branches of this large tree should be a good sniping spot. If you saved us earlier by sniping, then I’m sure you can climb there easily.”

Arashi nodded.

“I’ll go into the forest and act as bait.”

Ageha stared at Mei Xing. “Are you crazy? You’ll get killed in an instant.”

“That’s why Arashi will snipe any enemies that see me. I won’t go too far so that she can see any pursuers from here.”

“It’s better if I’m the bait. My body is mostly alloy, so I’m perfect for the role.”

“No, you have a more important job. Please secure the perimeter around Arashi. Eliminate all enemies shooting at or approaching Arashi. She’ll be focused on covering for me and won’t be able to protect herself. That should be a piece of cake for someone who survived against Zhi Zhu.”

“What about Setsu and Li Xue?”

“Let’s hide them in the bushes.” Mei Xing pointed at the shrubbery near the base of the tree. “That way, you can protect them and Arashi at the same time.”

“But if an enemy gets through or sees them from afar-”

“I know.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“This is the best way. The triad members won’t shoot them on sight. They are worth more as hostages to lure us out, so they’ll try to grab them.”

“But if Zhi Zhu himself comes for you or Arashi from the start, I’m not sure I can stop him.”

“Zhi Zhu won’t do that. He’s extremely cautious. Knowing him, he’ll send his men first to check for traps.”

“…Makes sense. When I fought him, he sent his subordinates to their deaths just to observe my capabilities.”

“We’ll get rid of as many of his people in the forest as we can. When he gets isolated, you and Arashi can team up and kill him.”

“This strategy sounds very risky. We’ll be safer if-”

“Don’t misunderstand.” Mei Xing looked into Ageha’s eyes, his expression as easygoing as usual. “This isn’t a defensive battle. This is a hunt. Zhi Zhu hurt my family. I am very, very angry.”

You sure don’t look like it.

But Arashi kept that comment to herself, knowing how hypocritical it would sound coming from her.

She handed a small earpiece to Mei Xing.

He examined it. “What’s this?”

Arashi touched her right ear with her index finger. “Communication.”

“You brought extra?” asked Ageha.

She nodded.

“Good job. It’s a pain when you’re trying to blow me up, but this time, I’m thankful you’re always so well-geared.”

Ageha praised me!

A faint blush appeared on her cheeks.

Mei Xing glanced at them in turn. “You two have a really peculiar relationship.”

Ageha smiled wryly. “You don’t know the half of it.”

Arashi also equipped Setsu and Li Xue with earpieces so Mei Xing could explain the situation in case they woke up in the middle of the battle. Mei Xing and Ageha hid them the bushes.

“Let’s go,” said Mei Xing.

Ageha disappeared into the treetops with one jump. Arashi shot her grappling hook upwards and zipped to the top of the tree.

Mei Xing scratched his head. “Uh, okay. I’ll just run if you don’t mind.”

Arashi got into sniping position and kept Mei Xing in her sights as he dashed away.

In a few minutes, a group of triad members found him. Arashi shot down most of his pursuers with ease. Two of them took cover behind a small tree.

Nice try.

Arashi shot through the trunk. Bark and splinters burst out from the holes carved by her bullets. The two men crumpled to the floor. Their bodies were still intact because the wood weakened her bullets, but the copious volume of blood bubbling from their bodies confirmed their deaths.

Mei Xing rested his back on a tree and caught his breath. Arashi took this chance to scan her surroundings.

“Four down.” Ageha’s voice came from her earpiece.

“Six down,” replied Arashi.

“This isn’t a contest, people,” said Mei Xing.

Arashi spotted movement in her peripheral vision and zoomed in with her bionic eye. “Two hostiles sighted about two hundred feet northeast from here. No clear shot. Requesting support.”

“On top of it,” said Ageha.

Diving down from the branches, Ageha landed on the first target, crushing him underfoot. He swiftly dispatched the second target with a knife to the chest.

Ageha looked around the area. “I can hear a bunch of them coming here. These two were bait. Can you toss a flashbang here?”

Who do you think I am?

“Roger.” Arashi slung her rifle and stood on the tree branch. While calculating the exact distance to Ageha with her bionic eye, she took out a flash grenade. With one swift motion, she launched it into the air. “Fire in the hole.”

Like a baseball long toss, the cartridge-shaped explosive traced a high arc towards Ageha. It hit the top of a tree and fell, rustling the leaves and branches as it tumbled down. Ageha covered both ears with his hands. Enemies appeared around him and aimed their weapons.

A burst of light and sound swallowed them.

Right after the detonation, Ageha sliced open the throats of three people. The remaining enemies panicked and began shooting blindly, some of them hitting their allies.

“More enemies coming your way,” said Arashi. “I will provide fire support.”

“Don’t worry about me. Focus on Mei Xing,” said Ageha.

He dashed behind a tree. The reinforcements trained their guns at the wooden barrier, waiting for him to come out. A few seconds later, Ageha fell from the sky and stabbed the shoulders of two enemies with his dual blades. The triad members turned towards the screams, but Ageha was no longer there.

The enemies could not follow his inhuman speed and three-dimensional movement. He zipped from tree to tree, flew up and down, streaked left and right. A trail of corpses marked his path.

Arashi caught herself before being completely mesmerized by his lethal acrobatics.

I need to focus!

She found Mei Xing running away from a group of enemies. After Arashi picked off the one in front, the other three scrambled for cover. She shot one in the calf, blowing away everything below the knee. He screamed in agony while writhing on the ground. The others cowered behind a large tree. This time, she could not accurately shoot through the thick trunk.

Arashi did not finish off the one-legged enemy. Instead, she watched patiently as he frantically cried for help. One of his comrades rushed out to save him. He picked up the injured man and supported him with his shoulder. Arashi shot the ground around them a few times, intentionally missing by a hair. They shrieked in terror while desperately trying to outrun her bullets. Seeing his friends in danger, the man hiding behind the tree ran out to help them.

What good friends!

Arashi blew away his forehead. The other two froze in shock upon seeing the mist of brain fluid before them, making it easy for her to put holes in their backs.

The massacre continued. Triad members fell like flies against their overwhelming combat prowess. More reinforcements came from the hill, but they too dwindled in a span of minutes.

“Ten enemies heading here,” said Arashi. “Requesting support.”

“Sorry, you’ll have to handle them by yourself,” said Ageha. “Looks like I hit the jackpot this time.”

Zhi Zhu!?

Ageha was about to face the man who had defeated him once. Anxiety strangled Arashi’s heart.

“I will clear out the enemies as soon as I can and support you.”

“No need to rush. Be careful and make sure to keep Mei Xing and the others safe.”

Keep them safe?

I don’t care about these people.

The one I want to protect is you!

Arashi bit her bottom lip. “But-”

“Have a bit more faith in me. I’m a god, right?”

Arashi closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Right.

“Roger.”

“Your relationship is even more peculiar than I thought,” said Mei Xing.

 

***

 

Kaika crouched behind the hotel stairwell while her butler dealt with the fodder coming after them. Saya had initially used only a handgun, but after running low on ammo, she had stolen a submachine gun from a dead triad member to supplement her firepower.

What are they doing here?

Did Ageha and Arashi not make it in time?

…Did they fail?

Kaika had told Ageha about her plan to turn Akane and Zhang against each other by using Mei Xing. At first, she had tried to keep it a secret, afraid that he would abandon her after learning the truth. It was the same fear that drove her to betray Arashi before.

The fear of trusting another.

Unable to trust Arashi’s kindness, Kaika had left her blind. But Ageha had saved Kaika from that mistake. Learning from her error, she chose to believe in Ageha.

After telling him everything, Ageha just nodded and patted her head, as if praising her for a job well done.

He knew how it felt to be unable to trust another person. Ageha had recognized her fear, something he carried himself, and rewarded her for overcoming her weakness.

He understood her.

He really was special.

Not in general.

But to her.

I won’t lose to this fear again.

I trust in Ageha and Arashi.

But if they had not failed their mission, why were Zhang’s men coming after Kaika?

The gunfire subsided. Dozens of corpses, mostly normal hotel guests, were scattered across the hotel lobby. The smell of burning gunpowder permeated the large hall.

“Ojousama, I’ve taken care of the first wave,” said Saya. “We need to move.”

A drop of suspicion created ripples of doubt in Kaika’s mind.

She realized she might have discovered a secret she could never tell Ageha, even at the cost of breaking her promise.

 

***

 

Valeriya leaned back to avoid Mao’s claws but could not counter. The panther-like girl was too fast, and her only exposed parts, her legs, were alloy.

This girl is better than I expected.

Before Mao could retaliate, Valeriya ran to the closest parked car. Mao caught up to her as she reached the vehicle and tried to carve out her flank. Valeriya pulled open the driver-side door, using it to block the strike. The alloy blades sliced into the metal, becoming embedded.

With Mao stuck, Valeriya punched through the glass window at her face. Mao ducked to avoid her fist and sent a low leg sweep under the car door as she wiggled her claws free. The Russian dove into the car and crawled to the passenger seat. Mao leapt over the vehicle and landed on the other side to cut off her escape. Valeriya pulled the handle and kicked the door open, slamming it into Mao. Mao tumbled backwards as Valeriya got out of the car.

The battle had started just a few minutes ago, but Valeriya’s breathing was rough, and her muscles ached from strain. She was taxing her body beyond its capabilities to match the enhanced Mao.

She decided to buy time to recover.

Instead of chasing her enemy, Valeriya climbed on top of the car to gain higher ground. Mao did not come closer and watched her carefully.

“You’re pretty good,” said Valeriya. “Not much talent, but I can see your extensive training and experience.”

“I had a good teacher.”

“You mean Zhi Zhu?”

Mao’s glare grew sharp, like a scalpel ready to cut into skin.

Seeing her guess was spot on, Valeriya smiled. “I knew it. No one else in the Soaring Serpent Society has the skill to train someone like you.”

“You know that old fogey?”

“I sparred with him before I lost my arm. He didn’t have any cybernetics back then. It was a close fight, but I won in the end.”

She was lying. It had indeed been a close match, but Zhi Zhu had emerged victorious. Intimidation gave initiative in combat, and Valeriya needed every advantage she could get against Mao.

“Bullshit,” said Mao, not a shred of doubt in her eyes.

Zhi Zhu was just that strong. He had defeated Ageha, after all.

Valeriya casually pulled a lollipop from her pocket, unwrapped it with her teeth, and popped it into her mouth. “Believe what you want, but you can’t change facts. Ask him when you get back. Don’t worry, I won’t kill you. I’ll beat you half-dead though.”

Enemies that did not cower from intimidation generally fell for the reverse: provocation.

“You really think you can do that?”

Ria shrugged her shoulders, palm up. “Why not? I haven’t even been trying, but you’re already too afraid to come near me. It’d be immature of me to get serious against such a cute pussycat.”

“You oversized cunt…” Mao ground her teeth. “Before I kill you, tell me why you’re helping Kaika Nikaido. Boss would want to know that much.”

Cat Fight

I can buy a few more seconds.

“I’m not helping Kaika. I just owed Ageha a favor, oh he’s her boy toy. I intended to refuse because this errand is too much trouble, but that sneaky bastard told Mitsuki about my promise, ah, she’s my unbelievably cute, super-talented, semi-tsundere, semi-kuudere, ultra-moe daughter. For god knows what reason, she likes that playboy. The laws of nature made it impossible for me to refuse when the most adorable creature in the cosmos, that’s my daughter in case you weren’t listening, asked me to help Ageha. What’s more-”

Mao closed her eyes and shook her head. “Stop. I was the stupid one for asking an enemy.”

It’s all true, though.

Not caring about the Russian’s terrain advantage, Mao lunged at her.

I might lose my arm over this.

 

***

 

Ying observed the resurrected girl. She could tell that the enemy, despite having no discernible facial features, was sneering at them.

Her brother had recovered from the kick earlier and had returned to her side. She had half a clip remaining in her pistol. They held an absolute advantage with the two of them against a single unarmed opponent. But for some reason, her instinct told her otherwise.

“You go left,” said the brother.

“Wait, she survived a headshot. How do we even hurt her?”

“She’ll fall eventually if we keep shooting.”

Ying spat out a short sigh. Her brother was always fearless and aggressive. She liked that about him, but his personality often got them in trouble with the bosses. It was her job to keep him in check.

Mao was busy fighting the tall caucasian woman. Even if they could not defeat the faceless enemy, they should at least buy enough time until Mao finished on her end.

“Let’s keep our distance,” said the sister. “No point moving closer to a barehanded opponent.”

“Who said I was barehanded?” asked Faceless.

The sister noticed a small knife sticking out of her left shoulder.

What the…

“Ying!!!” shouted her brother. “Are you okay!?”

Faceless produced a sound similar to a laugh from her blank visage. “Of course she is! I don’t want our little game to end so soon!” She brandished a throwing knife in each hand. “I learned this trick from Mitsuki’s rival in love. It’s meaningless against me, but it’s really effective against lumps of flesh like you two.”

The twins had cybernetic legs, but from the perspective of a monster that stood up after taking a bullet to the head, they were indeed fragile beings.

“Look! It’s like magic!” She played with her knives like a circus performer. “Now you see it, now you don’t!”

A knife flew by the sister’s face, cutting her cheek. If Faceless had not announced the attack, she would have been unable to dodge it.

Faceless moved. The brother opened fire, but most of the bullets missed the zigzagging enemy. The ones that hit only slowed her down a little.

Ying decided to provide cover fire for her brother, but shooting wantonly would do them no good. She studied Faceless’s running pattern and patiently waited for the perfect shot.

Now!

She squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit Faceless’s foot as she was changing direction, causing her to trip.

Faceless fell forward. “Not bad!” She rolled on the ground and got back to her feet in an instant. “But you can’t just focus on me. You have to take care of yourselves too, or this’ll be over before you know it.”

The brother looked down. There was a knife embedded in his left shoulder, just like his twin.

“Ying!!!” shouted the sister.

She threw a knife while rolling!?

“You two match perfectly again!” said Faceless while running straight at the brother.

His left arm hung loosely, but he did not let go of his weapon. He pointed the submachine gun in his right hand at the enemy and emptied the clip to keep her away.

The sister dashed to get in between them.

I won’t make it!

Since she could not get in front of the enemy, she decided to attack her directly. Distracted by the last spurt of gunfire, Faceless took the ARMS-powered flying kick on her flank and got blasted away.

Ying desperately thought of a way to beat their enemy. Shooting her from afar with low caliber guns was ineffective. She recalled the start of the fight. Faceless had gotten knocked down by a headshot.

Multiple shots might do the trick.

Ying glanced at her brother. He nodded, completely understanding her intention. Their extensive experience fighting together and powerful bond as twins allowed them to read each other’s thoughts to such an extent.

Without giving Faceless time to recover, the twins ran side by side towards her. The sister holstered her handgun and took the empty submachine gun from her brother. As Faceless rose  to face them, the brother unleashed a burst of gunfire, forcing her to protect her face and chest with her arms. The sister reloaded her submachine gun while circling around.

The moment he ran out of ammo, his sister passed by Faceless’s side and showered her with bullets. Faceless held her peek-a-boo boxing stance while keeping the sister in front of her.

That was the right move. As far as Faceless knew, the brother’s gun had no more bullets,.

But the twins knew better.

You’re not the only one who can do sleight of hand!

The brother caught the handgun Ying had tossed in the air right before she fired at Faceless. Faceless, focused on the grinning sister, left the back of her head exposed. The brother aimed the pistol at the base of Faceless’s skull and pulled the trigger.

Ying heard a loud cry.

But it did not sound mechanical.

It was her brother’s voice.

The brother collapsed to his knees, both arms hanging limply from his shoulders. Blood spurted from his abdomen. Despite seeing everything that happened, the sister felt the urge to deny it with every fiber of her being.

It was just too unreasonable.

In an instant, Faceless had ducked to avoid the headshot, spun around, and broke the brother’s elbow. Before he could even scream, she had stabbed her fingers into his gut.

No way.

No way no way no way no way!

“How did you dodge that!?” shouted the sister in despair.

Faceless turned to her and replied in an unnervingly mechanical yet feminine voice. “Huh? I heard him catch the gun, duh.”

“That’s impossible! I was shooting at you! How can you hear something like that over gunfire!?”

“Even if you ask me that… Hmm… Gen said something about auditory enhancements for this model.” Faceless tilted her head, a hand on her chin. “Well, I wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for your grin. That told me something was up so I paid extra attention.”

It was… my fault.

A paralyzing fear bound Ying. She knew she had to save her brother, but her body would not follow her commands.

“Good effort though,” said Faceless. “Although you had guns, you did ‘kill’ me about four times. Not as good as Ageha, but it was quite fun.”

