"They lost," Kimiko stated after a quick survey of the room.
"Who?" Yusuke asked, apparently not as perceptive as she was. He was the first through the door, arms raised, and ready for a fight. What he found was the remnants of a battle in which almost nothing had been spared. Yusuke recognized the signs of a struggle. The invaders met stiff resistance upon their arrival. He could only imagine the kind of battle it would take to leave such a well-furnished underground timeshare like this in ruins. He noticed the shattered remains of a monkey bust upon entry, the face broken, distorted into something of a twisted smile. A bad sign.
"Yori's friends. They didn't win."
"That cannot be. Hirotaka. Hoshi. They would not have been defeated so easily." The more she looked around, however, the more applicable Kimiko's observation became. One look and she knew her friends had been overwhelmed. They were ninja. In battle they were trained to be precise, defeating their opponents with a single strike. In the event of a pitched battle they were trained to run and hide—not a coward's tactic but one borne of survival. Should they have no way of escape, then the ninja would fight to the death, and fiercely.
Even at their most desperate, ninja were efficient killers and they would not leave the site of a battle in this state. Their enemy either had overwhelming numbers or superior firepower. How they must have feared the ninja so to battle the way they did. Hiro and Hoshi never stood a chance.
Yori prayed she'd find some sign that they were okay, but by the looks of it that was not the case. She might have to face the truth unless, "They were taken prisoner."
"That much is obvious," Kimiko flipped a lock of her hair over her shoulder while standing before the fireplace. There was a dent left atop the mantelpiece and she studied it closely. This kind of impact, judging from the force that left the mark, could only be made when a heavy object traveling at high velocity came in contact with the exterior. Searching, Kimiko could did not find anything big or with enough density to have caused such a mark. It could have been a weapon of some sort but who would go through the effort, not to mention has the strength, of lunging a very heavy object across the room?
She knelt down, the heat of the fire casting a red glow across her pale skin. Kimiko traced her fingers along the floor, searching for anything that could tell her what happened. "Kimiko?" She heard Yori call her name and could feel her presence, though she had not made a sound, next to her. Kimiko did not look up. She did not want to miss anything. Kenji had taught her how to read the signs. The saying "if these walls could talk" had no bearing on her. One needs only a keen eye and a clear mind to be able to spot the clues.
"Yori," Kimiko began to ask as she picked something off the ground. "Do any of your friends have red hair?" She held an auburn-colored strand between her fingers, raising it up so as to get a better look at it in the firelight. Yori leaned over, her eyes widening. Kimiko turned to her and spotted that look. "You know who this is?"
"There are few I would call friends, Kimiko." She stood up straight. "But I know only one with hair the color of fire."
Yori's eyes traced a line to her brothers. Yusuke was still mulling over the broken bust. Takashi stumbled his way in after the way was clear. He was even fatter than his frame suggested sitting on that hover chair of his back at the lab. He had the habit of waddling when he walked, his sneakers making an unwarranted squeak whenever he moved. He had a small visor over his eyes. Takashi explained that it was a built-in scanner that helped him see through solid objects.
"I've got nothing. There's no one else here but us."
"We can see that, Takashi." Yusuke turned to him. "Mind telling us something useful? Like where are the bodies?"
"Yusuke!" Takashi raised a finger to his lips. "Be more sensitive. These are Yori's friends we're talking about."
"He is right." Yori stepped away from Kimiko and began to walk toward her brothers. "I care about my friends. All of them, even the ones you didn't tell me were in Japan."
The brothers exchanged worried looks before looking at her in unison.
"I wonder what else you did not tell me, my brother. Or…" She reached up to remove the visor from his face. Takashi pulled back but Yori was too fast and the visor came off. Now they were looking at each other eye to eye and Takashi could feel himself shrinking. "Should I call you IT?"
They heard Kimiko chuckling. She was still holding the strand of hair, admiring it with a mischievous grin. "Don't play dumb, kid. Yori's got you all figured out."
Yori's dark eyes seemed to flare up as if a volcano were ready to blow.
"IT. I-T. Ishimura Takashi. You are Hoshi's partner. You've been in contact with her the whole time."
Takashi took a step back. He briefly looked at Yusuke who only shrugged his shoulders as if admitting the charade was over.
"All this time. All the secrets. It was you."
"Yori. Let me explain."
"Explain? Now you want to tell the truth? You've jeopardized all our lives by keeping secrets to yourself and you expect me to believe anything you have to say?"
"I know it seems like you can't trust us but there's a good reason we lied to you." He regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth. Biting his tongue, Takashi could feel his sister's eyes boring in on him like two razor-sharp needles. He could not bear to look at them. He looked at his feet. "It's a long story."
"That's too bad." Kimiko said. "Because it looks like you might not live long enough to finish it."
Yusuke stepped up. "Yori, I know you're mad. But trust us when we say our intentions were strictly honorable."
"Do not speak to me of honor. As far as I am concerned I am the only person in this room who understands it."
Kimiko took offense to that. "Now just wait," Then she recalled past events. "Never mind."
"I wanted to tell you. Really."
"What about all the time we spent in your laboratory?"
"We were catching up. I didn't want to spoil the moment by breaking the news."
"Not to mention it would have been pretty awkward. How do you start building trust with someone who's been what you been through and admit you've known about them the whole time?" Yusuke turned to Kimiko. "Shouldn't you be a little sympathetic?"
"Don't try to put me in the middle of this. You're related by blood. I'm just a girl who didn't mind her own business who gets caught up in this whole affair."
"You are not without fault, Kimiko." Yori reared on her. Behind her, Takashi felt relief that Yori's attention had been momentarily displaced somewhere else and he moved closer to Yusuke. "First Saito. Then you. Now my own brothers. It seems everyone takes pleasure in using me to further their own goals only now," she turned back to her brothers. "I am through being the tool. We are not leaving this room until everything is explained to me. Starting from the beginning."
