The tanker was but one of a hundred ships. Its deck was patrolled by armed men, both Yakuza and mercenary. A solemn atmosphere had taken root over the entire ship and the rest of the fleet, a silent armada heading into the heart of darkness several miles off the coast of Japan. Several of the men appeared anxious.
They were told very little but were expected to perform at their very best in the coming fight. These men, some loyal by tradition, others swearing fealty only to the power of money, were each and every one, scared. The unknown was terrifying. It always is. It always will be.
From out of the shadows of the night, a vague image took root. It was invisible save for a slight distortion in the air hinting at its presence. Added to the sheer darkness of the moonless sky, the men on the ship were unable to make it out. Their attention was drawn completely to the set of billowing clouds in the distance—their destination.
Beneath the invisible craft snaked three equally indiscernible forms. Quick and agile, they moved like ghosts once they hit the deck. A passing Yakuza looked one straight in the face without knowing it was there. If he could have only seen the smile emanating from behind the mask, he'd have known how quickly he had come to meeting his ancestors.
The ghosts kept to the shadows, bobbing and weaving between sentries in a game of cat and mouse…except these mice were packing some serious gear. Add to that their incredible stealth and they were not there at all.
They were the air. They were the wind. They were kamikaze.
The leader of this divine retribution signaled for her comrades to halt. They had just reached a T section where a Yakuza was patrolling with a guard dog. The Doberman's ears went up at that moment.
Using a series of unseen signals, the leader ordered her team to take evasive action just as the Yakuza, following his canine companion's sharp nose, turned the corner. There was nothing there. At the other end of the T he spotted one of his fellows approaching with a guard dog of his own. The two dogs sniffed the air for several seconds, eventually boring the guards who then pulled them in the opposite directions.
The intruders had taken to the series of loading crates stacked meters high. They easily traversed the gaps without any effort whatsoever. Finally, they reached the end of the road. The ship's bridge loomed over them—twin spotlights casting dangerous shadows over the night. More guards patrolled the four levels leading up to the bridge. That was not their target—not yet anyway. One by one, they each leaped down from the crates and made for the wall.
A Yakuza strolled by them packing a customized HK-47 assault rifle. They waited for him to pass before moving on to the nearest hatch. Using a complicated series of listening devices installed into her fingertips, the leader made sure the other side was clear before giving her companion the go-ahead. He opened the door in short order and let the others go inside first before he joined them. That same guard appeared by the door just seconds after it was closed shut and he was none the wiser.
Inside, the trio disengaged their stealth systems and became corporeal once again. They looked like cybernetic ninjas in different colors. The leader, a female in a blue suit, disengaged her helmet's visor camo so that her face was visible. "Good work. Our infiltration was a success."
"Too easy," said the second female, this one in the red suit.
Their only male companion was wearing green, and he scoffed at what he thought was her obvious bravado. "You think everything's too easy. I should think Japan's best assassin would have learned some humility by now."
She glared at him. "I mean it's all a trap, dumbass! Saito's baiting us and we're falling right into it."
"Of course I'd know. I've been fighting him for the past eighteen years. I know how he thinks." She regarded the younger woman. "I'd think with what happened at Nakasumi Tower, you'd have a greater understanding of the man."
"As I recall, it was you, not Saito, who sent me into that trap in the first place."
"Snap!" The man chuckled, earning him a death glare from the red woman.
"What I'm saying is we should try a different approach."
"We have discussed this, Kimiko. We are not leaving my friends to suffer any more than they already have."
Kimiko sighed. She raised a hand to scratch her head by when she realized the visor was in the way, she settled for stretching out her neck muscles. "Yori, I know you don't want to consider this, but they may already be dead. Saito's not one for restraint when it comes to getting what he wants."
"Forgive me, Kimiko, but you do not know him as well as you think. You have never been captured by him. You never met the man face to face. I have. Saito is above all a manipulator. He uses people. My friends are no more than devices to lure me here."
"Which he has done, by the way."
"True. But I have you with me. And you, Yusuke." She touched the side of her head. "And let's not forget my younger, older brother, Takashi."
"I've been trying to," Kimiko muttered.
"I heard that. I put a lot of love into that suit and this is the thanks I get?" His voice came out loud and clear to the three ninja, though only they would be able to hear him given that the receiver installed into the helmets stimulated the small bones in their ears.
"We shouldn't linger," Yusuke warned.