“Wow…” said the brother, blood slowly dripping from his mouth. “You’re amazing. Can you tell me your name?”

“Sakuya.”

“I’m Ying, and that’s my sister, Ying.”

“Are you making fun of me?”

The brother chuckled weakly. “No, we really have the same name. But that’s not important right now. I have something to say to you, Sakuya.” Forcing his left arm to move, he picked up the handgun on the ground and pointed it at her.

But he did not shoot.

He let go of the weapon, letting it hang by the trigger guard on his index finger. It was a sign of surrender.

“I think I’m in love,” he said.

““……What did you say?”” The two teenage girls were shocked.

“Would you go out with me, Sakuya?”

“Uh, but you’re going to die in a few minutes.”

“Then think of it as my last wish.”

“Hmm… I was gonna slice you up in front of your sister, but this seems more interesting. Okay, I’ll go out with you.” Sakuya took the handgun and held his hand with her fingers coated in his blood.

“Great! I was afraid you’d turn me down.”

“Well, I don’t dislike your type, and it’s only for a few minutes anyway.”

“Have you gone insane!?” screamed the sister. “She has no face!”

Sakuya tilted her head. “I don’t think that’s the biggest problem here.”

“I can’t help how I feel, Ying. Sorry.”

Ying could not comprehend his thoughts at all. This was the first time she couldn’t understand her brother.

It’s because of this monster!!!

She pointed her submachine gun at Sakuya and pulled the trigger. The faceless cyborg did not try to dodge, taking the bullets to protect the boy behind her.

“It’s kinda crazy how this happened, but Ying is mine now, I think. Don’t mess with my stuff.” Using her free hand, Sakuya casually shot the sister with her own handgun.

The bullet lodged in her right shoulder and knocked her down. While writhing in pain on the ground, she twisted her neck and gazed at the newly formed couple.

Sakuya glanced at the gun in her hand. “I was aiming for the head. I guess copying the action isn’t good enough for shooting.”

The brother squeezed the faceless cyborg’s hand. “Hey, Sakuya.”

“That wasn’t my fault. She started it.”

“That’s okay, I understand. I wanna ask you a favor, as your, um, boyfriend. Would you do it for me?”

“Depends on what it is. Want me to cut you up?”

“Please don’t kill Ying.”

“Like I said, you’ll only last a few more minutes.”

“Not me, my sister.”

“Oh, right. Sure, why not.”

“…Thank you.” Ying smiled and closed his eyes.

The sister crawled on the ground like a worm, inching her way towards her dying brother. Ignoring her bleeding shoulders, she squeezed the last remnants of her strength and poured it into reaching him.

Despite their differing personalities, they understood each other completely, as if they were two personas of a single person. That was why they had named themselves Ying after joining the triad. No matter how different they became from each other, she would never lose sight of him.

That was what she thought.

But now, she did not have a clue about what her brother was thinking. She felt completely lost. She wanted to touch him, feel him, connect with him again. Her fingernails clawed at the ground as she pulled herself onward.

Just a few more feet..!

“Oh he died.” Sakuya released Ying’s hand, letting him fall to the ground like a rag doll. “I scrambled his organs worse than I thought.” She lost interest and walked away, leaving the twins alone.

Ying eventually made it to her brother’s side. He sat motionless on the ground, a peaceful smile on his face.

Why are you smiling?

I don’t understand, Ying.

I don’t get it at all.

More than sadness from his passing, a boundless anxiety overwhelmed her.

Not knowing was frightening.

She wanted to know.

She needed to know.

About him.

About herself.

But how?

What can I do?

She grabbed her brother’s hand, wet with his own blood, hoping for a revelation. Surprisingly, one actually came.

This warmth.

His hand was burning hot. They had touched and held each other before, but it had never been this scorching.

Is this what it means to love someone?

She had found her answer.

I just have to fall in love with Sakuya too.

 

***

 

The brother could no longer keep his eyes open.

The last thing he saw was his sister desperately crawling towards him.

I did it.

I saved Ying.

Sakuya, the crazy robot girl who gouged out his innards, had agreed to spare his twin.

I can’t believe it worked.

He knew defeating Sakuya was impossible the moment she dodged his last bullet. Left with no other choice, he had decided to surrender and beg for his sister’s life. The confession was a spur of the moment idea he got after realizing that their opponent was a fickle teenage girl. At the very least, she spoke and acted like one.

Sakuya probably knew what he was thinking but went along with it for fun. He would never know for sure.

All sensation gradually left him.

He wanted to see his sister’s face, hear her voice, touch her hand, one last time.

But he could no longer see anything.

Hear anything.

Feel anything.

He could no longer take care of his little sister. Despite her mature manner, she was very innocent and socially awkward. It was his job to support her, but that was now impossible.

His regrets caused the last remnants of his life to sizzle inside him. It was not enough to make his broken body move. All it did was make him feel like he was burning alive.

He felt someone grasp his hand.

Ying?

His last thought flickered out.

 

***

 

He has improved.

Zhi Zhu parried Ageha’s fist with his bent wrist and countered with a wing chun punch to the chest. Ageha stepped back just enough to avoid the blow.

While hopping back to put some distance between them, Zhi Zhu analyzed what he had learned from the fight so far.

I knew it was odd how quickly he moved after being exposed to a flash grenade.

His last dodge confirmed it.

Bionic eyes.

Ageha had a complete grasp of Zhi Zhu’s range, an achievement made possible by the measuring capabilities of his enhanced vision.

It had not been long since they last fought. To be able to use new bionics so well in such a short time was impressive. Such a feat required talent, intensive training, and an excellent cyber mechanic.

Rifle gunfire rang in short intervals. The sniper was still busy protecting Mei Xing from his subordinates. Sacrificing a good portion of his men to figure out Ageha’s available resources and plan turned out to be worth it. All Zhi Zhu had to do now was kill Ageha while his ally sniper was occupied.

Ageha shuffled forward and thrust out a front kick at max range. The speed of his attack surprised Zhi Zhu, delaying his parry by a split second. Though most of the force was redirected, a dull pain still ran through Zhi Zhu’s alloy forearm.

Such amazing power.

Both of them had extensive enhancements, including all four limbs, but Ageha’s ARMS were more advanced. Zhi Zhu was completely behind him in power and speed.

But that was all.

In terms of experience, training, and technique, Ageha was no match for him.

What a waste.

If this young man became my student…

The monster he imagined terrified him.

Reading the path of Ageha’s punches and kicks, he swayed to avoid the combo and kicked the young man’s kneecap, killing his momentum. Ageha pulled out a handgun from his rear belt holster and unloaded several shots in Zhi Zhu’s direction. While blocking the bullets heading for his face with his forearms, Zhi Zhu drove his right foot into the gun barrel, breaking it to pieces.

Ageha threw the remains of the handgun at Zhi Zhu, but the master easily swatted away the projectile and dashed in for a kick. Ageha leapt up the tree behind him to avoid the attack. He grabbed onto a thick branch with both hands and planted his feet on the trunk. Like a spring, he gathered power in his legs and launched himself headfirst towards Zhi Zhu.

Despite the terrifying velocity of Ageha’s dive, Zhi Zhu calmly sidestepped his flight path and prepared to attack him once he landed. Ageha extended his arm as he flew past his target. His knife, hidden until the last moment, nicked Zhi Zhu’s throat.

Ageha landed forearms first and shifted his momentum into a forward roll. Zhi Zhu’s scythe-like kick missed him by a hair’s breadth. Ageha got to his feet and raced to a safe distance.

Zhi Zhu touched the wound on his neck, feeling the blood coat his fingertips.

That was close.

He is more resourceful than before.

No, he is more desperate.

That makes him more dangerous.

I have to take this more seriously.

Ageha said something, but Zhi Zhu could not understand it.

“I don’t know much Japanese, Ageha Shikimi,” said Zhi Zhu in fluent English. “I apologize for prattling in Chinese in our last duel. It didn’t occur to me that you wouldn’t understand.”

“What the hell are you?” asked Ageha. “I threw everything and the kitchen sink at you but all you get is a scratch.”

Zhi Zhu smiled. “I’m just older and smarter, that’s all. That ‘everything’ you mentioned is limited by your experience and knowledge. Those are probably tactics you’ve tried and succeeded with previously, am I correct?”

Ageha did not reply.

“The variety of our options is simply too different. It’s the only good thing that comes from getting old, so please don’t blame me too much.” Zhi Zhu chuckled softly. “For example…” He turned around and ran away from Ageha at full speed.

Surprise delayed Ageha’s start, but he chased after Zhi Zhu as expected. Zhi Zhu nimbly weaved around the trees along his path. He abruptly turned left, causing Ageha to overshoot the turn. Zhi Zhu circled back to the area where they came from as Ageha slowly caught up to him.

When Zhi Zhu was almost within arm’s reach, Ageha tripped. Zhi Zhu sent a back kick to meet his fall. The off-balance Ageha had no means to dodge, but he still managed to defend by crossing his arms in front of him. Though weakened by his block, the kick still launched him backward. He landed on his back and skidded on the grass.

Zhi Zhu trailed after him and shuffled to the side for a soccer kick aimed at his unprotected ribs. Ageha dropped his elbow and took the attack on his arm. The impact caused him to slide across the forest floor. Using the momentum, he rolled sideways and pushed off the ground to get back on his feet. He threw his knife at the approaching Zhi Zhu, but the expert merely deflected it with his forearm.

Zhi Zhu stopped about a dozen feet from Ageha. “I’m honestly impressed. It’s like you don’t even feel pain. Your insides ought to be in pretty bad shape right now.”

“How did you trip me? Something caught my leg.”

“You mean this?” Zhi Zhu stretched out an almost invisible string between his hands. “It’s a nanotube alloy thread, very thin, but practically unbreakable. I wound it around the trees as I ran. You have to be very cautious when the enemy takes unexpected actions. Deception is a fundamental element in combat. Chasing me headlong was foolish. That little stumble almost cost you your life.”

“How much do I owe you for the lesson?”

“It’s free if you become my student, but I’m sure that’s not happening.”

“You got that right.” Ageha took a fighting stance but did not advance.

“What’s wrong? Come and attack me.”

“Tried that, didn’t work.”

The rifle shots were starting to get sparse. The triad members keeping the sniper busy appeared to be running out.

He’s trying to buy time until help comes.

I better finish this soon.

Zhi Zhu preferred defense, but that did not mean his offensive ability was lacking in any way.

While keeping his center of gravity neutral, Zhi Zhu closed the distance between them with three large strides and drove his fist towards Ageha’s face. The young man parried it with his right forearm, but Zhi Zhu twirled his hand with incredible speed, looping a metal string onto Ageha’s wrist. While tightening the alloy string, Zhi Zhu launched his shin at Ageha’s groin. Ageha backpedaled to avoid it. Though the attack whiffed, it managed to push Ageha’s back against a tree. Instead of attacking the cornered Ageha, Zhi Zhu ran to the side.

Wary of another trap, Ageha did not follow. Zhi Zhu circled around the tree and attacked Ageha from the other side with a punch and kick combination. Ageha blocked the blows, but that allowed Zhi Zhu to loop the string around his wrist once again. Zhi Zhu jumped back while pulling the alloy cord. The string drew Ageha’s wrist to the trunk of the tree, locking it in place.

Ageha struggled to get free, but his arm alone could not beat Zhi Zhu’s full strength. Like a spider weaving a deathtrap, Zhi Zhu wound his end of the string around two large trees to reinforce the restraints.

Zhi Zhu calmly approached the trapped enemy and threw a punch. Ageha prepared to protect his vital parts against the blow, but Zhi Zhu’s target lay elsewhere.

No reason to aim for moving parts.

His right fist landed on Ageha’s immobile forearm. With a press of a button, Zhi Zhu sent an electric shock into Ageha’s body.

“I can’t help but feel a little sad about having to kill someone with as much potential as you.” Zhi Zhu pulled his right arm back for the deathblow. “But that’s life.”

Something’s wrong.

Instead of hanging limply by his bound wrist, Ageha was still on his feet.

It didn’t work!?

Ageha’s left hook landed squarely on Zhi Zhu’s hurriedly raised forearm, causing it to smash into his face. Zhi Zhu got thrown to the side and tumbled on the ground. His vision swayed, and a ringing noise grated at his ears. His cheek bone was probably cracked from the impact. Blood dribbled down his chin, and a few of his molars were knocked loose.

But he was fine.

His current condition was sufficient to defeat his trapped enemy.

Zhi Zhu slowly got up and noticed Ageha pushing off the tree trunk with both legs, trying to free his bound wrist. The young man’s body shook as he desperately struggled to escape from the restraints.

Pointless.

That string is impossible to-

It broke.

Ageha tumbled to the ground after the string’s tension disappeared. He stood up while pulling the remaining wire from his wrist.

Zhi Zhu realized he had underestimated Ageha. Needless thoughts instantly vanished from his mind. The fight he had been enjoying so far had turned into a true deathmatch. The time for self-reflection or impressions was over. His entire consciousness became wired to kill.

“My turn now.” Ageha approached the injured master. “You thought I didn’t learn from our last fight?” He pinched his skin-tight outfit. “This suit has built-in electric insulation. You’re not the only one who likes to plan ahead.”

Ageha sprinted towards him. Zhi Zhu spotted Ageha’s knife on the ground between them. He dashed forward, dove under Ageha’s punch, and rolled on top of the weapon. Taking care not to be noticed, he tucked the blade into his sleeve.

Ageha rushed him with another flurry of attacks. Zhi Zhu parried or dodged most of them, but unlike earlier, they were all close calls. His speed suffered from the damage.

Even so, he patiently waited for a gap in Ageha’s barrage.

Ageha’s roundhouse kick missed.

A chance!

Zhi Zhu stepped into zero range as he drew the knife from his sleeve. Ageha raised his guard to protect his face and chest. This allowed Zhi Zhu to slice open the suit on his left thigh and tear open the fabric. Ageha tried to hop away, but Zhi Zhu grabbed his leg, causing both of them to tumble to the ground.

One shot left.

The electric charge in his right fist had been used up. Only the one in his left hand remained.

Gotta make it count.

Zhi Zhu used expert grappling technique to slither to Ageha’s leg, locking it in place with his entire body. Ageha, fended off by Zhi Zhu’s feet, could not reach any of Zhi Zhu’s vulnerable parts.

Zhi Zhu slammed his fist into Ageha’s exposed thigh and pressed a button.

Ageha convulsed and fell limp.

Zhi Zhu won.

Savoring the taste of his hard-earned victory, Zhi Zhu got up. It had been almost a decade since his last truly thrilling deathmatch. The image of a blond Russian flitted behind his closed eyelids, but he quickly erased such idle thoughts. He still had to take care of the sniper and murder Mei Xing and his family.

But first he had to end his defeated nemesis.

 

***

 

Valeriya combed the hair away from her sweat-soaked face. Her pale golden mane, undone from its bun by one of Mao’s near-misses, sloped down her back and breasts. Her shoulders heaved with each breath, and her fist was trembling from fatigue. In contrast, the candy in her mouth had hardly changed size. In the span of a few minutes, the fight had turned drastically in Mao’s favor.

“You’re not doing so well,” said Sakuya.

Without looking at the combat doll behind her, Valeriya snorted. “Then give me a hand. You’re done, right?”

Mao darted her eyes for a split-second to check on her comrades. The twins were sprawled like old rags in front of the hotel entrance. Blood pooled beneath them.

Sakuya’s shoulders trembled as she snickered in delight. “Not a chance! This is the perfect opportunity for my revenge! It’s pointless for me to kill you because you’re okay with it. But what if that bitch offs you? You’ll never see Mitsuki again, and she’ll cry rivers because you died. To top it all off, you don’t even get redemption for killing Father and creating me! I’m so excited to see what kind of face you’ll make on the verge of death!”

Valeriya shrugged. “Figures. I just asked for the heck of it.”

“That’s how it is, cat lady. I won’t be lifting a finger to help Ria. You can go ahead and slice her up as much as you want. Ah, but I’ll butcher you right after, half for Mitsuki, half for fun. I hope that’s okay.”

Mao spread her claws, her dilated pupils focusing on Sakuya. “You can try.”

“Hey, don’t forget about me.” Valeriya twirled the lollipop in her mouth, sending a surge of sweetness to her tongue. “I think it’s about time I got serious.”

“Quit the bluffing. You’re on your last legs.”

You got that right.

This fight is such a pain.

I wanna praise myself for hanging on for so long.

I wanna go home and watch the latest episode of Prisma Lilya.

I wanna take a bath with Mitsuki.

A weak sigh slipped out of her.

But that might not be possible anymore.

Guess I better prepare for the worst.

Valeriya decided to go on the offense for the first time in the fight. It was a suicidal move considering the difference in their physical abilities, but she had little choice given the situation.