"Sure, Yori. I'll tell you everything. I promise."
"You mind if I sit down?" Takashi was already moving to the nearest overturned couch without waiting for Yori's permission. Not that she'd have forbade him. Yori would hold him upside down by the toes of his feet if it meant she could get the truth out of him.
Once he had sat himself down, Takashi removed a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow. He was nervous. He meant to tell Yori everything but not like this. Having found out the way she did, it was no wonder she was mad.
Standing in front of him, her arms crossed, Yori waited for him to speak. Her eyes were reprimanding. Like waiting for a guilty child to admit he had erred.
In a sense it was very accurate.
Kimiko was leaning against the wall to support her weight. She fiddled with the strand of hair in her hand, twirling it between two fingers. Kimiko listened intently for she knew any information could be useful to her in the future. And it would be interesting, if not entertaining, to find out what the boys had been up to all these years. She noted Yusuke watching her from across the room. Kimiko stared right back at him, her eyes daring him to look away…which he did, but only because Takashi started speaking.
"We knew we had to find you but we didn't know where to begin. Yamanouchi's not exactly on some GPS system so we had to do it the hard way. With the money Yusuke collected in his bouts, we began to pool our resources into an effective money-making machine which would turn into a solid foundation where we could start our search. We created our own underground business. A retrieving business. People would lose things or have them stolen by someone else. We would find or reclaim those items. Yusuke did all the legwork while I supplied him with the equipment and any Intel I could scrounge up on the intended target. We did pretty well for ourselves and it wasn't long before our clientele became more exclusive."
"And better-paying," Yusuke added.
"That's when the money really started rolling in. Pretty soon we had enough stocked up to expand our operations. Some of the things you saw at our base we bought through a third party with access to some pretty nifty hardware. The rest I put together myself for security reasons. Don't want to leave too big of a trail that could lead back to us, you know? Anyway, even with our newfound wealth we still lacked the means to find you. We considered trying to contact Yamanouchi directly but we hadn't the slightest idea on how to do that. It wasn't until later that we learned ninja schools maintain contact with their clients through intermediaries." He looked up at Yori. "That was much later."
"So what did you do then?"
"We had to change tactics. Our patrons wouldn't help us because the contract they have with the ninja specifically states they will not reveal their whereabouts or their contacts within the system, so we turned to an unlikely source for help. The criminal underworld. Hear me out," Takashi told Yori when he saw her eyes narrow. "Think what you will, crooks have information on just about anything. Even if they didn't know any ninja, they know somebody who knows somebody who knows a cousin's friend who dated a ninja. So that's where we went looking. Yusuke started asking around while I did a little digging of my own. Turns out not all ninja made the cut. Just as I heard about these freelance agents, Yusuke told me about a young kunoichi making a name for herself by taking jobs others were too crazy to accept."
"A kunoichi?" Kimiko glanced at Yori.
"Hoshi," she figured.
He nodded. "That's the one. Through her we learned how to get in touch with an intermediary to put us through to Yamanouchi, but then we thought of something. We couldn't ask for Yori by name because that would have set off an alarm. Master Sensei would have gotten wind of it and send ninja to track us down. Mind you, we had dishonored his friends by leaving them when they had sworn to protect us. I don't think he'd have taken kindly to that. So we staved off on that idea. At the same time, we needed to find a way to meet Yori without drawing suspicion."
"You were right in being cautious. Ninja value our identities. For an outsider to know it is an extreme breach of security which must be…dealt with." Yori left it at that. "But I take it that did not discourage you from trying to find another way."
"We are related, Yori. No we didn't give up. We turned to Hoshi for help. It didn't take long for us to form a profitable relationship. You see Hoshi could move about more freely than we could without raising suspicion—being a freelance ninja and all. She was low on cash which meant she had trouble keeping a roof over her head. So in exchange for a steady income, Hoshi did odd jobs for us: gathering information, spying on people, acquiring items that even we were unable to get our hands on."
Yusuke chimed in. "Put me out of a job."
"I never told Hoshi about our attempts at finding you. Though I did tell her to keep an eye out for any Yamanouchi ninja she met in her travels. She came across a few, and they all had stories to share about the school's top student. The more I heard about you the more I wanted to meet you. It was torture not being able to see you in person." Takashi hoped the sentimentality would lighten Yori's ire, but the stoic ninja was not one to be swayed.
She was, however, interested in asking one question. "Why did you not tell Hoshi about me?"
"It was a personal matter. Hoshi was always too nosy for her own good. If we gave her a bone, she'd follow the trail back to the carcass and…" He saw her face contort. "Okay, not the classiest metaphor, but stick with me here. As you already know, Hoshi has a habit of asking too many questions. She can't leave well enough alone so we decided to keep it to ourselves. We never met face to face, Hoshi and me. Only Yusuke has ever spoken to her and he was always behind a mask. Truth be told, so was she, but those earrings I gave her are not only a means for communication. I implanted a microscopic camera into each one so as to keep an eye on her."
"You spied on her?" Yori's voice hardened. "Have you no decency? Did you peak at her when she was undressing? Showering?" Then she recalled, "I remember you rating my rear end a ten out of ten. Was that before or after you knew I was your sister you…you…" Yori was so mad that her face was red. She clenched her fists, resisting the urge to break something she knew her brother would regret. All her years of training, all her martial discipline and it was her own flesh and blood that broke down all the walls of self-control.
"I think the word you're looking for is pervert," Kimiko said. She was enjoying watching Takashi sweat. She had nothing against the younger of the two Ishimura brothers. She was just bored.
Yori calmed herself down before she did something very un-ninja-like. She turned her body away. Hugging her shoulders. "You are a despicable human being."
"You checked out our sister?" Yusuke asked his brother when Yori wasn't looking.