Yori nodded. "Right. We need to find them and bring them back to the Kurunai." That was the name of their new stealth ship. It was named in her honor.
"Takashi, download schematics."
Yori's helmet visor came alive and a tiny map appeared in her field of vision. There were three yellow blips standing in a one-dimensional hallway. "Three dimensions, please." The map morphed into a three-dimensional map, allowing for a more accurate readout of the hallway, the adjacent halls, and the levels above and below it. It also showed numerous red dots.
"Lot of bad guys," Yusuke commented.
"We should be able to sneak by them easily enough." Yori studied the map in greater detail. She was looking for one place in particular. "I believe I have found them. Five floors down. See the red dot?"
"The one standing all alone in that one room?" Kimiko surmised her way of thinking.
"And where our tracking signal is emanating from? Yeah. I see it."
Yori shut off the map. "Then let us be off." The visor blurred and she reactivated her stealth capability. Her companions followed suit and soon all they were off to the lower levels.
Saito was sitting in deep meditation. He could sense the encroaching darkness, the ever present thick of coming doom. He was smiling deep down inside. Rarely in the history of Japan or any other nation has one man been so sure of himself in the face of certain death. He was confidant in his ability to win this battle. The army he had built was merely a diversion while he struck at the heart. Now all that remained was the calm before the storm.
That saying took on a more literal sense as the clouds flashed overhead. He had a perfect view of the battlefield from his point on the command bridge. All around him personnel went back and forth between their stations in perfect, silent synchronization. To Saito's side, on the right, sitting in a diminutive posture, was Yo-Yo. The little girl was petting her ragged doll—the tiny doppelganger of herself—her mind lost to the world. Saito could feel the apprehension in her spirit. She did not fear what was about to happen, but was anxious to get it done. This girl, this tiny girl, so much like him. So thirsty for blood.
To his left, ever at attention, stood Kikyu. The femme fatale appeared a statue in the dim red lighting of the bridge although she was fully aware of everything transpiring in the bridge, the ship, and beyond. Her consciousness nearly matched that of Saito's and from time to time he could feel her mind butting against his as they probed the world outside this metal shell. She was formidable in more ways than one. She was also attractive. Saito allowed himself to consider other uses for Kikyu at the conclusion of this endeavor.
And yet, despite having his two most powerful warriors at his side, Saito felt vulnerable. He was no slouch in combat, but he was only a man. The next few hours would see him pit his mortality against immortals in a battle that will decide the fate of the world. His one chance at total victory would not be through strength of arms, he knew, but on finding a way to exploit his enemy's weakness. He had all the tools at his disposal. A warrior's true test was to know which ones to use and at the right times.
Sitting on a dais, his legs tucked underneath him, Saito's back was rigid and his mind shut in absolute concentration. He was preparing his mind, body, and spirit for the greatest challenge of his life. All those years in servitude to weak men…he spitted on their graves, figuratively and literally.
The darkness grew closer. It was time.
The bridge door slid open and Saito knew who it was before he opened his mouth. "Gillian Hunt," he spoke the name with amusement. "You seem troubled."
The red-haired daredevil, his flying board strapped to his back, lowered his head in a bow. "Saito-sama. I'm sorry to intrude but…"
"You are having second thoughts."
"N-No, sir! I just…"
"Indecision does not become you, Mister Hunt. I am paying an exuberant fee for your services. So far you have served me well, but I will not hesitate to terminate your contract if I feel you are no longer up to the task."
"I am here to serve, Saito-sama."
Lies, he thought. Men like Gillian respected only one thing: money. That and he loved the challenge. Gillian Hunt was a thrill seeker. Performing death-defying tricks was his way of life and reason for living. How small-minded the small-minded truly are.
"You are restless. Do not worry. You will get your thrills in the coming battle. In fact, I'd say you will soon have more thrills than you know what to do with, Mister Hunt."
The young man looked up. "Y-You sent for me?"
"Indeed." Saito opened his eyes. "It appears we have intruders within the tanker. I want you to take Red Cochrane and that obnoxious little boy, Fukushima, and take care of them."
"The tanker?" His eyes widened. "You mean…."
Saito could feel him smile.
"As you command, Saito-sama." Gillian bowed and rushed out the door. His youthfulness was rather charming, but childish. Still, one could not argue with results. With that out of the way, Saito looked straight out the window where the clouds were almost upon them. "Radio the captains. Have them prepare their squadrons for the first wave. In the meantime, Yo-Yo," the little girl looked his way. "I have a special project for you."