With a lightning fast step in, the blond bullet thrust her fingers at Mao’s throat. Mao quickly raised her right claw to block, prepared to shred Valeriya’s hand on contact. Instead of pulling back, the Russian twisted her hips to the right, transforming her forward momentum into rotational speed. Her fingers almost grazed the razor sharp claws as she spun around.

With her back to the enemy, Valeriya used her right heel to stomp on Mao’s right toes, preventing her from moving away. Pivoting on the same foot, she spun to Mao’s open flank. Harnessing her rotational inertia, she thrust a left uppercut towards Mao’s lower ribcage. The ferocious feline managed to lower her right elbow for a block.

Valeriya’s knuckles would crumble against the metal elbow, so she opened her fist at the last moment, slamming a palm strike into the limb. Mao spat out the air in her lungs as the impact traveled through her arm and into her torso.

Mao desperately swung her right claw at the Russian, forcing her to hop back. But Valeriya’s backdash did not take her far enough to evade the blades completely.

Two wide slits opened on Valeriya’s suit, exposing her cleavage. Blood trickled from the deep cuts on her breasts. Ignoring the pain, she took a fighting stance, ready to defend against Mao’s follow up.

But the next attack did not come.

Mao straightened her posture while shaking off the blood on her claw. She had a condescending smile plastered across her face, like a cat playing with a mouse.

“Game over, Valeriya Varrenikov.”

Valeriya felt her body grow heavy, as if her weight had doubled.

I knew it.

The claws were coated in poison, and her rapid pulse circulated the venom at a quick pace.

No time to waste.

Valeriya took advantage of Mao’s complacency and tackled her with reckless abandon. Mao’s claws sliced into her right shoulder, but Valeriya pushed forth and successfully took her feet off the ground. She tried to mount Mao, but the lack of an arm and cybernetics proved to be too large a handicap to overcome with technique alone. Mao pushed her to the side and got on top of her.

A single swipe of Mao’s claw would end Valeriya’s life right then and there, but Mao merely pinned her down.

“Just relax and let the drug do its thing. It won’t kill you. I still need to hand you over to Boss for questioning. Nikaido might be more deeply involved with the Russian organizations than we thought.” Mao raised her gaze to check on the other enemy.

“Don’t worry about me,” said Sakuya. “I’m still enjoying the show.”

Mao glanced at the woman below her. “That’s some nutty friend you have there.”

“She’s my daughter.”

“What a terrible kid… I kinda feel sorry for you now.”

The final combat exchange had completely gone in Mao’s favor. All Mao had to do was wait until Valeriya became completely paralyzed.

Mao’s complacence gave Valeriya the opening she needed. She swung her left fist, aiming for Mao’s exposed jaw. The speed of her strike made it almost invisible to the naked eye.

Almost.

Mao caught her forearm with her right claw. Valeriya’s fist was inches away from Mao’s cheek, but it did not reach. The blades dug into her skin.

“Don’t struggle. It’ll be hard to keep you alive if you lose an arm.”

Valeriya glared at her captor and spat out her lollipop. Mao tilted her head to the left to avoid the slimy candy projectile.

“Disgusting!” said Mao. “Do you really wanna die that badly?”

“Don’t insult my girl.”

Mao narrowed her eyes. “What did you say-”

Valeriya stabbed the lollipop stick she had caught with her hand into Mao’s ear, piercing her eardrum.

Mao shrieked like an injured animal. The Russian grabbed her by the hair.

“I said, don’t insult my girl.”

Valeriya pulled down Mao’s head and smashed her forehead into her face. Blood sprayed from Mao’s nose as their heads came apart. She tightened her grip and slammed another head butt, and then another. Dazed from the brutal assault, Mao could do nothing while Valeriya reversed their positions and mounted her. Mao’s eyes could not even focus on her enemy anymore.

Forcing her poisoned body to move through sheer willpower, Valeriya raised her hand and gathered energy for a downward palm strike. It was a lethal blow.

Sorry.

I lied about not killing you.

Her palm fell on target, right on Mao’s jaw.

But the sound of impact was dull, or rather, absent.

Valeriya’s body slumped on top of Mao, covering her face with her bleeding breasts.

“Shit. I can’t move anymore,” she said.

“I knew it’d end up like this,” said Sakuya.

“Thanks for believing in me.”

“Believing? This was inevitable. You planned everything from the moment you took out that lollipop, didn’t you? I got excited for nothing.”

“Well, I took one risk.”

“She was that formidable? You never do that.”

Valeriya hated taking risks in fights. For a prodigy like her, it was usually unnecessary.

She had deduced that Mao’s blades were poisoned from the way she unconsciously kept them away from her own body. The only gamble she took was intentionally getting cut and poisoned to lower Mao’s guard. Still, it was a calculated risk. Poisons used in combat, as opposed to assassinations, were generally non-lethal or curable. It would be too dangerous for the wielder otherwise. That said, there were exceptions, and Valeriya put her money on that not being the case.

“Ria!” Kaika’s voice came from the entrance. “Don’t kill Mao! It’ll be impossible to establish peace with the triads if she’s dead!”

Two sets of footsteps approached Valeriya.

“…What are you doing?” asked Kaika, her voice oozing with exasperation.

Ugh, this isn’t what it looks like.

Before freezing up completely, Valeriya, still straddling the unconscious Mao and smothering her with her breasts, squeezed out her last words. “Wanna join in? Lolis are always welcome.”

 

***

 

Ageha lay lifeless on the forest floor.

He could not move.

He wanted to get up and smash his fist into Zhi Zhu’s face, but he could not move.

Not his arms, not his legs, not his feet, not his neck, not his fingers. He could not move any of them.

Zhi Zhu walked over to his side and stared into his eyes.

“Looks like your strategy fell just a bit short. But you fought very well. Thank you for the match.”

Even with death just a breath away, all Ageha could do was glare at his enemy.

With a satisfied smile, Zhi Zhu raised his right foot and hung it over Ageha’s face.

Ageha could not move.

Not until the right time.

And that was now.

Ageha grabbed Zhi Zhu’s raised foot by the ankle, holding him in place. “Arashi! Shoot him now!!!”

Zhi Zhu’s face crumpled in shock. He raised both arms to cover the top of his head and crouched down as low as he could to avoid getting sniped.

But the shot did not come.

Arashi was busy covering for Mei Xing, after all.

With his free hand, Ageha grabbed Zhi Zhu’s face and squeezed.

Zhi Zhu’s eyeballs popped out of their sockets. Ageha’s fingers dug deep into his skull and scooped out a chunk of his brain, removing his tongue in the process.

“Arashi, report your status,” said Ageha as he sat up.

“Target not specified. I… don’t know who to shoot.”

“Forget about that. How are Mei Xing and the others?”

“I’m okay,” said Mei Xing. “How’re Setsu and Li Xue?”

“Safe,” said Arashi. “Three targets left.”

Ageha shook his hand, flicking away the blood and goop. “Do you need support?”

“Negative.”

He closed his eyes and listened for movement around him. He could not sense any enemies nearby.

“Zhi Zhu is dead. Let’s meet up after you take care of the stragglers.”

“Roger.”

Ageha finally breathed out a sigh of relief and relaxed his shoulders. The battle was over. His body was badly beaten, but nothing required immediate treatment. He pressed the mute button on his earpiece to prevent the others from hearing him.

“Turns out my strategy didn’t fall short, Zhi Zhu. Well, the idea was originally from my boss, so don’t blame me too much.”

It had been Kaika’s suggestion to use specialized insulating material for both his suit and his skin. To Saya’s dismay, the new artificial dermis Tsubasa developed felt like rubber, but that step away from humanity had proven to be worth it. The rest of the bluffs, including the fake sniper call, were Ageha’s on-the-fly tactics.

Deception was indeed a fundamental element in combat, and none matched the mastermind he worked for and learned from. Kaika had proven to be Ageha’s goddess of victory, or more aptly, devil in the shadows.

Ageha glanced at the crimson cavity that used to be Zhi Zhu’s face. “And a piece of advice. Victory speeches should be given after you win. Doesn’t matter if the audience is already dead. Not like they’d applaud anyway.”

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Thirteen: Betrayal

“NGC is prepared to provide a steady supply of cybernetics to the US military,” said Kaika. “Of course, that includes the medical knowledge and technology necessary to install them on your soldiers.”

Walker stared at the document in his hand. “That’s a very good deal for this price. Perhaps too good.” With a stern expression bordering on a frown, he peered into Kaika’s eyes.

“I understand your wariness, General, but let me assure you that this arrangement greatly benefits NGC as well. More users now means more business in the future, after all.”

“But a business revolves around profit. At these prices, you’re lucky to break even.” Walker placed the papers on the table.

He has a good grasp of ARMS production costs.

Kaika had intentionally dropped the price to expedite the negotiations, but her opponent had seen that as a point of suspicion instead.

Contrary to his build, he is very shrewd and meticulous.

General Walker was a hulk of a man. Though they were seated at the meeting table, the almost seven-foot general towered over Kaika and Saya. His crisply ironed green uniform bulged from his muscles. His short, perfectly combed hair complemented his stiff and imposing demeanor. Despite looking like a weightlifter, Walker exuded an air of sophistication and wisdom, an impression strengthened by his piercing eyes and ash grey locks.

Kaika knew nothing else about him. Prior to the meeting, she had only been told she would be meeting a representative of the US military.

Several military policemen were stationed at each of the meeting room’s two doors. Arashi, keeping the same stiff pose as the guards, stood a few steps behind her mistress. Showing none of her usual laziness, she fit right in with the military crowd.

“You’re right,” said Kaika. “Even considering it as an investment, this deal would normally put us in the red.”

“Normally?”

“Yes. NGC’s acquisition of KyberCorp has given us a practical monopoly in the cybernetics market. We can take some risks without losing the top spot in the industry. Aside from that, we have plans to move manufacturing to China to lower production and material transport costs.”

Saya explained further. “In addition to already functioning facilities, we are going to build several metal processing and ARMS manufacturing plants in Guangxi. NGC sources its alloys from different parts of China, so moving there will cut down transport costs. That autonomous region also has less restrictions and monitoring for exports. Using the southern shoreline, we can covertly transport the products to this country via sea routes, avoiding all the inconveniences and bribes necessary when going through standard channels.”

“Those are just plans. Making a commitment based on something so uncertain is difficult.”

“We are still sorting out some issues with the local triads,” said Kaika, “but it’s only a matter of time. The plans were delayed due to opposition from a conservative triad leader.”

“Are you talking about Zhang Wei Long?”

“…As expected of the general. Nothing gets past you.” Kaika smiled. “Yes, but that problem has been dealt with.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Let’s just say he is already out of the picture. We’re currently making arrangements with the leader of the Shui Jing Group, the new top triad.”

Walker closed his eyes for a moment, a hint of disappointment visible on his stony, square face. “Have you met with the leader in person?”

Something’s wrong.

Kaika noticed the change in Walker’s expression, but she could not tell what caused it. Thinking that bluffing while in the dark was unwise, Kaika chose to tell him the truth.

“No, I haven’t. I have an associate currently handling the negotiations on that end.”

“Thank you for being honest. I believe we would’ve made good partners, but unfortunately, the US military can’t accept this offer, at least not in its current state.”

“Is there a problem with the terms? If it’s about the large initial down payment to fund production, that’s negotiable.”

“We have received a similar offer from a different party.”

Cold sweat ran down Kaika’s back.

“There is no other corporation capable of producing ARMS at the scale stipulated in our terms.”

“That was also what we thought until they approached us. The problem is, both of you claim to have control over Guangxi. I think it would be better to have this discussion together with the other party.” Walker signaled at one of the MPs.

The MP opened the door and called for someone.

Kaika’s bad feeling turned into reality.

A woman, her hair tied in a bun behind her head, entered the room. Kaika knew her face very well.

Akane.

Akane Kogami barely looked liked herself. Deep black circles hung underneath her tired eyes. Her prim and proper demeanor was nowhere to be seen. With unkempt hair and a wrinkled face, she resembled a crone who had given up caring for her appearance. Her stride had a slight limp.

Two more familiar faces followed Akane inside.

Walker stood up. “Let me introduce you. This is the leader of the Shui Jing group.”

The general motioned towards the lone man among the new visitors. Dressed in a white mandarin collar suit, the tall man with a long ponytail smiled. It was a playful smirk, something expected of a child who had just pulled off a prank.

“Mr. Zhang,” said Kaika.

“It’s been a while, Ms. Nikaido.”

Saya was already on her feet and warily eyeing Mao. Arashi noticed her hostility and took a fighting stance.

“I understand you people have some history,” said Walker, “but please don’t forget that you’re in US territory, a military base no less.”

“Stand down,” said Kaika.

Saya and Arashi relaxed their guard.

Zhang raised an eyebrow. “You don’t look very surprised.”

“That’s because I’m not. I’m very disappointed though. This is the worst case scenario among my predictions.”

“Aren’t you curious how I’m still around?”

“Obviously a body double. You treat cosmetic surgery like daily make up. Fixing up some lackey to take your place would be easy enough.”

“That’s absolutely correct!” Zhang clapped a few times. “Do you mind if we take a seat?”

“I do, but don’t let that stop you.”

Zhang sat down on a chair Mao pulled out for him. Mao remained standing by his side. Akane shot Saya a sharp look as she clumsily flopped into her seat. Her injuries at the arena appeared to have left permanent damage. Despite her struggle with the chair, Akane’s mood seemed very bright, as if she had just won the lottery.

Kaika had deduced the link between Akane and Zhang when she noticed the odd circumstances surrounding Zhang’s assassination.

Zhi Zhu’s paralysis weapon had been a big clue. A knife would be far more effective against normal people. That tool was designed to fight against an almost fully cybernetic person. Kaika had initially labeled it as mere coincidence, but after Rin confirmed Akane’s survival, her thinking had changed.

That weapon was made to defeat Ageha. Her knight would not have been beaten so easily otherwise.

Very few people knew about Ageha’s body. Akane was one of them.

Zhang’s survival had been a bit harder to predict.

Mao, who appeared close to Zhang, had remained calm after seeing him get shot to death. Remembering her own panic when she thought Ageha died, Kaika had found Mao’s behavior to be very odd.

The biggest clue was how easily the Shui Jing group took over the top seat within the triad hierarchy. That made sense if their leader was the same person.

Despite acknowledging the possibility of Zhang’s survival, Kaika had judged it to be unlikely and done nothing to prepare for it. She had not received any information from Valeriya that supported her theory, after all.

Did Ria betray me?

Kaika shelved that thought for later. She had bigger fish to fry.

“Guangxi is under Mr. Zhang’s control, and they have offered us similar terms to this contract.” Walker tapped on the document on the table. “Aside from the condition that the US military would stop interfering with the Chinese triads’ internal affairs, all other conditions are practically equal. However, I believe Mr. Zhang’s offer is preferable because Ms. Nikaido’s deal works under the assumption that NGC has Guangxi.”

That was exactly right. Kaika had no means to convince Walker to choose her offer. Zhang had stripped her of her weapons and cornered her.

She had no way to win.

Kaika grinned.

Then I’ll just force a stalemate.

“Did you say the conditions are equal?” she asked. “That’s completely wrong, General Walker.”

“Please explain,” he said.

“Knock offs will never come close to the real thing. Moreover, ARMS are much more complex than phones or appliances. Are you really willing to entrust the lives of your soldiers to inferior Chinese products?”

Unlike other countries, the United States still had ongoing conflicts in several territories. Those were mostly small skirmishes under the pretext of justice and human rights, but lives were lost all the same. In fact, the importance of cybernetic enhancements increased in cases where bombers and tanks could not be used.

“What a bold thing to say,” said Zhang. “Do you have any proof to back up that claim?”

“Aside from decades of cutting edge ARMS manufacturing? NGC has been at the forefront of cybernetics since the field’s conception. It’s absurd to think some upstart with a few processing plants could even approach our level, regardless of them trying to rip off our designs.”

“Nothing but speculation.” Zhang shook his head. “The specifications document I provided to the general shows just how excellent our products are. What matters is real data.”

Kaika nodded. “I absolutely agree, Mr. Zhang. General Walker, I’d like to propose a weapons test between NGC and Mr. Zhang’s group. As the customer, I think it’s in your best interest to see how our products stack up against each other. What matters is real data, after all.”

“There’s no need for that,” said Zhang. “The fact that you don’t have Guangxi already means you can’t fulfill the terms in your contract.”

“We offer the US military the exact same deal even now. Same prices, no changes. Nothing in our proposal requires Guangxi.”

“Impossible. You can’t sustain that level of supply without the right resources.”

“We have other ways of lowering costs. Confidential, of course.”

“Please don’t listen to her bluff, General. You should understand that her offer isn’t realistic. She just wants to shoo away the competition for now and then backpedal later.”