"I didn't know it was her, okay." Takashi grew defensive. He could feel the three of them judging him, thinking all sorts of unpleasant things about this pudgy guy with the balding head. "I hadn't seen my baby sister since she was born. How was I supposed to know it was her?"
"Uh, how about using your common sense. I mean look at her. She looks just like mom."
"To think the one with least brains would have the most perception." Kimiko smiled when Yusuke turned an angry glare on her. "It was a compliment."
"Do us all a favor and don't talk for the rest of the evening."
She sulked. "Spoilsport."
"In my defense," Takashi said weakly. "I didn't know you were coming. When I saw you with Hirotaka I assumed you were together."
Yori spun around, face flustered. "Hiro and I are just friends!"
At the wall, Kimiko winked at Yusuke. "Me thinks the lady doth protest too much."
"What did I just tell you?"
"It wasn't until Hoshi pulled that stunt that I realized who you were. Hoshi never told us she knew you or that she even went to Yamanouchi."
"It was a shock for both of us," Yusuke said. "But we never knew that much about Hoshi to begin with. We just never figured that you and she actually grew up together."
"I began to wonder if maybe we told her about you we'd have found you a lot sooner. Please keep in mind that she still doesn't know I'm your brother. As far as Hoshi is concerned I'm just the guy who finds her work and gives her a steady paycheck for her efforts. She was as much in the dark about me as you were." The younger Ishimura brother lowered his head. "I'm sorry. I wanted to tell you."
"Had you told me sooner we could have been here to help my friends in their time of need. We were too late thanks to you. Now that I think about it, it is strange that you knew exactly where they'd be. Perhaps I was too preoccupied considering their fates to notice, or maybe I was just euphoric after meeting my kin. I am a fool for not figuring it out sooner."
"Don't feel bad. It happens to the best of us."
Yori glared at Kimiko. "Do what my brother says."
She sulked again.
"S-Sure. Um, let me think. Oh yeah. So we were stuck at an impasse. That's when we found out…that our father was still alive."
Yori blinked. "But…you did not know,"
"That it was a trap? Of course not. We'd have never allowed you to go to Nakasumi Tower if we knew Saito had lied to capture you."
Yori considered revealing the fact that it was not Yori Saito had wanted to catch, but figured its best to keep certain things to herself for now. She was in a room full of people who had used her at one point or another. Next time, she wanted to be the one calling the shots, if only to save Hiro, Hoshi, Kim, Ron and Rufus-san and put an end to this nonsense once and for all.
"You have to believe me, Yori. I'd have never sent you there if I knew it was a trap. When you were captured by the Yakuza I seriously considered taking my own life. How could I have been so stupid?" At that, Takashi, IT, bent his head over in anguish. "I thought we had lost you forever."
"When Takashi told me what happened, I was about to go there and bust you out myself. I didn't care if I had to fight the entire criminal underworld to do it." Wearing his green combat suit, Yusuke slammed a fist into the palm of his hand, creating a heavy-sounded SMACK that could have bored through the face of a human skull. "I would have too if Takashi had let me."
Yori turned back to Takashi. "Why did you not let him?"
"Because…because this was our chance to find out about father. I wanted to know if Saito had him in custody or not. It was pretty much a given that he lied to bring you to him but after he mentioned that Kimiko," He looked at her. "May be the one to know his whereabouts—I just couldn't let that opportunity pass. So when Saito let you go, I had Yusuke prep for a rescue mission. Problem was finding you, which is why it took him so long to reach you in the forest."
"Sorry for that. You're not an easy woman to find, Yori."
Yori acknowledged him with a nod. "Thank you for your efforts. You did save our lives."
Yusuke softened. "I'd never let those bastards harm my baby sister."
Yori blushed at that.
"Well isn't this pleasant?" Apparently the assassin had no intention of remaining silent as they said, "But I'd still like to know how you found out about Yori coming to Nagasaki. I'm the one who lured her out of the open. It was my message that convinced Master Sensei that I knew where her father was and that I needed her help. Were you spying on me all this time?"
"No." Takashi spoke seriously. "We didn't even know you were alive, Kimiko."
"I was. Barely. Nice to know you were worried."
"We figured you were still with dad so,"
"Forget it. I see where I stand. But I want an answer. How did you know I sent for Yori?"
All eyes turned to Yori who seemed to be in disbelief. "What are you talking about?" Yusuke asked after sharing a confused glance with his brother.
"She knew," Yori muttered. "All this time she knew."
"Knew what?" Takashi asked.
"Kimiko. Saito. Everything." It is all starting to make sense. How could she have not seen this sooner? Her greatest threat lied not with the people outside her circle but from those within. Hoshi proved she was a skilled manipulator. She had used Yori like every one else only Yori did not know it until then. If Kimiko's betrayal had left her feeling angry, Hoshi's had her bordering on rage.
"Yori?" Takashi said. "What is it?"
"We must find Hoshi…" she glared at Takashi. "Can you locate her using those special earrings?" Before he could answer her, Yori raised a hand to silence him. "Never mind. From what I've discerned, you have been trying to do that since we left your hideout. I trust you would not have kept her location to yourself had your discovered her just to keep up the charade?" Her question hid a dangerous undertone that Takashi knew meant woe to him had he'd done just that. He quickly shook his head, and Yori could tell that, for once, he wasn't lying. She was getting better at reading people.
"Then there must be some other way." She began pacing. "We four are all that's left of the Ishimura clan. We are too vital for Saito's plans, whatever they may be, to risk losing in a fight. I believe that is why Saito has his people attack this place before we had the chance to regroup. He did not want to risk us being caught in the crossfire."
"Because he does not know where we've been hiding," Takashi surmised. "Otherwise he'd have sent his elite fighters to capture us instead."
"He's using them as bait," Yori went on. "He knows I will try to rescue them and that this time Kimiko and my brothers will be with me."