Hoshi was dizzy. Her vision was blurred. What she could remember was painful jolts that rocked her mind down to her basest brain cells. Now all she could do was focus and try to figure out a way out of this.
Easier said than done considering their predicament. Tied to a metal chair, drenched in sweat, blood coming from her nose and ears, Hoshi was in no condition to perform a Japanese take on Prison Break. Her friends weren't doing too well either. Hirotaka had passed out from the latest session with the devil lady who was currently working on Kim Possible. Ron was the worst for wear having taken that beating from his former, and extremely better, classmate Fukushima who had pounded his white face into a pink one. Miss Tique had worked on him before, thinking that seeing him tortured would get Kim Possible to spill the beans on whatever it is she knew about Saito's operation.
Sadly, Miss Possible did break. While she may have been a strong woman, she was still just a teenager living the good life in the States. She never experienced a situation where she was completely helpless and at the mercy of the mistress of malign treatment.
She did some work on Hirotaka after that. Maybe she thought the girls would be weaker—Kim broke after hearing only a few of Ron's screams—and Hoshi cringed at the sound of Hirotaka. Still, she held her breath. She liked Hiro and the gods know she didn't want to see him hurt, but she couldn't break. She held on, biting through the sounds of his pain.
Then Hoshi cried.
The pain of not being able to help him was worse than anything Miss Tique could have done to her. And done she did. When Hirotaka passed out from pain, Miss Tique went to her last. The woman knew every pressure point in the human body, and the simplest touch sent waves of pain coursing through her body. Hoshi felt like her head wanted to explode—a part of her wished it did. That way she could die with her secrets.
Either the lady got bored with her or decided to leave her for later for she went to work on Kim. Her hands were grabbing Kim's head on either side, fingers digging, forcing Kim's eyes open for so long they began to tear freely. Her eyes were turning red as numerous blood vessels began to pop.
And through it all, Miss Tique was smiling.
She did not hear Hoshi for she was too busy reveling in Kim's wails.
There was a knock on the door. "Go away," Miss Tique ordered.
The knock came again and Miss Tique was forced to stop. Kim coughed and bowled over. She hung there and did not sit back up. She just about had it.
Miss Tique approached the door. "Go away. I'll have Saito's information shortly." She paused. "Oh bother, don't tell me you're the thugs that don't understand a word of English." She knew Saito had some English-speaking men in his ranks, but that was mainly mercenaries. His Yakuza minions were almost entirely Japanese and their English was about as fluent as her Danish.
"All right! All right! You bloody baboons, no need to," A green hand burst through the door and grabbed her by the neck. Miss Tique choked. She tried to release herself but the grip was superhuman. Then without time to blink, the hand slammed her face into the steel door, knocking her out cold. She hit the ground with a thud.
"Dammit, Yusuke! What the hell's the matter with you?"
"She was taking too long." The metal hand grabbed the release hatch and pulled. The door swung wide to allow the three ninja access to the room. Yusuke admired his handy work. "She's pretty cute."
"So not your type," Kimiko strode by him, offering the girl a look of distaste.
"And what is? You?"
She turned on him with a fist. "Yeah. I'm you're type of poison. Care to try me out?"
"No!" Yori rushed to her friends. "Hiro-chan! Ron-chan! Kim…" she covered her mouth.
"Nice to see you too, Yori," Hoshi's weak voice came from her slouching head.
Yori looked to her with a mixture of relief and anger. "Hoshi." She ripped off her restraints rather roughly. Hoshi cried out but Yori grabbed her by the chin. "What happened here? Who was that woman?"
"Calls herself Miss Tique. She used some kind of pressure point technique to get us to talk. Possible told her everything she knew about Saito's plans. Then she went to work on Hiro. That hurts by the way."
"I am…sorry." Yori let her go. "And she did nothing to you?"
"No. I'm just bleeding out of my ears and nose because I'm so happy to see you. Geez, Yori. What's with the cold shoulder all of a sudden?"
Yori did not answer.
"Um…that blonde kid doesn't look too good," Kimiko pointed out as she looked at Ron.
Yori went to him next. "Ron-chan. Please wake up. It's me, Yori!" Ron was still and Yori touched his head ever so lightly. She saw him wince in pain and she pulled back. Whatever that woman did to him, it appeared Ron would not be waking up any time soon. "He needs medical attention."