“Are you that scared of having our products compared? If you really think they’re of equal quality, then you have nothing to lose.”

Except your initiative in this negotiation, that is.

“As much as I hate to admit it, we soldiers are expendable,” said Walker. “The country and the people try to glorify our value, but in the end, we’re no different from bullets and missiles used up for the sake of our leaders’ interests. However, just because we are tools doesn’t mean soldiers can be used carelessly. Leaders must make efficient use of any limited resource.” Walker turned to Kaika. “I agree with your proposal for a weapons test. Mr. Zhang, I believe you have no reason to decline if you have confidence in your product.”

“…Yes, that’s correct.”

Kaika’s lips curled into a repressed smirk. Zhang, in a rare show of emotion, looked visibly annoyed by her successful maneuvering.

Akane remained silent, but her previously jovial expression quickly soured. She glared at Kaika, her cheeks trembling in fury. The thirst for revenge was almost palpable in her stare.

How scary.

Kaika made a mental note of Akane’s state. The woman was broken, but that also meant she was more dangerous due to her jagged edges.

They spent the rest of the meeting discussing the details of the weapons test. Aside from basic functionality, power, and durability demonstrations, a mock battle between a representative from each group was added to show live combat performance. The date was set two weeks out to give both parties time to prepare.

After the discussion ended, Zhang and his party prepared to leave.

Walker held up his hand. “Please wait. I hope to keep this competition between Ms. Nikaido and Mr. Zhang as peaceful as possible. I understand that both of you are very powerful in your home countries, but keep in mind that you’re in the United States of America. Any unauthorized violence within our territory will not be tolerated. Do not underestimate us.”

Kaika and Zhang nodded at his words. She knew very well that the military and law enforcement in the US were incomparable to those in Japan. They had better equipment, experience, and people. Most importantly, they actually did their jobs.

Zhang left the room, followed by Mao and Akane. Kaika glanced at Saya and got up from her seat.

“One more thing,” said Walker.

Kaika wordlessly sat back down, her eyes on the general’s face.

Walker placed his elbows on the table and leaned forward slightly. “We know you’re planning to sell ARMS to the Japanese and Chinese militaries.”

Kaika mentally clicked her tongue, but this was still within her range of expectations. “I invoke my right to remain silent. Even if that were true, I can’t confirm due to client confidentiality.”

“The US military has no intention of stopping you. Our interests probably lie in the same direction. We guarantee your safety as long as it stays that way.”

“Is that why you reconsidered my offer instead of immediately taking Zhang’s?”

“If your products really are superior, it would be foolish to buy cheaper imitations. We’d fall behind the countries that did accept your offer. That is not an option.”

“Rest assured.” Kaika brandished a perfect business smile. “We provide equal service to all our customers.”

 

***

 

“That little bitch!!!” Akane kicked over a trashcan as she paced around the spacious hotel suite.

“Please calm down.”

Though Akane had cursed in Japanese, Zhang politely replied to her in English. She knew some Mandarin, and he could understand some Japanese, but it was easier to use a language they were both fluent in.

“Hey, I know… Let’s just kill them. Kaika and Saionji are isolated in this country. A few bodyguards can’t protect them from a surprise attack! Zhi Zhu beat Shikimi, right!? Then we can kill them now!”

“Zhi Zhu is in China managing the organization in my place.” Zhang, seated on a couch, crossed his legs and sipped his tea.

“Then send Mao and those twins! How hard could it be to kill two girls!?”

“You should know that best.”

Akane ground her teeth. Having been defeated by those two girls several times, she could not argue back.

“I understand your anger, Akane, but we can’t do anything to them in this country. You heard General Walker, right?”

“So you’re telling me to just let them go? Kaika ruined our plans! There’s no way our cybernetics can compare to NGC’s. That cunt probably has even more advanced models hidden up her sleeves!”

“True, but the coming demonstration includes a mock battle. That part will affect audience opinion the most. I’ll call in Zhi Zhu to represent us. It’s a sure win.”

“That’s not guaranteed. The only reason Zhi Zhu beat Shikimi was because I told you about his body.”

“You say that because you don’t know Zhi Zhu. That man is a true dragon.”

“Even if he did win and we foil Kaika’s plans, she’ll just go into hiding when she returns to Japan. She’s untouchable there. Did you forget our deal? I provide you information on Kaika and her group, and you help me kill them all. I’ve fulfilled my end of the deal. I even provided you with ARMS production technology for this stupid deal with the Americans! But those bitches are still perfectly fine! I didn’t think you were this incompetent!”

Mao, not content to continue watching from a sofa in silence, glared at Akane and began to stand up. Zhang raised a hand to stop her.

“Ms. Kogami, please be patient. We can’t risk attacking Nikaido and then failing, just like she did when she tried to assassinate me. I don’t want to make that girl desperate. Who knows what she’s capable of when truly cornered. We need to eliminate them all in one fell swoop.”

Akane understood his logic, but her rampaging emotions robbed her of good judgment. Her head was filled to the brim with the desire to kill Saya and her mistress.

“I ran out of patience long ago. I was a fool to trust a coward like you!”

Mao jumped from her seat and grabbed Akane’s face, lifting her off the ground.

“Stop that,” said Zhang.

Mao released her hapless prey. Akane fell to the ground on her knees.

“I thought she didn’t understand English!?” shouted Akane, her fingers on her sore cheeks.

“She doesn’t, but anyone can understand your intent when you shout that much.”

Akane scowled at Mao. “You bitch! How dare you touch me! You’re nothing but a pet whore!”

“I’d refrain from speaking to her like that.”

“Or what, she’ll attack me again!? Train your pets better!”

“No, I’ll kill you myself.”

Akane’s anger evaporated in an instant. Still on the floor, she felt her body start shivering. Zhang’s words were calm and clear, completely lacking emotion. That was why she understood that they were not meant to intimidate. He had simply stated a fact.

“You should be more grateful to Mao,” he said.

Akane, shaking like a leaf, mustered her courage and asked, “W-What do you mean?”

“She was the one who convinced me to take you in when you showed up months ago. She told me you reminded her of herself at a difficult time and asked me to help you like how I helped her. It seems we were both mistaken in our evaluation of you.”

“N-No, wait, please! I’m sorry for yelling and saying all those things. Blood rushed to my head, and I just-”

“Then it’s fine.”

Mao extended a hand towards her. Akane shrank away from it.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Zhang. “She’s just helping you up. It’s hard to tell because of her eternally smug face, but Mao is a very caring girl.”

Akane took Mao’s hand, and the latter gently pulled her up. Mao patted Akane’s shoulder a few times and gave her a thumbs up with her other hand. Akane could easily tell she was asking her to trust them.

“I can speak Japanese you know,” said Akane in her mother tongue.

“Oh, right. Sorry about grabbing your face, you fug-, …Never mind.”

“Good job controlling that tongue, Mao,” said Zhang.

“Shut it, you horny eunuch.”

“My two treasures are in perfectly good condition!”

“Too bad your junior is too limp to make use of them.”

“I-It is not!”

Zhang and Mao had always treated Akane with respect and generosity. Even after her outburst, they did not abandon or blame her. Watching the slightly comedic scene before her, she felt a familiar warmth spread within her chest. She tried to place the feeling.

Oh, that’s right.

This is…

The desire to destroy.

 

***

 

“Did you hear?”

“What?”

Two triad members were going down a hallway in the Soaring Serpent Society HQ.

“Some of the guys saw Zhi Zhu panicking after Boss’s body double got shot at the drug factory. Even he didn’t know about the boss faking his own death.”

“What’s the big deal? Boss Zhang has his reasons.”

“Thing is, that girl Mao seems to have known about it.”

“Man, that’s just wrong. What’s the boss thinking, trusting that bimbo over his right-hand man?”

“Right? I never liked her. I just hope Boss Zhang isn’t getting tricked.”

“Hmm… Mao may be a bitch, but damn she’s hot. I can understand going nuts over that body.”

“Stop saying foolish things and get back to work,” said Zhi Zhu as he approached them from behind.

The two underlings quickly turned around. “”Boss Zhi Zhu!?””

“Don’t listen to baseless rumors. Boss Zhang knows what he’s doing. Doubting his thinking is beyond your capability and station.”

“O-Of course! I apologize for the careless words!”

The two men bowed deeply and ran off.

Zhi Zhu shook his head and sighed as he watched them scamper away.

This is not good.

Rumors about the discord between Zhang and Zhi Zhu had been spreading like wildfire within the organization. That by itself was enough for Zhi Zhu to worry about, but the most pressing problem was the fact that even he had started having doubts about his leader’s judgment.

He had spoken to Zhang about the reason why the fake assassination plan was  kept secret from him but not Mao. Zhang had explained that it was necessary to fool the cunning Kaika. Zhi Zhu’s panic was the best way to trick Kaika’s group into believing Zhang’s death was genuine.

The reason Zhang told Mao about the plan was so she wouldn’t go berserk and get herself killed. Zhang’s trust in Zhi Zhu’s composure had allowed him to choose such a daring tactic, or so he said.

Zhi Zhu was not convinced. Both he and Zhang had lost face in their subordinates eyes, a mishap fatal for people in their position. Losing respect in an organization that was built and maintained on reputation could lead to attacks coming from within and without.

“Trouble in paradise?”

Zhi Zhu peeked over his shoulder and saw Akane. “Ms. Kogami, weren’t you in the US with the boss? The demo is at the end of the week.”

“I’ll be back by then. I just came back to take care of some business. Maybe we can go together on my return trip. You’re going to be the star of the show.” Her lips formed a seductive smile.

“What brings you to headquarters?”

“To see you, actually.”

“That’s unexpected. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I have some information you may be interested in. One of my men caught a spy that tried to infiltrate my network the other day. I rushed back here to take part in the interrogation.”

“I was under the impression you didn’t have that kind of manpower.”

“Not much in terms of firepower. That’s why I decided to ally with your society. But even if it comes from a dead person, money still buys a lot of information.”

“And what does that spy have to do with me?”

“Do you know about Zhang Mei Xing?”

Zhi Zhu stiffened. “How do you know that name?”

“Kaika Nikaido’s spy spilled it after a few hours of torture. Zhang’s rebellious son and future successor, was it?”

“Stop beating around the bush.”

“How impatient. We should move to a more secure location first.”

“Alright.”

Zhi Zhu led Akane to a small conference room and locked the door.

Akane leaned against the table. “It feels like we’re going to be doing something naughty in here.”

“Now talk.”

Akane sighed. “You really should learn to relax a little. Anyway, did you know that Zhang and his son have been in contact recently?” She smirked. “That look says you didn’t. Seems Mei Xing came around and decided he wants to take over the family business. How does Zhang see that, I wonder?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

“No can do. This is a trade. I can’t just give you info for free.”

Zhi Zhu considered for a moment and decided to provide a certain amount of information. “Boss always wanted Mei Xing to be his successor, but that kid rejected him and fled. I think Boss still feels the same way even now. That boy is his family, his blood.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Don’t play dumb. You’re second-in-command, and Zhang is old.”

“I won’t deny that I’d like to take over the boss’s position once he retires, but I’ll respect his will if he decides to make Mei Xing the next dragon head, assuming you’re telling the truth and the boy actually wants it.”

Akane’s eyebrows rose as far as they would go.

“That’s some loyalty. I’m honestly impressed, assuming you’re telling the truth.”

“I have no reason to lie to you.”

“Then think of this as a favor.” Akane took out her mobile terminal and showed a video to Zhi Zhu. “Recognize the man talking to Mei Xing?”

“…Ageha Shikimi.”

Zhi Zhu had seen pictures of him in the file Akane provided months ago. Her information had allowed him to recognize the helmet-masked Ageha at the drug facility and defeat him with ease.

“I had people trailing Kaika’s group ever since they landed in China. We lost sight of them from time to time, but they’re easy to track in a remote place like this. Shikimi visited the inn you see in the background a couple of times. I didn’t think much of it when I first saw this, but that changed when the spy explained that Mei Xing lives at that inn.”

“This can’t be true. Even if he despised his father, doing something like this… Where did you get this video?”

“The people I borrowed from your society took it. You can confirm with them if you want.”

“That’s…”

If the video was taken by people from the triad, it’s genuine.

“Zhang is being betrayed by his son.”

That ingrate!!!

Zhang would be devastated if he found out that his last living blood relative had betrayed him. Zhi Zhu felt the urge to rip out Mei Xing’s spine to punish his disloyalty.

Akane showed a look of concern. “Zhang doesn’t have to know.”

“…What are you scheming?”

“Nothing that fancy. I just want your help. Zhang wants a peaceful resolution to his conflict with NGC. I can’t allow that. If you get rid of that traitor and pin it on Kaika, Zhang would never know about his son’s betrayal, and I’ll get my just cause to kill that brat and everyone she cares about. Simple, right?”

“That would never work.”

“Don’t you have people you can trust? Take them and make it look like a failed kidnapping. All fingers will point to Kaika. She’s the only one with any motive, at least as far as Zhang knows.”

Zhi Zhu processed the information in his head. He was unsure if he could trust Akane’s words, but the small details added up. Zhang keeping him in the dark. The protection detail Zhang placed on Mei Xing. The lack of an official candidate for the next dragon head. Everything made sense if Zhang’s intent was to make Mei Xing his successor. Zhi Zhu desiring the dragon head chair was no secret, and Zhang may have been wary of that.

“…Let me think about it.”

“Of course, but please don’t take too long. This needs to happen before the demo. You’re expected to be there, so moving a few days before would be best. Kaika will probably disappear again after the weapons test. Who knows when I’ll get another chance at revenge.”

Akane left the room, leaving a conflicted man alone with his thoughts.

 

***

 

“Good job, you two,” said Akane as she held out an envelope filled with Yuan.

In front of her were the two triad members that Zhi Zhu overheard gossiping in the hallway.

“Piece of cake.” He grabbed the envelope.

“Get money from chatting, I feel like movie star.”

The men spoke in broken English. She had been a little worried that they could follow her instructions, but it seemed their comprehension was much better than their verbal skills.

“I’ll give you the other half in a month’s time. Don’t speak a word about this to anyone else. Your lives on the line.”

“L-Lives?”

“B-But we just talk rumors…”

“There’s nothing to worry about if you keep quiet. Now go.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The two men got out of Akane’s car. The vehicle was parked on a busy street, like a tree hidden in the forest.

Now I just need to wait for Zhi Zhu to light the fuse.

Inciting him to action had been easier than she thought. She had not even needed to lie. The video evidence and spy’s testimony were all true. She had only directed him to the path she needed him to take.

Satisfied at having successfully carried out her plan, Akane stretched her back. A dull pain shot from her abdomen, traveling through her spine and stinging her brain. It reminded her that she still needed to kill Rin Natsume, the woman who shot and scarred her. But that could wait. Kazuki’s share of vengeance would be delivered soon, and she wanted to savor it.

In a few days, Zhang and Kaika will destroy each other, leaving me as the sole victor.

 

***

 

That’s probably what Akane is thinking right now.

Kaika tossed her mobile to the side, letting it bounce on the fluffy bed. She had just finished informing Yamagishi’s family of his demise. Even the fifty million yen damage reparation she had mentioned on the call did not soften his wife’s cries in the least.

She normally did not bother apologizing to the family of each person that died under her employment. The job description for bodyguards and spies included mortal danger. But Yamagishi was special. He was a sacrifice that would lead her to victory.

Yamagishi himself had not known how he was being used. He had infiltrated Akane’s circle per orders, unaware that the information Kaika gave him was completely fabricated. It was an impossible mission with an almost guaranteed chance of failure and capture.

Yamagishi had been a suicide bomber carrying information instead of explosives.

And now he was dead. The transmitter on him had said as much.

Kaika rolled on the bed, not caring how the shoulder straps of her negligee had slipped down her arms. The only other person in the hotel room was Arashi, who was asleep on the couch. Digging her nose into a dolphin plushie, Kaika continued organizing the numerous schemes in her head.

Zhang was not foolish enough to attack while in US territory. Akane was another story. One look at Akane’s eyes and Kaika knew she had become a vengeful spirit, a wraith lacking caution and restraint.

By informing Akane of Mei Xing’s existence, Kaika intended to bait her into killing him and pinning the blame on Kaika’s group. Zhang would definitely get revenge if his son were killed, regardless of the consequences.

Kaika had suspected from the beginning that Zhang deeply cared about family. Why else would a triad boss let his only son, a liability for a man in his position, roam free and do as he pleased? Seeing Zhang and Mao’s oddly familial relationship had turned Kaika’s suspicion into conviction.