"What makes you think I'd accompany you on some suicide mission?"
"Because you cannot let anything go. If there is the slightest chance you can take your revenge on Saito, then you will not pass up this opportunity. The only way you will get that chance is if you join us. It may be difficult, suicidal, as you say, but this time we will be prepared. Takashi has the equipment and the technology to augment our natural fighting skills to the point where we will be far more dangerous working as a group then we ever were fighting alone. Besides," Yori smiled. "You need to know as much as I do. Should we three be captured, then you will never know what happened to Kenji Ishimura and you will be back right where you started. You need to do this, Kimiko. For your sake as much as our own."
Kimiko remained silent. All she did was look at Yori, her eyes beyond translation. Then she smiled. Shaking her head. "Damn. All right. I'm in."
Yusuke hid a smile.
"I think," Takashi began hesitantly. "I might know a way to find your friends."
"How?" Yori asked with urgency.
"A friend of mine in the States. I've been in contact with him ever since you were ambushed at Nakasumi Tower. Look, there is something I have to tell you before we go charging off into the lion's den. When your friends escaped the underground bunker, they found a hidden supercomputer with some highly sensitive information on it. Turns out Saito is building himself an army of robots using the resources at Nakasumi Industries. We still haven't discerned what it's for but we do know that it should be completed very soon, if it hasn't already."
"An army of robots?" Yori mulled it over in her head. "That would explain his connection with Nakasumi Industries."
"Before you woke up, we learned that Saito purchased some private property along the Sea of Japan. The acquisitions mainly consist of old shipping yards and an abandoned navy depot."
"Nice place if you want to hide something. Knowing Saito, and I do, that's where he'll be sending those robots when he's finished building them."
"But for what?" Yori turned to Kimiko. "What does he plan to do with his army once it is deployed?"
"Why build an army to begin with?" Kimiko asked. When no reply came forth she said, "To start a war."
Yusuke had a hard time contemplating the information. When Takashi told him what Saito was up to, he could not believe it. He knew the man was dangerous but to construct an entire army from scratch? How do they stand any chance of stopping him? Courage and tenacity can only carry a warrior so far. He hoped that with finding Yori and Kimiko that the odds would lean in their favor but things did not look good right about now. A robot army? That's a lot of heads to crack.
"Do you think he will attack Yamanouchi?" Worry gripping Yori's voice as she asked.
"Too obvious," Kimiko answered. "Not Saito's style. He's got another target in mind. My gut feeling tells me he'll use the shipyards to build a fleet of ships to transport his army across the sea."
"Does he plan to invade another country?"
"Saito's not that ambitious, Yusuke. Not yet anyway. I think it's something a little closer to home. I'd wager something nearby. An island off the coast or somewhere just as isolated to avoid attracting the government's notice. If anyone has any ideas please let me know because I'm tired of speculating."
Yori closed her eyes. Saito, what are you up to? "Takashi, get in touch with your friend; have him tract down the others. We must prepare ourselves for the coming battle. This will be our greatest challenge. I daresay the fate of the entire country rests with us."
"Getting all patriotic all of a sudden," the assassin quipped. "I thought your code went beyond national boundaries."
"Ninja are taught to value all life. By stopping Saito here in Japan we prevent his evil from spreading throughout the world."
"Pretty words. But men like Saito are a dime a dozen. How long before the next would-be conqueror rises from the ashes to plague mankind?"
"One obstacle at a time, Kimiko. Let us, as they say, get to work."
"I'll ready the ship," Yusuke headed for the entrance.
Meanwhile, Takashi pulled out a small electric pad which he typed away furiously. "I'll have pinpointed their location before the engines are hot."
"Hold it!" Kimiko called for everyone to stand still and be quiet. She listened intently. "Did you hear that?" Apparently no one did. One by one, however, their ears did pick up the sound of something shuffling on the other side of the wall. It sounded like metal being scraped on the ground.
Like a team, Kimiko and Yori moved to either side of the double doors which led to the kitchen, Yusuke standing before the door in a defensive stance. Waiting for the girls to be in place, he gave the slightest of nods for them to open the doors and when they did, the eldest Ishimura leaped on through. The two women came up behind him, arms raised. Together they formed a triad of death for whatever enemy lay on the other side.
Barely able to life his head, a small, pink rodent nearly had a heart attack. He fell onto his back, squeaking in pain at his inner wounds. The trio looked down at the rodent, unsure of what to make of it. That is until one of them immediately recognized the creature for who he was and fell to her knees. "Rufus-san!"
Yori cradled the wounded molerat in her arms, tenderly so as to not injure him any further. "Rufus-san. What happened to you?"
Rufus blinked one eye open. His body had terrible sores along his midsection where tiny disfigurements made themselves apparent. Yori could make out a trace of blood along his mouth and overbite; both of which he had coughed up from his insides. He lay limp in her caress. Gagging for the precious air that his lungs had fought for so long to maintain his status among the living, Rufus could hardly register what Yori was saying.
A tear fell down her face. In all her experiences thus far, only now was Yori truly horrified at what she saw. Rufus, companion to the warrior-hero of Yamanouchi and her friend, lay near death in her arms. "Hang on, Rufus-san. Please don't die."
Rufus wanted to comply, but it was hard. It was so much easier to fall asleep…and that's exactly what he did.
Cold water splashed on her face. Hoshi spat out a curse at whoever did that, wishing she could do more but at the present was tied to a chair with no means of carrying out her intended threat. She shivered; the frigid water made its way into her collar and through her shirt, causing her bones to shiver. How she hated being cold. Her teeth began to chatter.
"Hoshi!" Hirotaka's voice carried through the numbing pain into her ears. She spotted him sitting across from her tied up in much the same way she was: legs and arms bound to a metal chair. "Are you all right?"
"No I'm not all right! Where the hell are we?"