"We all do," Hoshi tried to stand up but fell back on her chair—her head still woozy. Yusuke was there to steady her less she fall right out of the chair. "I'm fine," she lied, and brushed his hands away. "That's some nice laundry you got there, Yori. Where'd you get it? Ninjas R' Us?"
"Your taste in humor is as poor as its timing, Hoshi. I would appreciate it if you did not talk for the remainder of the evening."
Hoshi looked flabbergasted. "What crawled up your ass?" But when Yori glared at her, those warm dark eyes as cold as black fire, the snippy ninja for hire had no choice but to hold her tongue. Yori never looked at her that way before. She was really pissed off about something. Hoshi kind of figured what it was about.
Yori had Kimiko and Yusuke free Hirotaka and Kim respectively. Her attention remained on Ronald and she wished she had a wet rag to wash away the blood from his face. One look at him and she knew this was not the handy work of a trained interrogator, but of continued bludgeoning. Someone had nearly beaten Ron to a pulp in their last encounter. She guessed it had something to do with that fight down in the secret underground timeshare.
It must have been some battle, but Yori was sure Ron had given as good as he got. At least he would survive this trauma, which is more than she can say for the one who did this to him.
There was a slight tremble of the ship. The light flickered on and off for several seconds. "What was that?" asked Yusuke. "Did we hit something?"
"Sounded more like something hit us." Kimiko's survival instincts kicked in. "We're under attack."
"Then the final battle has begun. Let us get my friends to the Kurunai and then we will deal with Saito." She hoisted one of Ron's arms around her neck and lifted him off his feet. Barely conscious, Ron was nothing but dead weight, but Yori's battle suit gave her the strength to easily carry him without any difficulty.
"Kim…." Ron's voice was barely audible. Yori heard this. Even near death Kim Possible was on his lips. A twinge of something she dare not define gripped her at that moment. As much as she cared for Ron, she knew there could not, would not be anything between them. Perhaps this was a part of the journey Master Sensei told her about. Growing up was not just about gaining experience but knowing which part of you to leave behind. Ron meant so much to her, but she had to let him go.
Let him go.
"You okay?" Yusuke saw she was in deep thought.
"I am…fine. Let's just hurry."
Yusuke prepared to carry Hirotaka maiden style. He stopped when the seemingly dead man's hand grabbed his arm. "Do not bother yourself. I can walk."
"I knew you would come, Yori. But as Hoshi would say, your timing stinks."
"That's not how I would say it." Hoshi realized she'd broken her silent promise not to talk but Yori did not seem displeased. Instead, she was elated that her lifelong friend was okay. She didn't even mind the barb.
"Hirotaka, are you,"
"Ready to fight. Though I may not look it." He slowly lifted his head, showing her the strange markings Miss Tique had left on his handsome face. "But I'm actually in a great deal of pain."
"Sounds like we could use you then. The name's Yusuke. I'm Yori's brother." He bowed respectfully. "It's good to finally meet you, Hirotaka-san."
Hiro slowly got to his feet. He managed to stand and bow without tumbling over. "Pleasure." He noticed Kimiko leaning over to assist Kim. Even in that robotic suit of hers, the lines of her curves were still very much a sight to behold. "I sincerely hope that you do not have a sister, Yori. Otherwise," he smiled. "I fear I am in very big trouble."
Kimiko hoisted Kim on her back. "I take it this is Hirotaka?"
Yori frowned. "In the flesh."
"He's exactly as you said he'd be."
"Oh. And how is that?" He looked at Yori. "Yori?"
"A stuck up, pompous, pretty boy with an unhealthy dose of narcissism." Kimiko said that and walked into the hallway. "Let's get a move on."
Hirotaka was smiling. "Am I now?"
Yori shrugged. "Well I didn't exactly put it in those words but you get the idea. You're not offended, are you?"
"Offended? You think I'm a pretty boy. I believe your affection for me has grown in my absence."
Yori frowned. "Pig. Yusuke if you would do me a favor." She motioned for him to take Ron. "Take them to the Kurunai. We will be with you shortly."
"You're the boss." Yusuke carried Ron in the same manner as Kimiko did Kim and followed her out. Hoshi looked from Yori to Hirotaka. The former seemed to send a silent message to Hiro with her eyes and when the man nodded he headed for the exit. Alone, Yori went to close the door.