Though engineered by the supposed victim, Akane’s plan to frame Kaika was decent enough. Unfortunately, it would crumble the moment Kaika showed evidence proving that it was not her group that killed Mei Xing. The conversation between Ageha and Mei Xing about Zhang’s death, recorded using a bug planted in Ageha’s ARMS, was sufficient proof. Kaika’s faction simply had no reason to harm a man who was that friendly with them.

Once Kaika was cleared of suspicion, all the blame would go to Akane, the only other person with a motive. With a little push, Zhang would kill her, removing the thorn in Kaika’s side once and for all.

But for all that to happen, Mei Xing had to die, along with his family to get rid of possible witnesses.

Their blood would be on Akane’s hands, but it would be Kaika’s finger on the trigger.

Mei Xing was Ageha’s friend.

Kaika knew a time would come when she would need to break her promise with Ageha and lie to him.

Is there a better way?

There probably was, but it was not something a devil baptized in deception and incapable of trust could come up with.

Sacrifices, like Yamagishi, were necessary.

I’m sorry.

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Twelve: Dribble

“I still don’t get it,” said Ageha.

Kaika twirled around to face him, the creased skirt of her white sundress following a beat late. “I had high expectations because everyone says to see this when visiting Minneapolis. It’s certainly striking, but I’m not a fan either.”

“The sculpture’s scale is impressive at least,” said Saya. “It looks over fifty feet long.”

Ageha shrugged. “No matter how big it is, a spoon with a red cherry balanced on top still makes no sense to me.”

“I read somewhere that its charm is that it changes appearance with the seasons.”

“I was here in winter a few years ago. It looked a little different with snow everywhere, but I don’t really know much about art.”

“Ways of appreciating art varies from person to person. You don’t need to be an expert. What matters is that you enjoy it.” Kaika pointed at something with her eyes. “Take that for example.”

Arashi was chasing ducks around the pond beneath the massive sculpture. She looked like she was having a blast.

“I think I’d rather stay blind to art than be like that,” said Ageha.

Kaika circled the gigantic sculpture, looking at it from various angles. “While I don’t mind modern art, I prefer more intricate pieces. The stone sculptures and stained glass in the cathedral we visited this morning were more interesting.”

“I was a bit worried you’d start burning after going inside though.”

“Me too.”

They chuckled.

Saya examined the tour guide pamphlet she had picked up earlier. “That is the end of the sculpture garden. I do not think we missed anything. Should we go back to the car?”

Kaika checked her terminal. “It’s only ten. The person we’re meeting won’t be ready until later this afternoon. We have a lot of time to spare.”

“Then let’s walk to the brunch place I was telling you about.” Ageha pointed at a metal skybridge traversing the wide highway. “We can cross over there, go through Loring park, and head straight to Hells Kitchen. I’d like to point out that there’s no apostrophe before the S.”

“Interesting name for a restaurant. Did you pick it because of that?”

“No, the lemon ricotta pancakes are amazing.”

Kaika raised an eyebrow. “Better than yours?”

“I’d say they’re about the same.”

Because I copied their recipe.

“So even you steal recipes.”

“Every chef does it. And stop reading people’s minds.”

“Saya, grab Arashi. Let’s get going.” Kaika looked at Ageha with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “We’re counting on you to guide us, former Minnesotan.”

“Don’t call me that. I only stayed here for a little over a year, and most of that time I spent in Le Cordon Bleu.”

“You holed up in culinary school? How boring. Don’t you have any exciting stories about your life here?”

“Nothing that would interest you.”

Kaika cast him a doubtful gaze. “…Is that so?”

He ignored her and headed for the bridge. Arashi was a little dissatisfied at first when Saya stopped her from terrorizing the local wildlife, but her eyes quickly brightened at the mention of food. They left the lush greenery of the touristy sculpture garden, crossed the highway, and entered Loring park. There was still quite a ways to go, but Kaika, the only one with human legs, did not seem to mind. She busied herself observing the people and objects around her.

Kai doesn’t act like it most of the time, but she really is a sheltered princess, huh?

Only in her case, life in the shelter had been much more arduous than facing the dangers outside.

A loud wolf-whistle grabbed their attention. The catcall came from a tall white guy holding a basketball. He and his two black friends, all over six feet in height, observed Ageha’s group from an outdoor basketball court.

“Where you girls goin’?” asked the more muscular of the two African-Americans. His sweaty bald head glinted under the sun.

“Wanna play a game with us?” The other black man, sporting a headband that pressed down his curly hair, pointed his thumb at the basketball hoop behind him. “We’re short on people. With you girls, we can play three-on-three. That guy with you can watch from the bench.”

The three ballers snickered like hyenas. Ageha could understand them somewhat. The females with him were all beauties, not to mention they were wearing revealing summer outfits. While a bit annoying, this was just harmless teasing. Ageha decided to ignore them and continued on his way. The ladies followed his example.

The only white guy among the ballers jogged to Ageha’s group. His oversized numbered jersey made him look less imposing than the others.

“Hey, it’s not nice to ignore people when they’re talking to you.” Jersey reached out for the person at the rear of the pack, Saya.

Ageha swiftly stepped between them and lightly parried his hand. “Sorry, but we’re in a hurry. Can you please leave us alone?”

Jersey twisted his face into a sneer. “What’s with that accent? I couldn’t understand a thing you said.”

Having lived in the United States for a time, Ageha could speak English fluently, but his Japanese accent was a little thick compared to Kaika or Saya.

Saya glared at Jersey, who towered over her by a full foot. “What did you say?”

Great.

Now she’s pissed.

Saya always overreacted when those close to her were insulted. Ageha remembered Saya punching the lights out of a guy who called Arashi autistic.

Jersey snorted. “I said that guy behind you needs to learn some better English.”

“Apologize to him,” said Saya.

“Just statin’ the facts.” He laughed. “How ‘bout this. I’ll think about it if you hang out with us for a bit.”

“Saya, this isn’t Manila or Guanxi. Don’t go overboard,” said Kaika in Japanese.

“But these gnats need to be taught a lesson,” said Saya.

“Just do it peacefully.”

Saya nodded at her and then glared at the man. “Okay. We will play a three-on-three game with you. If we win, you will apologize to him.”

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about. What’ll we get if we win?”

Saya pulled out a stack of twenty dollar bills from her purse and tossed it to him. “Here is a thousand dollars. Just return it after we wipe the court with you.”

The guy’s arrogant attitude vanished. “Hey lady, whoa, we just kiddin’ around. We can’t take this.” He tried to return it.

“No. You will hold onto it. We will play. And you fleas will lose.”

He took a step back in the face of Saya’s intimidation. “Geez, relax. Gimme a minute.” Jersey ran back to his friends and showed them the cash. After about a minute of discussion, he returned with a cocky grin on his face. “Alright, deal. But don’t come complaining when we win.”

Kaika went to Ageha’s side and whispered, “Keep it human, okay? Tell the other two to do the same. Saya is really miffed, and Arashi is Arashi. We don’t want people reporting us for illegal cybernetic enhancements.”

Ageha nodded and explained the situation to his team.

Everyone relocated to the basketball court. Kaika took a seat on a bench as Saya did some basic stretches for her human parts. Ageha checked his clothes for anything that might fall out during play.

Luckily, he and his party were dressed in light attire because of the summer heat. He was wearing a plain t-shirt and shorts, while Saya was dressed in a flaxen wide-necked blouse and grey half-pants.

Arashi, lightly dressed in a long, light blue tank top that completely hid her denim short shorts, sat down beside her mistress.

“Why are you sitting down?” asked Kaika. “You’re playing too.”

“…I am?”

Kaika pushed the languid girl onto the court from behind.

“Are you gonna be the coach, Kai?” asked Ageha.

“No. I know the rules, but I’m not familiar enough with actual play to contribute anything. Just follow Saya’s instructions. She used to play basketball before I picked her up. I’ll cheer for you from the sidelines.” Kaika returned to the bench.

After all the players had assembled on the court, the guy with the headband explained the match rules. The game was a race to twenty-one. Inside shots counted for one point, outside shots for two. Shooting fouls resulted in free throws.

“Simple enough,” said Ageha.

Saya’s team won the first possession via coin toss. She took the ball out of bounds and passed it to Ageha. Ageha caught it and dashed towards the ring at an absurd speed.

While holding the ball in his hand.

“Traveling!” shouted one of their opponents.

Noticing everyone’s gaze, Ageha stopped running.

Saya approached him. “…Have you ever played, no, have you even seen a game of basketball?”

“No.”

Saya facepalmed.

Ball possession went to the enemy team.

“Okay, just keep them from shooting,” said Saya.

Headband took a shot from beyond the arc, but Ageha whacked the ball away, along with the shooter’s forearm.

“Foul!”

While Headband took two free throws, Saya explained to Ageha that basketball was not a full-contact sport.

Score: 0 – 2.

Saya inbounded the ball by passing it to Arashi. With a smirk, Arashi nimbly dodged the ball, leading to an easy lay up for the opposing team.

Saya grabbed the teen by her cheeks. “This isn’t dodgeball!”

Score: 0 – 3.

“I’ll take care of the offense myself.” Saya made Ageha inbound the ball. After catching his pass, she slipped through the defense and sank a fadeaway jump shot against Headband.

“You got skills!” Grinning ear to ear, Headband pointed at her while nodding his head.

The match continued with Saya completely shouldering her team’s offense. She made jumpers and layups but missed a few shots. On the other hand, the opponents scored every possession because Arashi could not be bothered to even raise her arms in defense.

Score: 5 – 9.

The opposing team decided to leave the lazy Arashi alone and double teamed Saya. Even with her unmatched speed, she could not get through two opponents. Towering over her by more than a foot, the men blocked off any chance at a clear shot.

She drove inside and faked a jumper. Her opponents fell for it and left the ground. Squeezing in between them, she banked the ball off the glass and into the hoop.

Having contributed next to nothing, Ageha decided to focus on defense. An idea popped into his head.

I’ll stop them for sure this time.

He waited until the enemy took a shot and then swatted the ball from the air in front of the basket.

How’s that!?

Score: 5 – 10.

Saya scolded him for camping underneath the basket and explained the concept of goaltending.

The opponents realized that the only offensive threat was Saya and focused all their attention on her. She missed two shots in a row, while the opponents sank one of two.

Score: 5 – 11.

Saya made a T sign with her hands. “Time out!” She grabbed her teammates and dragged them to the bench. “I can’t score with three giants hovering over me. One of you has to step up.”

Both Arashi and Saya looked at Ageha.

“Okay, leave it to me,” he said with a confident grin.

Kaika looked doubtful. “How can you say that after being completely useless so far? Even I might’ve done better than you.”

“Do not worry, Ojousama. We are still in the game.” Saya turned to Ageha. “Can you dunk?”

“Of course I can. I can’t dribble though.”

Saya sighed. “I know. For now, just get below the basket on offense. I’ll get you the ball. Just dunk it from there.”

“I was too distracted earlier by Ageha and Arashi’s comedy skit,” said Kaika, “but leave the cheering to me.”

Everyone nodded except Arashi, who was asleep on the bench.

“Stop sleeping and get over here!” shouted Saya as she dragged her lifeless teammate onto the court.

Ageha inbounded the ball to Saya and ran directly underneath the ring. Saya dribbled past her defender and sped up for a lay up. The two other defenders surrounded her, but she skillfully passed the ball behind her back. Ageha caught it and scored with a two-handed dunk.

The lovers gave each other an exuberant high five for their first successful team play.

Ageha got the hang of defense and stole the ball in the next possession. He passed it to Saya, who sank a two-pointer.

Score: 8 – 11.

With the addition of Ageha’s dunks to their arsenal, their team managed to score in succession. As their offense picked up, the opponents got a bit more serious. Although they were making points, the gaping hole in their defense named Arashi gave up just as many. Jersey missed a jumper by a fluke.

Score: 13 – 16.

The opponents began hacking Ageha’s dunk attempts, forcing him to the free throw line. Naturally, he missed every single one.

Saya squeezed her temples. “I forgot about your hand-eye coordination issues.”

“I’m confident I’ll miss all my free throws in this match.” He grinned proudly.

“That isn’t something to boast about…”

With two people pinning Saya down and one guy prepared to foul Ageha, their team’s offense was completely shut down. Ageha could plow through his opponent’s hacking and dunk the ball anyway, but that would instantly reveal his cybernetic enhancements.

A cute, bubbly voice came from courtside.

“Do your best, Big Bro, Big Sis!” Kaika raised her arms high and waved at them. “You can do it!” She hopped around and made V signs with her hands, her sundress billowing with every step.

Instead of getting motivated, Ageha felt himself gag.

“Doesn’t she understand just how demoralizing that is to people who know her true colors?” he asked.

“But it seems to be working on the opponents! As expected of Ojousama, a disgusting, I mean, brilliant tactic! Give me the ball, hurry!”

While Kaika’s adorable cheering distracted the opposing team, Saya drilled another two-pointer, making it a one-point game. They celebrated the comeback with another high five, but their morale quickly crumbled after Headband countered with a two-pointer of his own over the apathetic Arashi.

Score: 15 – 18.

“Time out!”

This time, it was Ageha who called for time.

“This is bad,” said Saya. “We can’t score and we can’t stop them.”

“I have an idea,” he said.

“Let’s hear it.”

“Do you trust me?”

Saya quickly hid the doubtful expression on her face. “…Of course.”

I know it’s limited to this stupid game, but that still kinda hurts.

“Then close your eyes and cover your ears for a minute.”

Saya’s eyes narrowed for a moment, but she nodded and followed his instructions.

Ageha pulled Arashi away and spoke to her in a soft voice. “If we win this match, I’ll give you a reward.”

“…Reward?”

“It can be anything. I can take you to another aquarium if you want.”

I think the one in Georgia is the largest in the world.

She’ll definitely love it.

“…Anything?”

“Yes.”

“Promise?”

Here I go again.

But there’s no way I’m losing to these clowns.

He inwardly apologized to Rin for reverting just after she praised him for adding conditions. “Yeah.”

“What… should I do?”

“I need you to shoot this ball through that hoop.”

“Roger.”

Ageha tapped Saya on the shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Her eyes snapped open, and she unplugged her ears. “Huh? What about your idea?”

“The preparations are done. Nothing left to do but hope god’s judgment is right.”

Saya tilted her head, unsure of what he was talking about.

Ageha took the ball out of bounds. Saya, with two defenders between her and the goal, waited to receive the inbound pass. Arashi stood about ten feet outside the arc, staring at him with half-closed eyes.

Here goes nothing.

He passed the ball to Arashi.

“What are you doing!?” shouted Saya.

Arashi caught the pass. Closing her left eye, she dribbled the ball thrice and then nodded to herself. With her right hand, she pitched the ball towards the backboard. It sharply bounced off the fiberglass and went through the hoop.

Everyone stared at the ball bouncing on the cement and then at the girl who shot it.

Score: 17 – 18.

Ageha and Saya focused on defending outside shots, but their other teammate just stood around as usual.

Jersey dribbled past Arashi and made a lay up. “James, cover that girl! I’m sure her last shot was a fluke, but don’t take any chances.”

James, the bald guy, approached Arashi. She stood in the exact same spot where she drained the near halfcourt shot earlier. Saya, who had only one defender marking her, waved her hand for the ball. Ageha looked at his two teammates in turn and decided to pass the ball to the wild card.

Arashi caught it, but her view of the basket was completely obstructed by James. Without hesitation, she tossed the ball upwards. James could do nothing but watch the ball trace an extremely high arc in the cerulean sky.

Nothing but net.

Score: 19 – 19.

“Don’t panic!” shouted Jersey. “If we get this point, we win!”

“Defense! Defense!” shouted Kaika, her hands cupped around her mouth.

“Don’t get distracted by the little girl! She’s a trap!”

“I’m one hundred percent female, you imbecile!”

Despite their bewildered state, the opposing team still scored a point from the teen who simply did not give a damn about defense.

Score: 19 – 20.

Jersey pointed at Arashi. “You two, guard that airhead! I’ll make sure the other girl doesn’t score a two. It doesn’t matter if they get one point. We’ll finish it in our next possession!”

“”Okay!!!””

Arashi stood in the exact same spot as before, this time with two men guarding her. The rules did not allow them to intercept the inbound pass, so they focused on preventing her from getting a shot off. Saya stood on the other side of the court, but she did not ask for the ball. She just smiled at Ageha and nodded.

Glad we agree.

Ageha passed the ball to Arashi. Arms raised, the two defenders closed in on her, completely ignoring the possibility of her driving past them. It was impossible for her to shoot the ball with a net of hands looming on top of her.

Arashi changed her grip on the ball and threw it on the ground with incredible force, bouncing it between James’s legs. The powerful spin on the ball changed its angle, causing it to fly towards the backboard. Everyone, including the helpless defenders, watched it hit the glass and kiss the metal ring. The orange ball danced on top of the rim until it lost momentum and finally swished through the net.