"I do not know." He looked to her left. "Kim-san!"
Hoshi followed him to where Kim sat. A large man wearing dark clothing with a hood had just finished dunking a bucket of cold water onto her face. Kim sputtered awake, shaking violently from the shock.
"Kim!" Hoshi spoke to her in English. "Bite your teeth. It will help stem the cold."
Kim's pained green eyes met her gray. They stared for a moment until she complied. Once her teeth stopped chattering, Kim managed to snake out an understandable sentence. "W-here are w-e?"
"Hell if I know." The man carrying the bucket walked by her without a look. "Hey! I'm talking to you. Don't you walk away from me." Hoshi struggled to move but the seats, apparently, were immobile—strapped to the floor. "Get back here! I want answers!"
"He's not listening to you."
The ninja spat on the floor.
"That's not hygienic."
"Shut it, Hiro!" A door slammed shut. "Did he just leave?"
Hiro peeked over her. "Yup."
"Dammit! And I was about to throw a good tantrum too."
"What's that smell?" Kim's question had them all sniffing the room for the source of a strange metallic substance.
"Is that…" Hoshi began.
"Blood." Hiro noticed it first. The hints of rust along the floor were not a result of corroding metal but of dried blood. "None too old by the look of it."
There was a lot of it too. The room was fifteen feet by eleven with a low roof and a ventilation shaft. Two large bulbs flickered on either side, their buzzing ominous to the prisoners.
"Some kind of torture chamber, no doubt."
Kim glanced at Hirotaka. "Torture chamber?"
"I once helped rescue illegal immigrants from a place such as this. Their overlords would force them to work endless hours in inhumane conditions and those that refused or were incapable of doing the work were put into places like these. It's an experience I would rather forget."
Hoshi did not like where this was going. Her imagination played out all sorts of undesirable ways that blood wound up on the floor. "Let's try to find a way out before they get back. Red is definitely not my color."
Hiro stopped whatever he was going to say and looked at her. So did Hoshi. "Ron!"
They followed her gaze. Across from Kim and to Hoshi's right sat Ron Stoppable. His face was a bloody mess. One eye was cut so deep that it was swollen shut. His nose was flattened, the lower part crooked and bent in an awkward direction. His lips were swollen and caked with dry blood. His left ear had bloated pink and purple. From the way his head hung it was impossible to tell whether he was still alive. Were it not for the sporadic heaves of his chest, they would not know he was breathing.
"Ron!" Kim's voice became shrill and she struggled to get out of her chair. "Answer me! Ron!"
"Have they no honor?" Hiro's voice filled with contempt for their captors.
Kim was crying now. In all their adventures, she had never seen Ron hurt so badly. It was enough that she wished she never brought him on her stupid missions. "Please…say something…Ron…talk to me."
"He's out cold. He couldn't speak to you if he wanted." Hoshi studied him. "Hope he's not in a coma."
"Sorry. Stupid Hoshi! Stupid!"
"For once we can agree."
"I said I was sorry." Hiro's words weren't making her feel any better about herself. She took one more look at Ron's face and felt sick. As a fighter, Hoshi knew firsthand the kind of damage a human being could do to another. The type of abuse inflicted on Ron Stoppable was beyond overkill. Even if he did recover, which by now was a big if, his brain could well be damaged beyond repair. What sort of monster would do such a thing? What warranted such action?
"Ron…" Kim's voice grew hoarse as her cries intensified.
Hoshi turned to her if only to take her eyes off of Ron. "Kim, you have to pull yourself together. If we want to help Ron,"
The door behind her swung open. She could see Hiro's eyes widen as the newcomer stepped in. His lips mouthed the name, "Saito."
Dressed as impeccably as ever, the Yakuza King stepped in the middle of the ring of prisoners. "Welcome back," he said in a tone that was so casual for the situation that it was insulting. "I trust my associates were none too harsh wi…" His eyes fell on Ron. "Oh. Well three out of four is not bad."
Kim's face flushed with inhumane anger. Saito was fortunate she could not move else she'd have torn him limb from limb right then and there.
"Kim Possible." Saito turned to her. "The legend herself." Saito's smile made Kim even madder. None of the occupants doubt that, if he were close enough, she would bite Saito to death. "It is an honor to be in the presence of one who has felled so many great warriors."
"What did you to do Ron?"
"Me? Why I have done nothing. He returned to us like this. I'm afraid one of my men got too carried away."
"I will have a word with him next we meet. In the meantime I hope you accept my sincerest apologies for this travesty."
"Yori was right," Hoshi said. "You do have the tongue of a snake."
"Mother always said I was charming."
"I don't believe it."
Saito smiled at her. "Can I help it if I have a way with words?"
"I meant I don't believe you had a mother."
"Ah. I see I'm not the only person in this room who can be misleading."
"My God. Help him. Don't just leave him that way. Do something."
"I'm afraid, Miss Possible, that we will be underway shortly and that all of my medical staff will be needed elsewhere for the coming battle."
"Battle?" Hirotaka repeated.
"Indeed." He looked around. "You are currently situated inside a warship about to embark into the fire. As we speak, scores just like it will be making their way deep into the Sea of Japan where we will lay siege to an enemy fortress. It has been a long time coming. Years of planning are finally about to come to fruition. The final preparations are already under way. The army we have built will wipe the enemy from the face of the earth and the Japanese people will at long last be free to control their own destiny."
"What are you talking about? What enemy? Korea? China? America? Just who have you declared war against?"
Saito turned on the kunoichi. "You speak of nations. No. The enemy we face is far more sinister. You, being kunoichi, should understand more than anyone that the greatest threat always lies from within. You recall the story I told you about Japan's remarkable recovery in the mid-twentieth century? Do you remember who was responsible for that recovery? Who really controlled the country during its years of hyper expansion?"
"What does this have to do with Ron? He needs to be in a hospital." Kim's urgency was lost on Saito as he continued.
"I have been trying to wrestle control of the Yakuza not to further my own ends, but to free it from the grasp of a man who would see us become servants to the Youma. You call me a monster. An animal. But I am not! My actions may seem cruel at times but they had to be done to ensure that our mutual enemy does not uncover our plans. Had he known we were building this army to use against him, he would have struck before we were ready. That is why I could not let you remain free. My original intent was to keep you safe in my Tokyo base while the Ishimura siblings and I set about destroying this evil. In your escape, you hacked our computer and discovered what we were intending to do. It was a breach I could not let slip. I had you followed and brought here, at the forefront of our attack force."
"I hate to endanger the lives of such young people, but you leave me no choice. You have proven too resourceful in the past be trusted in the hands of ordinary men. So…I have sent for a very special chaperon." At Saito's words, a second set of footsteps grew louder. They were light-stepped and yet carried with them a sense of duality, as if they were hiding something. A shadow loomed over Hoshi until the figure stepped aside and into plain view. "I take it you are already well-acquainted."
None of them could believe it. Standing before them was the cab driver who picked them up when they crawled out of the sewers. The man kept his face hidden behind the collar of his coat, his dark eyes peering at them from underneath a cap. "You!" Hoshi felt her lips curl back into a snarl. "Son of a bitch."
"You are half right, Hoshi-san." Saito extended his hand toward the cabbie. "Please."
The cab driver grabbed his coat and cap and removed them. All eyes widened, even Kim who was suddenly distracted. It was a woman! She wore a dark red cat suit that showed off a trim but athletic body. She had light-brown hair the color of chestnuts and wide blue eyes that, if this was possible, shimmered with darkness. She was pale but beautiful—perhaps in her early thirties and with thick red lips.
"Miss Tique at your service," she said with a cultured British accent and a bow. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"The pleasure is all yours." Hoshi did not hide her contempt for this woman.
But Saito stepped up to her. "Do not be so rude to Miss Tique. She will be keeping you company for the duration of our journey."
"To keep you out of trouble of course. And to find out just how much you know and just where you have been sending those transmissions we've picked up from your secret hideout. Do behave yourself and cooperate to the best of your abilities. Miss Tique possesses a short tempter for disobedient children." With that, Saito gave her a curt nod before making his way out the door. "I will return to check up on you at my earliest convenience. Good bye." Hoshi heard the door close shut behind him.
Miss Tique approached Ronald, eyeing him with a pout. "Poor boy. I really must instill in Fukushima a sense of restraint. Had I known he'd go this far I'd have made it so he felt the pain he inflicts on others."
"Don't touch him," Kim ordered. "Keep away from him. Hasn't he been hurt enough?"
"Dear Kimberly, you misunderstand my purpose. I am here to help you. Observe." Miss Tique removed her hand from her glove. Walking, she began to trace a delicate line across Ron's swollen face. Kim protested further but the woman did not adhere. Behind Ron, Miss Tique stopped just above his right ear. She applied a bit of pressure. At first Kim thought she was playing with him for her amusement but in a split second Ron's face shot up and his one good eye opened up.
"K-Kim," his voice was weak but he was conscious. Ron coughed up blood.
"He is okay," Hoshi said but Hirotaka was shaking his head.
"No. He is still gravely injured. Miss Tique used a pressure point to revitalize Ron so that he would wake up. Do not let yourself be fooled. Awake as he is now, he is in extreme pain."
"I can fix that." Miss Tique touched another point in Ron's head. Ron convulsed moments later but he was not in agony. He let out a cry of pleasure as his battered body relaxed. "I enticed his brain to release a trace of endorphins into his bloodstream. All the pain is gone, replaced by a sense of absolute bliss." She smiled over at Kim. "With my knowledge of the human body and the way it works I can help your friend activate his body's natural healing abilities. There will be no need for medical science. In just a few short hours, his body will have completely recovered. His wounds. Gone. As good as new by the time you return home to America."
Ron was taking deep, panting breaths. His lungs gasped great gulps of air as the euphoria wore off. When he opened up his one good eye again, he seemed livelier. His head did not wobble and became relaxed. Ron was able to hold it up without any pained grunts. "KP? Where are we?" He suddenly noticed Miss Tique standing next to him. Her gentle curves were only an inch away from his face. Ron's eye widened. "Dude. I this heaven?"
Hirotaka could not help but chuckle despite their circumstance. Hoshi rolled her eyes. Kim fumed. "Ron! We're prisoners and that lady's working for Saito."
"Don't forget to mention we're inside a torture chamber," Hoshi added.
"A what?!" Ron exclaimed.
"Saito wants Miss Matrix over there to pry some information out of us. She woke you up using pressure points along your face." Hoshi eyed Miss Tique. "And I take it she can do more than provide you with innate orgasms with those fingers."
The former Interpol agent just smiled. "You are very perceptive, Mifune-san." She placed one finger behind Ron's neck. "I am well-versed in the ancient Chinese Art of pressure point manipulation. It is amazing what one can do when you," Ron suddenly stiffened but made no noise. "Put your finger on it." When she released him, Ron collapsed against the chair, gasping.
"KP…that was…incredible." He actually smiled.
"Do me next," Hiro pleaded.
"Dude…" Ron mellowed.
Kim and Hoshi exchanged un-amused looks. Their faces said it all.
Miss Tique smiled. "I will get to you in a moment, Sakaguchi-san. Right now I want to stress a point. Quite literally." She pressed something behind Ronald and this time his face contorted in absolute anguish. His scream took out all the mirth in the room. "With but a flick of my finger, I can induce divine pleasure or excruciating agony. I can have your body tear itself apart from the inside out. I can make your heart slow to a stop or even burst at the seams. The process is quite time-consuming but the result is always the same." She switched her tactics and had Ron smiling again, though this was involuntary. "Happiness." Ron cried. "Sadness." He laughed. "Delight." He trembled. "Fear."