Final score: 21 – 20.

The rude ballers obediently apologized to Ageha. Kaika told them to keep the money in exchange for keeping quiet about their encounter with a potential NBA superstar, but that did not stop them from asking Arashi for her autograph. Arashi wrote the kanji for her name on their shirts. Not minding the incredibly bad penmanship, or more likely not understanding a word of Japanese, the three men looked satisfied as they left the court. Ageha’s team gathered by the bench where Kaika sat.

“They seemed happier with the autographs than the thousand dollars. They even forgot their ball,” said Saya as she picked up the basketball from the ground. “Brilliant idea to rely on Arashi. How did you motivate her?”

“About that-”

Someone tapped Ageha on the shoulder.

He turned to see Arashi. “Great job.”

“…Reward.”

“Don’t worry, I didn’t forget. Any ideas on what you wa-”

Arashi stepped forward, tiptoed while pulling his neck down, and gave him a peck on the cheek.

“What.”

“…Not enough.” She closed her eyes and kissed him on the lips.

It was an innocent kiss, their lips touching for a mere moment. Arashi released him and backed away. Her fingers lightly traced her bottom lip. She then turned bright red and ran off.

A loud pop came from behind him.

Despite his instincts telling him to run away, Ageha forced himself to turn around.

Saya was gripping the deflated basketball. With her human hand.

That’s amazing.

“That was clearly not my fault,” he said.

“Couldn’t you have avoided the second one?”

“What are you talking about? If I wanted to, I could’ve avoided both.”

“Is that so? And how was it, Ageha-sama?”

“Tasted like the apple juice she was drinking earlier.”

“You enjoyed it that much, huh?” Face drained of emotion, she slowly approached him.

Uh oh.

Did I overdo it?

Spurred on by her adorable jealousy, he had continued his teasing and accidentally stepped on a landmine.

“Wait, I was kidding. Calm dow-”

Imitating Arashi’s maneuver, Saya pulled Ageha’s face downward and shoved her lips onto his. Unlike the teen’s light peck, she forcefully stabbed her tongue into his mouth. As if thirsting for his essence, she sucked in his saliva and replenished the drought with hers. Her fingernails dug into his scalp and nape as she tightly embraced his head. Their tongues danced, wrestled, and melded with each other. Ageha, who was about to lose his sanity to lust, forced himself to pull away.

“What are you do-”

“Overwriting.”

She resumed her oral assault. There was nothing gentle about their contact. She repainted his insides with her scent and flavor, not giving him the leeway to breathe. Saya had never been this aggressive before, taking him completely off guard and putting him totally under her spell.

She continued to ravage him from within. His tongue felt like it was dissolving from the scorching heat of her slick caress. The erratic beat of her breathing set his loins aflame, erasing all sense of decorum. His hands moved on their own, slithering around her shivering body and pulling her into his chest. They perpetually tightened their embrace, as if trying to become one vessel for their conjoined souls.

Ageha heard a cough from below.

This time, Saya cooperated in unlatching themselves from each other. They turned to the side and saw a red-faced Kaika.

“I don’t want to ruin your fun, but if you don’t stop soon, I’ll need a change of underwear…” Kaika fell silent and rubbed her thighs together. “Scratch that. Too late.”

“O-O-O-O-O-Ojousama!!!???”

She completely forgot about Kai.

Saya fainted from shock and embarrassment.

 

***

 

“The Shui Jing Group has taken over the Soaring Serpent Society’s position,” said Valeriya. “They didn’t even put up a fight.”

“So everything is going as planned?” asked Kaika, her mobile pressed to her ear.

“Unfortunately, no. Shui Jing wasn’t very powerful until recently. I expected one of the groups I have ties with to take the seat, but even their long-standing reputation could not trump the group’s rapidly expanding manpower and influence.”

“That isn’t what we agreed on.”

“Take it easy. Give me a bit more time. I’ll handle Shui Jing. They can’t be more unreasonable than Zhang.”

“Okay. My people are already working on a plan to build small-scale power plants in the locations you specified.”

“So fast! I haven’t even fulfilled my end of the deal yet.”

“It’s an example of good service. I hope you’ll learn from it.”

“I’ll put in ten times the effort if you say, ‘Please do it faster, faster, Oneesama~’”

Kaika hung up.

This is odd.

Kaika noticed that there was something off about how everything was proceeding. Random bits of information made little sense by themselves, but when viewed as a whole, they could be assembled into a larger schema.

Several odd points stuck out regarding Zhang’s assassination:

  • Zhang tried to escape almost instantly when Ageha and Arashi began the attack on the drug facility.
  • According to Saya’s report, Mao continued attacking even after Zhang’s death.
  • Zhi Zhu had a taser-type weapon designed to paralyze ARMS.
  • The Soaring Serpent Society did little to oppose Shui Jing’s ascension to power.

Is that Russian pervert trying to trick me?

Kaika found it difficult to discern which of the pieces of information she could trust, if any. What boggled her the most was how late she had noticed all these suspicious events.

Why didn’t I see this before?

…Rin.

The most significant change in Kaika’s recent lifestyle was Rin regaining consciousness. Since then, she had regularly contacted the cameriera to check on her condition, ask about her life in the safehouse, or just chat about nothing in particular. Strange enough, on the nights she spoke with Rin, she slept slightly better and longer than usual. Her overall condition had improved, and the fog clouding her mind had dispersed.

“Ojousama,” said Saya. “We have arrived.”

Kaika looked out the car window and saw a large house with a long driveway. In the countryside, the large trees blocked any view of nearby houses. With the distance between plots, there was enough space to hold a college party without alerting the neighbors.

After parking, Kaika, Saya, and Ageha got out of the vehicle. Arashi had stayed behind at the hotel, still too embarrassed to be around Ageha.

I didn’t expect Arashi to go that far.

During the summer festival, Mitsuki had mentioned the word love to Arashi, setting her curiosity ablaze. The ignorant teen had approached Kaika for advice. Seeing the perfect chance for a prank, Kaika had suggested that she give Ageha a kiss on the cheek and see how it felt to ascertain her emotions.

The wildly entertaining show resulting from her whim had forced them to take a detour to a lingerie shop, but it was worth it.

Kaika wanted to laugh at herself for trying to blind Arashi once. She had been too distracted by Arashi’s brutal side that she had underestimated the girl’s kindness. All she had needed to do was teach Arashi how to care about others.

Returning from her reverie, Kaika walked up the steps to the front door. Despite the rather suburban design of the residence, the electronic lock was very advanced. It had fingerprint and eye sensors, as well as a keypad.

Ageha knocked on the door. “This is metal. I’m guessing the hinges and door post are too.” His expression tightened. “I have a very bad feeling about this.”

“What a spoilsport,” said Kaika. “You realized too soon.”

“I knew it.” He sighed. “I suspected it when you said we’re going to get upgrades. I was hoping I was wrong because of the different address, but this ridiculous lock confirms it.”

What’s with that exaggerated reaction?

There’s something else going on here.

“Are we meeting someone you know?” asked Saya.

“You can say that. Didn’t Kai tell you anything?”

“No, she handled this matter by herself.”

Kaika reached up and pressed the intercom button on the digital panel. “Good afternoon. It’s me, Kaika Nikaido.”

There was no answer.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

A beep came from the panel.

Looks like she’s home.

Kaika breathed a sigh of relief. The person they were meeting was known for her eccentricity. They would have wasted their day if she had gone out.

“…Go home.”

She was more eccentric than Kaika expected.

“Wait! We had an agreement!”

“I don’t remember.”

“I’ll pay you extra!”

“I don’t need it.”

The professor was a recluse who did not put much value on money. Though not nearly as affluent as Kaika, she was quite well off. However, Kaika knew something that all scientists had in common.

“As promised, I brought you a rare specimen!”

“…Continue.”

“Let us in first. Then we’ll talk.”

With another beep, the door unlocked.

“What specimen?” asked Ageha.

Kaika stared at him with a raised eyebrow. “Do you really have to ask?”

“Can I go home now?”

“Stop whining, loser.”

Ageha frowned but reached for the doorknob. Kaika knew his loss against Zhi Zhu was still bothering him. It was the perfect ammo to maneuver him.

He opened the door and entered the house with wary steps, looking around as he ventured further inside. The rest of the group followed behind him. The air inside was dry and absurdly cold, completely cut off from the summer heat outside. Kaika shivered as they went further in.

They came upon a spacious living room with minimal furniture. There were sofa chairs but no table or monitor. The lack of decor made the entire space seem cold and eerie.

“Nikaido, bring the specimen to the lab,” said a voice that echoed throughout the house. “Follow the corridor to your right. No one else is allowed to come. The security system will activate if you leave that room.”

Saya glanced at her mistress. Kaika reassured her with a nod. She followed the directions and headed for the lab with Ageha in tow. The lab entrance seemed even more reinforced than the front door, but it automatically opened the moment they stood before it.

A mess of machines and monitors greeted them inside. Beyond the heaps of electronics, a small girl with glasses sat staring at a screen. Her scruffy silver hair, which would likely reach her buttocks when let down, was gathered into a ponytail behind her head. An oversized white lab coat draped over her blue pajamas. She looked like a grade schooler playing doctor.

I read her file, but she’s smaller than I thought.

She and Kaika were supposed to be about the same height, but the professor’s hunched posture made her look even smaller. Her peculiar hair color stood out, giving her an unnatural, almost inhuman, aura.

“Tsubasa Shizan, I presume?” asked Kaika.

“Don’t ask stupid questions.” Tsubasa did not even look at her and continued typing on her customized keyboard.

This little…

Kaika took a deep breath to calm down.

First, introductions.

“I’m Kaika Nikaido, and this is Ageha Shikimi. I believe you know each other.”

Tsubasa was the oldest daughter of Shizan-sensei, Ageha’s blacksmith. Kaika knew Ageha had a good relationship with the old artisan. It would not be strange for him to be acquainted with his family, and Ageha had confirmed that they knew each other earlier.

“Who?” asked Tsubasa.

“No need to force yourself to remember,” said Ageha.

Tsubasa rotated her office chair to face him. “…Oh it’s you. I remember sleeping with you a couple of times.”

Tsuba-san

“What,” said Kaika.

“That’s my line,” said Ageha. “Please don’t randomly blurt out sensitive information, Tsuba(Saliva)-san.”

Tsubasa glared daggers at him. “I also remember telling you not to call me that.”

“It’s been a while, Tsubasa-san. Your name is as hard to say as always. And you have drool on your chin as usual.” Ageha approached her and buffed away the dried saliva with his thumb. “If you don’t want to be called Tsuba-san, stop sleeping on the keyboard and go to bed properly.”

“Wait, hold on.” Kaika held out her hand. “Don’t just gloss over important details! You two were lovers?”

“”No.””

“But Tsubasa said you slept together.”

“I stayed at her place on Shizan-sensei’s recommendation while I was studying at Le Cordon Bleu. After a few months of living together, she found out about my enhancements, so I told her about my abnormal pain tolerance.”

“I wanted to study his body, so I asked him to let me examine it,” said Tsubasa.

“One thing led to another, and-”

“Stop, I get it. Thank goodness Saya didn’t get to hear this.”

“I got very good data on his tactile response while in bed. He was hesitant at first because he had no experience in sexual intercourse-”

“She said stop, Tsuba-san.”

“No, please continue,” said Kaika.

She looked the professor over from top to bottom. Despite her drab attire, Tsubasa was undeniably pretty. Her large round eyes and youthful face matched her petite physique.

Is this why he’s so nice to young girls?

“…Ageha is right. This is pointless.” Tsubasa looked at him with a bored expression. “So you’re the rare specimen? Your specific constitution is very uncommon, but I already completed my research on your body years ago. Go home.”

“You’ll understand if you examine him. What do you have to lose?” asked Kaika.

“Time. Humans are given a limited amount of it. I have none to spare on redundancy.”

“Looks like that’s it, Kai,” said Ageha. “Despite her looks, she’s pushing thirty. Let’s not waste any more of her precious time left on Earth.”

“I’ll dissect you.” Tsubasa looked completely serious.

“How much of Ageha was cybernetic when you slept, I mean, met him?” asked Kaika.

“Both his arms and shoulders.”

“Then you’re in for a surprise. Are you sure you don’t want to check it out?”

Tsubasa observed Kaika’s face, as if trying to see through her intentions. She waved Ageha closer. “Come here.”

“Not this again…” Ageha sighed while doing as ordered.

Tsubasa began feeling up his entire body with a serious face. Her eyes widened when she touched certain spots, such as his abdomen and lower back.

Then she grabbed his crotch. “Looks like this is still human.”

Ageha rolled his eyes. “Why would anyone want to make that cybernetic?”

“You’d be surprised at some of the clients I get.”

Questions continued to pop up in Kaika’s head as she watched the pat down.

Did he become shameless about his body because of Tsubasa?

Or did he manage to live with her because he cared little about his body from the start?

Kaika realized that she cared about Ageha’s past more than she thought.

“This is fascinating,” said Tsubasa. “What do you want from me? I want to confirm if this body’s data is worth it.”

She took the bait.

Kaika narrated Ageha’s defeat against Zhi Zhu and explained that she wanted him to get an upgrade.

“There are other people who can do that.” Tsubasa sat back on her chair. “Aren’t you the CEO of NGC?”

Time to reel her in.

“But few are better than you. Gen, oh that’s my previous researcher, got headhunted by a rival company.”

“Did you say Gen? Gen Kanou?”

“Yeah. He was also the one who implemented the most recent upgrades to Ageha’s body.”

Tsubasa closed her eyes and spun her chair around. After a few rotations, she stopped herself by grabbing onto the table. “We have a deal.”

Pride really is my favorite sin.

In terms of medical skill, Gen was vastly superior to Tsubasa, but her expertise in cybernetics and bionics rivaled his. Having seen Gen’s work on Ageha firsthand, it was inevitable that her competitive spirit would be set aflame.

The professor led Ageha into the examination room deep within the lab, leaving Kaika alone in the main area with a, “Touch anything and I’ll dissect you too.”

Too?

Good luck, Ageha!

The examination ended surprisingly quickly. Ageha returned alone to the main lab looking utterly exhausted.

“Welcome back. What-”

“Don’t ask.”

Out of pity rather than respect for his privacy, Kaika decided not to question him about the exam any further.

“Where’s the professor?”

“She’s busy doing a preliminary analysis on the data. She’s also checking what kind of work she can do on me.”

“Should we come back later?”

“She said she’ll be out in a few minutes. Tsubasa-san’s really weird, but her skills are real.”

“You know a lot about her.”

“We lived together for more than a year.”

“Can you tell me more about her?”

Information was Kaika’s greatest sustenance and deadliest weapon. To her, there was no such thing as too much information.

“What’s there to tell?”

“Hmm… How about why she became a cybernetics researcher? That’s worlds away from her family’s smithing business.”

“Not as unrelated as you’d think, at least according to Shizan-sensei. Her family’s trade is actually making weapons. A hundred years ago, that meant swords and spears. Now, it means ARMS.”

“Why not guns then?”

“Guns are designed for mass production. Shizan-sensei takes pride in being an artisan. Even when people stopped wanting swords, he continued forging blades, such as kitchen knives and my ‘recreational blades.’ Tsubasa-san simply finds guns too simple and boring. Personally, I’m glad I’m not the only one who dislikes those things.”

“They abandoned guns by choice. You just suck at using them.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re a jerk?”

“Rin has.”

“She’s right.”

“And she called you a cowardly philanderer.”

“…She’s right.”

“I’m kidding, she didn’t say that. Stop making that face. You’re making me want to hug you. …On second thought, you really are a philanderer.”

Tsubasa reentered the main lab area. “You’ve changed, Ageha.”

“Gen said the same thing a while back.”

“You haven’t changed at all, Ageha.”

What a cute sense of rivalry.

She might be easier to use than I thought.

“So, how did it go?” asked Kaika.

Tsubasa sat down on her chair. “I’ve gotten most of the data I need. I can begin the operation as soon as he is ready.”

“That escalated quickly,” said Ageha.

“Do you have anywhere to be in the next few days?”

“No, he doesn’t,” said Kaika.

“Don’t answer for me.”

“Well do you?”

Ageha fell silent.

Kaika grinned. “There you have it. Go ahead and borrow him for a bit. Just return him when you’re done.”

“I feel objectified,” he said.

“”What’s new?”” The two baby-faced girls responded in unison.

“Glad to see you’ve become good friends.”

“Tsubasa, would you consider moving to Tokyo and officially working for me? I can promise you better pay and facilities.”

“No.”

“Not even a pause. Help me out here, Ageha.”

“It’s no use,” he said. “There’s no way you can drag her out to a city like Tokyo. She hates being around people. That’s why she lives so far away.”