Ron fell into his seat. "No…more…please."
"Stop it! Can't you see you're torturing him?" Kim said.
"I believe that is the point, Kim." Hirotaka was now not so eager to experience the woman's delicate fingers.
"Hirotaka is correct. Now this can go along smoothly, in which you reveal to me everything you know about our operations, who you are working for and where they are located, or I show you just how surgical these digits can be. The body is my plaything and I have a nasty habit of breaking my toys, if you catch my meaning."
Yori sat up as Takashi exited the room. He pulled off a set of gloves which she noticed had a trace of blood on them, wiping his forehead with his handkerchief, and sighing all the way.
"Takashi?" She asked when she stood up from the chair beside the medical room.
"I'm not a doctor," he began. "But I managed to stabilize him. He was hurt pretty bad, Yori. If we hadn't gotten to him when we did I don't think he would have made it."
"But he is going to make it, isn't he?"
"I believe so. He's weak but he should make a full recovery."
"If you want." Takashi opened the door and allowed Yori entry. Inside was a small room filled with medical equipment. Robotic arms attached to the walls and ceiling buzzed about on little ramps that provided access to every part of the room. Some were stacking supplies over on the corner while others neatly arranged vials, microscopes, and medicine bottles onto a cabinet beside a computer desk. A large white curtain partitioned off a part of the room from the rest. Medical beds, three in all, were arranged to one side. Yori guessed there was a fourth behind the curtain. She opened it.
A heart monitor signified that the molerat's pulse was weak but steady. She found him cradled atop a pillow, a hand towel substituted in place of a blanket. In other circumstances this would all seem rather comical had it been a TV show, but Yori was not smiling. Rufus-san was not just any molerat. He had the heart of a warrior. Besides Ron Stoppable and Monkey Fist, he was the only one to have acquired the Mystic Monkey Magic that was the basis of Tai Shing Pek Kwuar. He was very intelligent, smarter than most people and a loyal companion. One could search for years and never find a more reliable ally than Rufus.
She peeked over his little head. "Rufus-san."
His tiny peepers opened up. Black as coal, they were beautiful. "Yori."
"I am pleased you are okay, little warrior."
He nodded his head in appreciation.
Takashi appeared beside her and looked down at him.
"Rufus-san. This is Takashi. My brother." She made room for him to see. "It is thanks to his efforts that you are still with us."
"The robots did all the work. I just supervised."
"But it was you who built the robots and implanted them with all the information they would need to save Rufus-san. Do not downplay your part in this. You are a hero."
Takashi turned away from her and Rufus. "I'm just good with machines."
Takashi turned back with a start. "I didn't know your friend spoke Japanese."
"Rufus-san has many talents. I'm surprised you're not more impressed by his ability to speak."
"After all the things I've seen not much surprises me anymore, Yori. But your friend is welcome. It was my privilege." He bowed his head to Rufus.
"Don't you mean your honor?"
Takashi looked away. "I thought you said I had no honor."
Now it was Yori who could not look at him. "I am sorry, brother. I was angry. I did not mean what I said."
"I should have been honest with you. We should have been honest. I am so sorry. Yusuke and I have been living with secrets for so long that it's all we know. I promise we will make it up to you. From this moment on, no more lies."
"I believe you." She looked back. "I trust you."
Takashi smiled. "Thanks, sis."
"Aw." Rufus cooed. They both chuckled at his expression.
Takashi quickly became serious. "But there is something I do not understand. What did you mean when you said that Hoshi knew everything? Do you think she is working for Saito?"
"No. I believe she is, how do you say, a double agent?"
"So she's working for someone else? Someone we don't know?"
"I am not completely sure," she admitted, leaning against the bed but far enough to give Rufus breathing room. "That is why I must confront her. Only then can I put my fears to rest."
"Your fears? You think Hoshi meant to do you harm?"
"I have spent little time with her, but in that time I did not sense any malice towards us. However, I always suspected she had ulterior motives. Whether they conflicted with my own, I cannot say. Only Hoshi can give me the answers I seek." She looked at him. "Tell me. When Hoshi met with us in Nagasaki, what did she tell you?"
"She said she was on a mission. Hoshi does work for others now and then so we didn't think it peculiar. I was still trying to figure out a way to get in contact with you, but when I realized it was you at the airport and not some other ninja, I thought we lucked out."
"You did not think it suspicious?"
"Had it been any other ninja, maybe. But Hoshi never steered us wrong before. She always came through when we needed her. She did not give us specifics on the job so when she asked that I watch her back that's exactly what I did. I almost fell out of my chair when she revealed who you were. It seemed too good to be true."
"Yeah. I figured that now. After hearing about dad, then having you walk back into our lives, it all seemed too coincidental. But if what you say about Hoshi it true, then you're not the only one she fooled. She had me so bogged down in mission procedures trying to help you guys uncover the mystery of dad's whereabouts that I never considered the possibility that I was being used." He crossed his stubby arms. "For all we know she's the mastermind behind the whole operation."
"Doubtful. While she is very cunning, she lacks the purpose to do this by herself. Only Hoshi can give us the answers we seek. We find her, we find the man behind the curtain."
The curtain pulled back to reveal Yusuke. His sudden appearance made both brother and sister jump in surprise.
"Can I be a part of this make up circle?"
"Or not." He stepped back. "By the way, we've got something on those friends of yours, Yori. Seems they're on a ship bound for a flotilla off the coast."
"When?" She asked.
"Just minutes ago."
"How long were you standing there?" Takashi asked.
"And you waited this long to tell us?" Yori asked.
He shrugged. "I didn't want to disturb that tender moment."