“That’s not true,” said Tsubasa. “I have other reasons for staying here, like the winters, snowboarding, and the snow.”

“Aren’t those all pretty much the same thing?” asked Kaika. “And I thought everyone hated winters in Minnesota.”

“There’s also Allan.”

“Who’s that? A pet dog or something?”

“My fiance.”

“You have a fiance!?”

“I had the same reaction when she told me that years ago.”

“You knew!? And you slept with her!?”

“I plead innocent. She only told me after I finished my culinary studies here. I moved out of her place the next day. I never met him.”

“Where’s Allan now?”

“Who knows?” said Tsubasa.

““You should!!!”” said the visitors.

“He’s a free spirit, like me.”

“Even freedom has limits,” said Kaika. “And how is holing up in a lab doing research all day being a free spirit?”

Tsubasa simply shrugged her shoulders. “Anyway, the answer is no.”

“Give it up, Kai. In the first place, she only works for herself. In fact, everything she does is for herself.”

As if proving his words, Tsubasa completely ignored Kaika’s existence and started typing on her desk terminal.

Used to being in the spotlight on every occasion, Kaika felt a little miffed by the lack of attention. She decided to tease Tsubasa a little, thinking it would also be a good chance to learn more about her.

“What’s up with her hair?”

Ageha glanced at Tsubasa’s silver mane. “Dunno, it’s been like that since we met. I never asked about it. Probably withered to gray because she never washes it.”

“I’ll remember those words when I put you under,” said Tsubasa, her eyes still glued to the display.

“I’m really sorry. I was just joking.”

Tsubasa sighed, her shoulders slumping even further. “If you must know, I bleach my hair to remind myself I’m engaged.”

“Sorry, you lost me,” said Kaika.

“In my college days, I fainted from lack of sleep during an experiment. Some chemicals got on my hair and bleached most of it. I bleached the rest to make it uniform.”

“Still not following.”

Tsubasa clicked her tongue. “Allan attended the same university. He apparently liked my hair and approached me. That’s how we got to know each other.”

“I get it now. So you’re keeping that color because your fiance likes it?”

“Are you deaf? I said I do it to remind myself I’m engaged. I forget sometimes.”

“Don’t forget something like that!”

“That reminds me,” said Ageha. “I’ve never seen you with an engagement ring on”

“It’s a pain to put on. I can’t wear it during experiments and operations anyway.”

Kaika raised an eyebrow. “Seems easier than bleaching your hair regularly.”

“I do it when I take a bath. A two-week ritual is less troublesome than keeping track of a trinket.”

“Wait, you take a bath only twice a month!?”

“Bathing is a waste of time. I hardly sweat in here.”

The abnormally powerful air-conditioning within the house finally made sense.

“But you go as far as bleaching your eyebrows. Taking a shower a few days a week can’t be harder than that.”

Tsubasa scrunched her eyebrows. “This? It happens by accident when the bleach drips down my forehead.”

“Wear a cap or something! Do you wanna go blind!?”

“I use my own formula. It’s extremely safe and effective.”

“I-I see.”

“Are you satisfied now? Please stop wasting my time with your prodding. My answer won’t change.”

She isn’t as easy to handle as I thought.

Kaika sighed mentally. Even her time with Arashi was not enough to prepare her for the professor’s eccentricity. Her string of retorts had sapped her of energy.

Guess I’ll have to settle with a one-time deal for now.

That’ll change once Ria and Gen start moving in earnest.

“Alright. I won’t pester you anymore. I’ll take my leave.” Kaika walked to the lab exit, causing the door to open. She turned around and looked at Ageha. “I’ll tell the others you’re staying here for a few days. Don’t worry, I’ll keep your relationship with Tsubasa a secret…”

“Thanks.”

“…for now.” She stepped into the hallway.

“Wait! Don’t tell Sa-” The shutting door cut off Ageha’s words.

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Eleven: Reunion and Rejection

Ageha knocked on the door of the private hospital room.

“Come in,” said Rin.

He hesitantly pushed the door open and let Kaika in. The girl gingerly walked into the room. He followed her inside and shut the door behind him.

Rin was on the hospital bed. The bed’s head was slightly raised, allowing them to see her face. Her sunken cheeks and drowsy eyes clearly showed her weakened condition.

Overwhelmed by a surge of emotions upon seeing her, Ageha forgot to give a greeting.

“Hello,” said Kaika.

“Um, hello,” said Rin. Her hand crept to her chest, as if to protect herself.

Ageha immediately noticed something odd about Rin. A bit of awkwardness was expected considering everything that had happened, but Rin’s wariness looked like something else. It was as if she was meeting them for the first time.

Rin made a troubled smile. “Sorry, but do I know you?”

“What.”

“Of course I do, I mean you’re visiting me and all!” Rin looked around, as if unsure what to do. “I’m sorry. My memory is still a little fuzzy. The doctor said I lost some of my recent memories due to brain damage. But he did say they might return in time, so… so please don’t make that face.”

Realizing she was referring to him, Ageha hurriedly relaxed his facial muscles.

She doesn’t recognize us at all.

A sharp stabbing pain assaulted his heart. He held his breath to prevent it from showing on his face.

Wait.

Maybe it’s better this way.

Some wounds were better off forgotten. If Rin could live a normal life after losing her memories, then he had no reason to complain.

Even if he was completely forgotten as well.

Rin tried to sit up but struggled. “Uhm, please wait, my legs can’t move too well.” She eventually gave up and used the button on the bed to raise her backrest a little more.

What the hell is this?

Ageha desperately held back his rampaging emotions. He tightly closed his eyes and lips, cursing fate in secret.

Give her a break.

What did she ever do to deserve this?

No, this is all my fault.

“Kai, her legs,” he said.

“The doctors said it’s only temporary,” said Kaika. “With physical therapy, she should make a full recovery.”

Rin’s eyes opened a little wider. “You spoke with my doctor?”

“Yes, I know him personally.”

Rin tapped her thigh with a hand. “The doctor knows best, right? This is nothing to worry about. If you don’t mind, can you tell me how we know each other? Maybe it’ll jog my memory.”

Kaika narrowed her eyes and stared at her. Rin flinched from the intensity of her gaze. Ageha was about to tell Kaika to stop scaring her when she suddenly approached Rin’s bedside.

“I’m really sorry, Rin,” said Kaika.

“Ah, there’s no need to force yourself if you don’t want to talk about it. It’s my fault for forgetting.”

“I have to tell him. I swore to. And this is for your sake as well. Nothing will come of this except your suffering.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She’s lying, Ageha.”

Rin tilted her head. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“It’s obvious from her eyes and tone, to me at least.”

“Wait, listen to what I’m-”

“It’s true some of her memories are hazy. Even the doctors said so.”

“Please stop-”

“But she recognizes us just fine.”

“I said stop!!!” Rin slammed down her fist on Kaika’s head.

“…You’ve gotten weaker, Rin. That doesn’t hurt at all.”

A blend of anger and sadness soiled Rin’s face. “You ruined everything! It would’ve been so much easier if you believed me!”

“Did you really think that level of acting would fool me? Lying about amnesia is a tough sell. I may have memorized a lot of books, but I’m not a dumb nun.”

“You evil jerk! Why can’t you just play along!?”

“Long story short, I’m under an oath that prevents me from lying to Ageha. It’s impossible for me to hide this when he asks about your condition.”

Ageha, still in shock from their exchange, remained silent with a dumb look on his face.

Kaika held Rin’s hand. “And this is for your safety. We need to know who attacked you. Now that you’ve regained consciousness, there’s a big chance they’ll come after you again.”

“…How did you know I was attacked? Everyone else seems to think I tried to kill myself.”

“You aren’t that selfish,” said Ageha. “Kai and I never thought that for a second.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“You have every right to be angry. You probably don’t even wanna see our faces, but that’ll have to wait until you’re out of danger.”

Rin raised an eyebrow. “Who said I don’t wanna see Kai? You on the other hand…” She displayed a teasing smirk, as if trying to lighten up the mood.

Understanding her intention, Ageha dropped the grimness in his tone. “Hey, what’s with the difference in treatment?”

“You can dish it out, but you can’t take it, eh?” mumbled Kaika.

“Kai got shot saving my life, you know?”

“But I got rid of Jin for you.”

“Which wouldn’t have been necessary if it weren’t for his grudge against you.”

“That’s-”

“Why are you even competing with me?” asked Kaika. “Are you trying to reconquer Rin? I’ll report this to Saya later.”

“Can you not bring her up now?”

“Rin isn’t as weak as you think. You overestimate yourself if you think she’s still carrying feelings for you.”

Ageha could not argue back.

Rin smiled at them. “I’ve been asleep for more than a month, but you two are the same as ever. I’m relieved.”

“Not nearly as relieved as I am right now,” said Ageha.

“…Sorry for worrying you.”

Ageha shook his head.

Kaika coughed to get their attention. “Back to what I was saying. I know it’s unpleasant for you, but can you tell us what happened when you were attacked? Every bit of information will help in figuring out the culprit’s identity.”

“There’s no need for that,” said Rin. “It was the woman I shot in the parking lot. She watched in a wheelchair as her men strung me up.”

Akane Kogami.

Kaika crossed her arms. “I knew it.”

“You knew?” asked Ageha.

“I had no proof, but there are no other viable suspects. Akane Kogami is officially dead, but that can be faked.”

“Then I just have to make it real.”

“Easier said than done. The problem with ghosts is they’re completely invisible. You can’t be dead if people see you walking around in broad daylight. I’ve tried tracing her whereabouts, but it was a dead end.”

“Can you not talk about that here?” asked Rin with a frown.

“Sorry about that. Has anyone else visited?” asked Kaika.

“My parents and a few friends. The people from Sapore gave me those fruits.” Rin pointed at the gifts on the table.

Ageha realized that he and Kaika had been so preoccupied about meeting Rin that they had forgotten to bring even a simple gift.

“Then I’ll get right to the point,” said Kaika. “I’ll have you go into hiding. Tell your parents and friends that you’ll be moving to a different hospital for better physical therapy. You’ll be transported to a safehouse the day after tomorrow.”

“Hey, hey, slow down. I haven’t agreed to any of that.”

“It’s not a request. I’m going to protect you whether you like it or not.” Kaika gripped Rin’s hand tightly.

Rin remained silent for a while. She looked at Ageha and then at Kaika. “…Okay, I understand.”

“It’ll only be until I catch Akane’s tail.”

Rin nodded.

Kaika released Rin’s hand, took a step back, and bowed deeply, her forehead brushing against the bed sheet.

“I’m sorry for getting you involved in all this. Thank you for saving my life at the parking lot. And thank you for freeing Ageha.”

Rin reached out to Kaika’s cheek and gently lifted her face up. “I’ll accept the first two. The last one I did for myself.”

“Thank you…”

A single tear rolled down Kaika’s face and landed on Rin’s thumb.

Kaika took the hand on her cheek and lowered it onto the bed. “I’ll be outside. I’m sure you two have a lot to talk about. I’ll contact you about the details later.”

“Okay.”

The teenager trotted out of the room with lighter steps than when she came in.

A minute of silence passed between Ageha and Rin. He tried to say something several times but hesitated at the last moment. Unable to bear the awkwardness, he spat out the confession he had practiced many times in his head.

“Kai told me everything. About what happened at the arena, about why you said those things at the park.”

“She really can’t keep her mouth shut. Well, not like I asked her to keep it a secret.”

Silence resumed. Their eyes met, but they looked away at the same time. Ageha took a deep breath and readied himself to continue the conversation, but Rin beat him to the punch.

“So, you quit Sapore?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Yama-san visited me yesterday. He told me all about the troubles you caused them, including the cooking showdown.”

“That was his idea.”

“And you lost.”

Ageha frowned. Losing seemed to be all he had been doing lately.

“That was then. I’d pulverize him if we had a match now.”

“What a sore loser. Just so you know, Yama-san was defending you. He said you’d win ten times out of ten if you weren’t in a slump.”

Ugh.

Sorry, Yama-san.

Rin gazed into his eyes. “Were you that worried?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Do you even have to ask? You’re irreplaceable to me.”

“Are you sure you should be saying that? What about Saionji-san?”

“That’s why.”

“Out with it then. You came here to tell me something, didn’t you? If it’s another apology, I’ll smack you on the head.”

“I don’t think this counts, but feel free.”

“Then go ahead.”

Ageha looked down and organized his thoughts. After calming his breathing, he sent an unwavering gaze at her. “You’re very important to me, Rin. You’re my support, my best friend, my lifeline to being human.” Ageha paused for a breath. “But I don’t love you. I never did. That’s why I chose Saya.”

“…You’re terrible. I can’t believe you’re saying that to someone who just got out of a coma. What if I fainted and never woke up again?”

“Then I’d carry that sin and go on living.”

That was what he learned from Mei Xing. Regret and guilt were unavoidable but meaningless. Those feelings could not and should not be the end of anything.

Ageha’s cowardice had forced Rin into cutting ties with him. He needed to say the words for both their sakes, but he had shirked that responsibility and hidden behind a faux promise.

Rin smiled. “You love her that much?”

“Yeah. And I won’t apologize for it.”

“I didn’t ask you to. Ah, but don’t forget that I dumped you first.”

Ageha chuckled. “Yeah. I’ll tell the world I was dumped by the best woman on Earth if you want.”

She made a deadpan face. “No, please don’t.”

“…Rin, I-”

“Don’t worry about me. You’re not my first love, and definitely not my last.”

Rin was strong. Unbelievably, beautifully, tragically so. Ageha could flip cars and break down brick walls, but the toughness of his will was like candy glass compared to hers. Her heart was a diamond immune to blades and hellfire.

“Thanks,” said Ageha. “For everything.”

“Words are cheap. Can you do me a favor instead? I’ll call it even if you do that.”

“If it’s something I can do.”

“You’ve changed, Ageha. You’ve learned to add conditions to your promises.”

“I learned that the hard way.”

Rin softly wrapped her fingers around her neck and lost all expression. “Murder Akane Kogami for me.”

Even a diamond would crack when struck hard enough.

I broke her.

This is my responsibility.

“You can count on me.”

 

***

 

About an hour after Ageha and Kaika left, Rin heard a knock on the door.

“Come in.”

Yama, holding a bouquet of flowers, entered the room. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I’ve been asleep for days.”

“That’s great then, considering you’ve been asleep for weeks.”

“Should you be visiting this often? Aren’t you sous chef at Sapore now?”

“It’s a slow day.”

“Liar.” Rin pulled out a few paper napkins from a box beside the bed. “Here, dry yourself off.”

He probably ran over here.

He took the napkins and patted his sweaty brow. After placing the bouquet in a small vase, he grabbed a chair and took a seat beside the bed.

“How are your legs?” he asked.

“They got a bit thin, but they’re still quite sexy, if I do say so myself.”

“That’s good to know, but I was asking if you could move them better now.”

Rin giggled. “Not much change. They aren’t completely numb though. I can move my toes, see?”

The tip of Rin’s blanket faintly fidgeted.

“That’s a good sign. Relax and take advantage of the break. Chef Kirishima said that when you get back to the sala, he’ll work you hard enough to make up for all the time you spent away.”

“About that…”

Rin told Yama about her transfer to a different hospital for therapy. Guilt pricked her heart for lying to him, but she rationalized the pain away by thinking she had no choice in the matter.

“Are you going to be okay?” asked Yama.

“I’m going there for treatment, you know?”

“Not your body…”

“Like I said yesterday, I don’t even remember why I did such a thing. To be honest, it doesn’t feel real to me at all.”

“But-”

“I’ll be under surveillance round the clock. It’s a necessary precaution, according to the doctors. Does that make you feel better? I wish you’d trust me a little.”

“…You’re right. I’m best being a paranoid old man.”

“You’re in your thirties. Real old people would kick your ass if they heard that.”

“Can real old people even kick in the first place?”

Rin shut her eyes and giggled. Yama changed topics and narrated funny stories about Sapore’s new employees, focusing on how the new cameriera continued to fumble around.

“Don’t be so mean to her, Yama-san.”

“I’m not! Shimatane is doing good work. She just has big shoes to fill. Hurry up and get better so you can show her how it’s done.”

“You just said to take it easy earlier. Make up your mind.”

They shared a carefree laugh. However, underneath her finely crafted smile, Rin was having trouble restraining the pain in her chest. Despite Yama’s entertaining company, a swelling solitude threatened to overwhelm her.

Without her noticing, her hand was already on top of his.

“Why are you doing this, Yama-san? I’m just a cameriera who got hospitalized after failing to kill herself. There’s no reason for you to go this far.”

“Aren’t we friends? It’s only natural to do what I can to support your recovery.”

“Can you come closer? It’s tiring raising my voice.”