"I've got the ship prepped and ready. All we're waiting is for you to suit up." His words were directed at Yori. She turned to Takashi for clarification on the matter.
"I've been working on a prototype suit based off Yusuke's design. I was going to give it to Hoshi as thanks for all her help but seeing as she's not here,"
"And you are," Yusuke inserted.
"It's pretty much a no-brainer."
"A battle suit…for me?"
"And one of a kind," Yusuke winked.
Takashi waved his hand. "Actually it's based off an earlier model. See I didn't exactly have a female frame to try it on in the beginning so I restarted the project and I think I came up with an applicable design. It's state of the art. Untested, but no time like the present, right?"
"Three suits. Does that mean there is one for Kimiko?"
"See for yourself." All eyes turned to the doorway. Kimiko was outfitted in the original model Takashi had designed. Much like Yusuke, her suit covered her body completely with the exception of the eyes—a narrow slit along the mask allowing her to see. Plates of durasteel armor, modified to allow freedom of movement but still providing protection, covered her joints, shoulders, breasts and groin. Just above the wrists were three sharp blades which looked like they could be extended and retracted for close-quarter combat. Kimiko's powerful legs accentuated how easy it was to move and she did not make a sound as she stepped through the door. The entire suit was made from a durable substance which Yori was unfamiliar with. The only other major difference was that instead of green, Kimiko's suit was dark red, almost the color of blood—somehow fitting.
She posed for them, one hand on her waist. "Not bad huh?"
She glared at Yori. "Adequate?" The mask augmented her voice to sound robotic. "It's me!"
"Glad you like it. I hoped it would fit," Takashi said. "Well, Yori. Shall we get you suited into yours?"
"Um…okay." She was gently nudged by her brother. "But what of Rufus-san?"
"I'll look after him. Someone has to hold down the fort while you guys save the world."
The ship was primed and ready for takeoff. Takashi positioned himself in front of the main computer screen with three keyboards forming a semi-circle around him. Behind him, Yusuke and Kimiko were looking over their equipment and doing final checkups on their suits.
"How does this work again?" Kimiko asked about her wrist-blades.
"Tiny sensors in the suit respond to your muscles. Just flex them like you were holding a weapon and they will lash out."
Following Yusuke's instruction, Kimiko manipulated the muscles in her wrists until the blades shot out. They extended a good two feet, more than enough to take off a man's head. "Nice." She loosened her muscles and the blades snapped back in. "Anything else I should know?"
"That suit is made out of an experimental alloy I've been concocting for the past three years," Takashi explained. "It can stop a knife and even reflect bullets. But if someone aims a rocket launcher at you I'd get out of the way in a hurry. Also, you're not invulnerable to mines, heavy projectiles, or large pieces of shrapnel. The suit can withstand temperatures up to eight-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Since you don't have a built-in temperature gauge I suggest you avoid fire altogether."
"That's nice. But what I am more curious about what can I do."
"Besides the blades which can cut through nearly any man-made substance? Your speed and strength are enhanced. Your reflexes are near super human. There's a small shield build into your left wrist and a cybernetic knife that's camouflaged into your right thigh. That suit was built with close-quarter combat in mind. I am confidant it will accommodate your fighting style , each of your masks has a microscopic radio built into the frame so you can communicate with me and with one another at all times. The signals stimulate the tiny bones in your ears. Only the three of you will be able to hear it so a sudden radio transmission won't alert any nearby enemies."
Kimiko raised her left hand where a shield "fanned" itself into existence. It was wide enough for her to hide her upper body behind though light so that it weighed almost nothing. She reached around to pull out the knife that was invisible to the naked eye. Only when her fingers caressed the hilt did it finally appear. Twelve inches in length, it was very well-balanced. Kimiko tested it out. "Impressive. It's like this suit was made for me."
"To be fair, it's designed to fit just about anyone. I had a woman's body in mind when I started to make it but you're not that much bigger than Yori or Hoshi so it easily accommodated you."
Putting the knife back, it magnetized to her thigh and vanished. "Sure could have used this back in Naha City."
"What happened in Naha City?" Yusuke asked her.
To which she promptly replied. "None of your business."
"Hey come on. We're all on the same team."
"Ugh. I should have let those punks beat you to death on the side of the ride and moved on."
To that, Yusuke blew her a kiss.
Takashi went over some last-minute preparations. "Okay. Everything is all set. Remember that while those suits make you dangerous, you're still human and those are robots you'll be facing. Unlike you, they don't feel pain and they never get tired. You're ninja. Act like it. Use stealth to your advantage and avoid combat unless absolutely necessary."
"Yes general," Yusuke joked with a mocking salute.
"Plans always go astray, Takashi. We'll try to keep our heads down but when the shit hits the fan, and it will, we'll do what survivors do best."
"What's that, Kimiko?"
Yusuke and Kimiko said it at once. "Improvise."
"Well just don't improvise yourself into an early grave. It's been hell trying to get all of us back together. This time I want the clan to stay together."
Kimiko extended her wrist blade. "I don't plan on dying anytime soon."
"Nor do I."
If ever there was a dramatic pause it was now. Standing just beneath the craft that would take them to their final battle, a kunoichi stood silhouetted against the bright lighting. The suit was sleek. Form-fitting but with the same armor plating as its two counterparts. There were almost no discernable features along its seamless surface but this thing was a weapon and the person underneath made it the deadliest in the bunch. She appeared more an android than a person—her face covered by a polished plate of blue steel. The armor was blue like the tranquil water which when angered can become a raging flood.
The front of the mask melted away, revealing the smiling face of a beautiful, tanned, teenaged girl.
"Whoa…" Takashi was speechless.
Yusuke gave her thumbs up.
Damn, Kimiko thought, I am so being shown off right now it's not funny.
Yori looked more ready for this than she had been for anything in her young life. Now more than ever, she felt like the warrior within—and what is a warrior without a war to fight?