Yama nodded and leaned towards her face. Rin placed her hands on his cheeks and pulled him closer.

“Is that all?” she whispered in his ear, her voice sultry and slick.

“W-What do you mean!?”

“This.” Rin raised her back from the inclined bed and slowly inched her lips closer to his.

But their lips did not touch. Yama kept her from coming any closer by holding her shoulders. He gently removed her hands from his face.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Nothing. I just felt like it.”

“Then why were you crying? Your eyes are red, and the trash bin is full of used tissues.”

Despite her valiant attempt to hide it, he had figured it out so easily.

“…Ageha was here.”

“And?”

“…He dumped me.”

“Huh?”

“It’s the first time we saw each other in ages, I just miraculously woke up from a coma, and he dumped me.” Her voice broke like an overreaching songstress.

“Didn’t you tell me yesterday that you dumped him a while ago?”

“That’s right! I did! But he dumped me back!”

“…I’m not sure what that means.”

Her vision blurred by tears, she blindly reached for warmth. Rin felt Yama’s shirt on her fingertips and firmly squeezed it, twisting her fingers into the fabric. She bawled into his chest, not caring if her cries reached the corridor.

Yama wrapped his arms around her. “It’s his loss.”

“Don’t badmouth Ageha!”

“Then it’s your loss.”

“You jerk!”

“…This is bad,” he mumbled. “I wasn’t seriously going for it, but this girl’s just too cute.”

Rin pretended not to hear him. “What was that?”

“Uh, then is it a win-win for the two of you?”

“…Men are horrible.”

“Sorry about that.”

Despite her complaints, Rin left herself in his clumsy but tender embrace.

 

Next Chapter

Chapter Ten: Punishment

[mission accomplished ageha is hurt]

The text message from Saya seemed rushed.

Kaika found herself speeding up while repeating that line in her head. The thick heels of her sandals clacked loudly on the hotel’s marble floor. Two bodyguards in black suits followed behind her.

She had just received good news from Japan before that message came. Her mood had peaked and then hit rock bottom in the blink of an eye.

He’s fine.

She sharply turned a corner as she continued to convince herself, not noticing the right shoulder strap of her sundress slip down her arm.

Ageha is a monster.

Even if he had gotten injured, he would be up and about in a few days, just like when he was shot almost a year ago.

Kaika did not want her escorts to hear Saya’s report because it contained sensitive information, so she had them wait a few doors away from her destination. She jogged to a locked hotel room, inserted a card key, and opened the door.

Her entire body reacted even before her mind completely processed what she saw. Every part of her burned: the center of her chest, the pit of her stomach, her parched throat, the back of her eyes.

What is this?

Ageha was on the bed.

He was completely still, like a mannequin.

There was a white handkerchief, dotted with blood, draped over his face.

A weak laugh leaked from her lips.

This must be a joke.

Desperate to deny the reality in front of her, Kaika scanned the room.

Saya was sitting on a chair by the wall. Her usual perfect posture was nowhere to be found. She was bowed down, elbows on her knees, with half her face buried in her hands. Tears streamed down her closed eyes.

Arashi was sitting on the floor beside the bed, hugging her legs with her head buried in her knees. Kaika could not see her face, but Arashi’s jerking shoulders clearly told her the teen was crying.

Kaika looked back at the body on top of the white sheets. Her feet moved on their own, taking her to him. She could not see his face because of that despicable white cloth, but the suit, the body, and the smell were all definitely Ageha’s.

You died.

Kaika gingerly extended her fingers and touched his arm. It was unnaturally cold. Her deathly pale face turned completely blank as countless tears ran down her cheeks.

Punishment

“You liar. Aren’t you going to kill me once I reach my goal?”

Trembling faintly, she climbed on top of the bed and mounted his stomach.

Saya said something, but Kaika could not understand it. It did not matter anyway. Nothing did.

“You liar..! You promised..!” Clawing at his shoulders, Kaika tightly pressed her body onto his.

His frigid corpse robbed her body heat, but the burning within her did not weaken in the slightest.

Then she broke down.

Letting loose the supernova contained within her tiny body, she exploded.

She screamed. She wailed. She crumbled.

Saya held her shoulders, but she ignored it.

She cursed. She squealed. She choked on her own tears.

Her breakdown escalated, with no end in sight. A billion thoughts raced, collided, merged, split, and dispersed in her head, leaving an infinite and incomprehensible mess.

F*&*78asd201*&Djbn8(AD*986:”{},.,.><*644SAdjasd123+_)){}{<<!~……………………………………

One by one, her countless overlapping masks peeled away. Each torn layer left her smaller, weaker, more fragile.

Her raw self, vulnerable to destruction at the slightest touch, was about to be laid bare.

Something cold and heavy gently landed on her head.

It was a large hand.

“Sorry, I didn’t think it’d actually work,” said a voice.

His voice.

In an instant, the chaos within her head reorganized itself.

An overwhelming sense of relief engulfed her.

An excruciating dread swiftly followed.

Her face remained pressed against Ageha’s chest. “Saya and Arashi were crying. Were you all in on this?”

“I was just stopping a nosebleed,” said Saya. “I tried to clear my nasal passages of clotted blood, but my nose started bleeding again. I teared up because of the pain.”

“What about Arashi?” asked Kaika without lifting her head. “Her shoulders were twitching.”

“She was trying to get rid of the hiccups when she fell asleep. I only noticed the cloth on Ageha’s face after you got on top of him. I did not understand what was happening at first. When I tried to stop you, you would not listen.”

Ageha took off the white cloth covering his face. “I was using this to clean my busted lip when I heard your footsteps. I put it on my face on a whim. I didn’t expect you’d fall for it. Saya obviously wouldn’t take me to a hotel room if I was seriously injured.”

“B-but your body was so cold,” said Kaika.

“I’m mostly alloy, remember?”

“S-Saya sent me a text message! It looked really rushed, panicked even…”

“That was Arashi using my mobile,” said Saya. “I was carrying Ageha on my back, so I asked her to send you a report saying we were fine. What exactly did it say?”

“…Forget it. It doesn’t matter.”

Kaika would normally never fall for such a trick, even with all those misleading coincidences. Ever since Rin became hospitalized, there were hints that something was wrong with her. This event confirmed that possibility. Still, her pride would not allow her to openly admit such weakness.

A different kind of heat spread within Kaika.

The flame burned the center of her chest, the pit of her stomach, her parched throat, the back of her eyes, and her blazing cheeks.

Then she burst out laughing.

“I got all of you!” she said as she raised her body up. “Of course I knew it was a prank! Did you really think I’d fall for such a simple trick?” She puffed out her chest and flashed a cocky grin. “I just pretended to because I wanted to see your reactions! And they were totally worth it! I’ll never forget those shocked faces!”

Ageha, still lying underneath her, awkwardly looked away. Kaika turned to Saya, but the butler avoided her eyes with an uneasy expression.

“…Not working, is it?” asked Kaika.

“Well, your acting is as perfect as always, Ojousama. But…” Saya shut her lips tightly in hesitation.

Arashi, who woke up from the commotion and had no idea what was going on, stared at her mistress innocently. “Kai… why is your whole body… bright red?”

Kaika froze. Then she trembled like a volcano nearing eruption.

“Forget everything that happened in this room!!! That’s an order!!!”

 

***

 

The faint sound of running water buzzed from the bathroom. Saya and Arashi had gotten into the shower, leaving Kaika and Ageha alone in the hotel room. They sat beside each other on the queen-sized bed.

“I’m sorry,” said Ageha.

“I told you to forget about that.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kaika sighed. “It’s fine. I’m sorry too.”

“What did you do this time?”

“That reply kinda pisses me off, but I’ll let it go today.” Kaika stared at the floor. “I’m apologizing for the time I faked Saya’s death. I didn’t know how much it hurt… how much I hurt you, until just now.”

A part of him had wanted to get back at Kaika for that time. But after seeing Kaika’s outburst, he regretted it.

“I guess we’re even,” said Ageha.

“Are you sure? What I did then tortured you much longer.”

“Were you crying for real earlier?”

Kaika turned away without speaking. Her reddish nape was a sufficient answer.

“Then it’s fine,” he said. “If you forgive my prank, I promise to forget about that time with Saya.”

“Only if you forget about what just happened, too.”

He smiled. “I’ll try.”

“I guess that’s good enough.” She smiled back, barely showing her teeth. “So, what happened at the drug facility?”

“I lost.”

“How many?”

“One.”

Kaika’s expression turned grim. “Explain.”

Ageha told her about the operation, providing as much information as he could, especially about Zhi Zhu.

“I was lucky he had trouble prying my paralyzed fingers off his ankle. Arashi made it just in time. They fought for a few seconds with Zhi Zhu dominating. Saya joined the battle soon after, but he still managed to keep them at bay using a handgun. Good thing he panicked and escaped when Saya told him Zhang was killed.”

“What a troublesome guy. Can you win?”

“Not as I am now. The world’s a big place.”

“Zhi Zhu and Mao will probably come to us for revenge.” Kaika stared at the floor, her eyebrows scrunched together. “I have an idea, but that can wait. First, I have something very important to tell you while we’re alone.”

“What is it?”

“Rin woke up.”

Ageha grabbed Kaika’s shoulders. “Is that true!?”

“You know I can’t lie to you anymore.”

“Then Rin… she really…”

“Yes. She is still under observation, but aside from some nerve damage, she’s okay.”

His grip on Kaika gradually loosened.

She rubbed her left shoulder. “It’s gonna be a pain hiding these bruises from Saya.”

Ageha noticed the red marks on her skin. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. I almost choked on a sesame ball when I heard the news myself. The private jet is ready. We can go tonight if you want.”

“…I can’t, not yet.”

“Why not?”

“I have to talk to Mei Xing first. In person.”

“The look on your face says I can’t stop you. Fine, but at least take Saya.”

“No need. I’m just going there to talk.”

“I don’t like to be kept waiting. Let her drive and finish that errand quickly. I’ll stay with Arashi in a lodging near the private airport.”

“You can go ahead and see Rin first.”

Kaika shook her head. “No, I’ll wait for you.”

Ageha sensed the trepidation in her voice. “Okay. I’ll be back soon.”

 

***

 

Saya carefully cleaned the gash on Arashi’s shoulder and washed away the soapsuds using the shower nozzle.

Ojousama cares for him that much.

Maybe more than she does for me.

Maybe more than I do for him.

“Saya?” asked Arashi, covered only in lather.

“Huh? What is it?”

Arashi rotated to face Saya. “Are you… hurt?”

“No, I am fine. Worry about yourself.”

“You look like… you’re in pain.”

“It is just your imagination.”

That’s right.

Saya looked at her naked self in the bathroom mirror.

It’s just your imagination.

…Right?

 

***

 

Ageha?

Mei Xing was about to go shopping for ingredients when he saw Ageha lurking outside the inn.

“Good morning,” said Mei Xing. “What brings you here?”

“I killed your father,” said Ageha.

“…That’s a very odd greeting.”

“It’s the truth. Zhang Wei Long is dead.”

“That so.”

“You don’t look surprised.”

“I knew you weren’t a normal person from the start.” Mei Xing shrugged his shoulders.

“How?”

“Remember when we shook hands? I noticed your palms were unnaturally smooth for a chef. That means they’re probably cybernetic. Amputees with ARMS are quite common, so I pretended to be in pain when you squeezed my hand. Your reaction told me you knew your artificial hand could hurt people. Normal cybernetics have limiters making that very hard to do by accident.”

“And you concluded I was a mercenary.”

“You could’ve been a bodyguard, but those guys don’t go around killing mafia bosses. Did you come here to kill me too?”

“No. I have nothing against you. It’s the opposite. You helped me before, but I returned it with treachery. I wouldn’t call it atonement, but I deserve some form of retribution from you.”

“…That’s all?”

“Yeah.”

Mei Xing heaved a sigh. “You scared the hell out of me. You look like you’re about to commit murder or something.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

Mei Xing had misinterpreted the guilt on Ageha’s face as malice. He had been feigning calmness while trying to figure out Ageha’s motives. With no combat skills whatsoever, Mei Xing had been prepared to give up. He knew he could not escape. But if Ageha’s goal was to hurt his family, Mei Xing would have exhausted every single cell in his body to stop him, no matter how futile it was.

“If it’s about my father, forget it. He has nothing to do with me anymore. I don’t want to be involved with the mafia or anything illegal. Please leave.”

Ageha winced, as if he stepped on a nail. “…Understood.”

Mei Xing sensed a familiar loneliness in the young man’s reply. It reminded him of himself from before he met Setsu.

“Did you know who I was when we first met?” asked Mei Xing.

“No. I found out a while later. I knew when I killed your father though.”

Ageha did not seem to be lying. He had no reason to. Someone who had killed Zhang Wei Long could easily end Mei Xing’s life, but instead, he had come to show penitence. When Mei Xing had rejected his reparation and told him to leave, Ageha looked disappointed. Mei Xing tried to understand why.

Could it be…

He considers me a friend.

And didn’t want to lose that?

“I changed my mind,” said Mei Xing. “I have something I want you to do.”

“Name it.”

“Work for me for today.”

“What kind of work?”

“What else?” Mei Xing pointed his thumb behind him, indicating the inn.

“…Does it have to be today?”

“You have somewhere you need to be?”

“Kind of.”

“Perfect. It wouldn’t be retribution if it was easy, would it?”

“…Right.”

Mei Xing noticed something odd in Ageha’s expression but paid little attention to it.

“Then let’s go shopping. I was about to call on the guys, but I’ll let you do the heavy lifting instead. How many sacks of rice can you carry?”

“It depends on the size of each sack, but by weight, around a ton or so?”

Ageha looked completely serious.

“Uh, okay, I don’t need that much.” Mei Xing scratched his head. “Wait here, I’ll go get the pickup.”

“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to volunteer a driver.”

“A driver? Not you?”

“Yeah, Saya is waiting in the car. I’ll give her a call.”

Minutes later, they arrived in town.

“I’m driving on the way back, okay!?” said Mei Xing.

“It’s just scary at first. You’ll get used to it,” said Ageha.

“I don’t want to get used to feeling like the co-driver of a rally car!”

Mei Xing remembered the time he rode shotgun with Setsu at the wheel. His wish to never experience something like that again had apparently fallen on deaf ears.

“Please do not worry,” said Saya. “I have never been in an accident. A wreckless driver, you might say.” She giggled and flashed a proud grin.

Is she proud of her terrifying driving or her horrible pun?

“Both,” said Ageha, reading Mei Xing’s baffled expression.

The group split up upon reaching the market. Saya went to buy fresh produce while the men procured the rice and meat. Ageha stacked four large sacks of rice on his shoulders with ease, drawing the gazes of everyone around him.

“Are you sure this is all you want?” asked Ageha.

“Yeah, that much rice should last for a week or so.”

“Not that. I meant this errand thing. You could ask for something more.”

“Like I said, it’s not a big deal. The only one who seriously considered me as a successor to my father was the man himself, and now he’s gone. It should be okay if I just lay low like usual.”

“Don’t you care about him at all?”

“I wouldn’t say that. But he got what he deserved.”

“What makes you think I’m not the villain?”

“Would a villain carry around sacks of rice for the victim?”

“Please don’t remind me how silly this situation is.”

They bought various meats at several shops. Mei Xing haggled the prices really low using expert bargaining techniques and bluffs. He gave Ageha some tips on haggling, but the latter failed horribly when he tried. Part of the problem was his lack of Chinese proficiency, but the main issue was his inherent desire to achieve fair trade. When haggling, the buyer had to go at it intending to bankrupt the store. Even then, the merchant would end up with a profit anyway.

“What should I do after this shopping trip?” asked Ageha.

“I’ll have you work in the kitchen until closing.”

“Understood.”

Again, Mei Xing saw something strange in Ageha’s expression.

“Didn’t you have to rush off somewhere?”

“Yeah, as soon as I’m done with the work you gave me.”

“Then why do you look relieved?”

Ageha’s right hand gravitated towards his face but stopped an inch short. “…I do?”

Despite claiming to be in a rush, Ageha seemed unconsciously apprehensive about going to his other appointment, whatever it was.

Seems to be worth hearing out.

Mei Xing gave the back of his head a scratch. “On second thought, can I ask you for one more thing?”

“Go ahead.”

“Stay at the inn tonight. You’ll need the rest after I work you to the bone in the kitchen.”

“But I have to go-”

“And join me for a drink after hours. Maybe it’ll clear your head a little. Setsu and Li Xue will be happy to see Saionji-san again. My little girl took a liking to her.”

Ageha blinked several times before showing a look of understanding. “You’re a good guy.”

“Only to family and friends.”

Ageha paused, but Mei Xing continued forward without looking back.

The younger chef took speedy steps until he caught up. “I can understand that.”

 

Next Chapter