Hoshi's face did not waver.
The kunoichi picked up the unconscious Miss Tique and dragged her to a chair where she was promptly tied up. Then, Yori turned to face Hoshi. The two of them stared the other one down.
"Well?" Hoshi began. "What do you want to know?"
"Everything you do."
"I know a lot things. We're going to be here all night." The ship trembled again. The lights flickered.
"I do not think this vessel will last that long." She approached Hoshi with no hostile intent, but was wary of her making a break for it, so Yori positioned herself between the door and her. "There is a war going on outside, Hoshi. It is a war Saito has been planning for some time. I want to know why."
"What makes you think I…"
"Do not insult me!" She spat. Her face hardened and for a moment, Hoshi looked worried. "Since this mission began, I have been lied to by almost everyone. Saito, my brothers, Kimiko, and to be honest I did not fully trust in you. But I gave you the benefit of the doubt. Do you know why?"
"Because you think I'm cute?"
Yori wasn't laughing. "Because I wanted to. Against all my inhibitions, against all my training I wanted to believe that you were a good and honest woman. Things were not easy for you at Yamanouchi and I can't imagine they were any easier when you left." She saw Hoshi raise an eyebrow. "Do not mistake my wishes for sympathy. You are too gifted to warrant pity."
She let her continue.
"As kunoichi, I can understand the need for secrecy. Too many times I have been bound by a code of silence that prevents me from speaking to even my closest friends. I do not despise you. I do not even hate you. But Hoshi…why?" Yori's eyes narrowed. "Why did you not just ask for my help?"
Hoshi met her glare with a smug. "Ask for help? Ninja please." She strutted around the room with her arms crossed. "No one ever helped me. Why should I offer the courtesy to anyone else. If anything, looking after myself has made me stronger. Smarter. The most valuable lessons in life I learned the hard way. Consider this another part of your education. The big, bad world doesn't offer any second chances, Yori. Out here," she pointed down. "You either know the score or someone's chalking up your body on a scoreboard. Would you have put your little mission on hold to help me with mine? You ninja are all about priorities—the needs of the many and all that garbage."
She rubbed the bridge of her nose. "But what about the needs of the few? What about the rest of us who don't 'fit in' with the status quo? Are we to just blindly follow the crowd because everyone else thinks we should?"
"Did you prepare this speech or are you actually going to get to the point?"
"I don't expect you to understand." Hoshi was smiling weakly. "You're Yamanouchi's top student. You were always Sensei's favorite. It wouldn't surprise me if you're one day running the entire school. People look up to you. They respect you. They honor you. Me? Tch! I'm just some foul-mouthed half-breed with a funny accent."
Yori eyed her suspiciously. "You're stalling."
"I'm in no hurry." Another tremor shook the room. "But I think you have more important things to do than interrogate me."
"I want answers."
"And if I refuse?" Her voice was ripe with challenge.
Yori's eyes became slits. "You will not refuse."
"Sorry. But not all bodies on this ship are empty vessels." An even greater explosion rocked the ship and this time the light bulb went out altogether. Yori was distracted long enough by her last words that when the bulb finally came back on, Hoshi was gone.
"Dammit!" Yori looked around. The door was slightly ajar and she knew that somehow, Hoshi managed to elude her. Even weak and without equipment she still managed to escape. Either she was that good, or Yori still had a great deal to learn. She hoped it was the latter.
From out of the corner of her eye, she saw something. Stepping up, Yori grabbed the woman by the face and squeezed until her eyes popped open. "Listen to me. Whatever you have done to my friends will pale in comparison to what Saito does to you when he learns of your failure." Miss Tique squirmed in her grasp but Yori only tightened it. "If I were you I would find a way off this vessel and leave Japan, never to return. I will give you that chance, but first," another squeeze had her eyes watering. "I want to know what Saito's plans are. You will tell me everything"
Miss Tique tried to speak but her voice was drowned out by an even bigger explosion. This one sounded close. "That sounded close," Yori said. "You could drown, you know. Or you perish in a ball of fire. I have this suit on. My chances of surviving either option are far greater than your own. For your sake, I suggest you cooperate. Anything you say can only improve your chances."
Kimiko poked her head around a corner and watched a group of Yakuza speed down the opposing hallway. She waited a few moments before giving her cohorts the all clear. Kim proved to be as light as feather, but she could chalk that up to her suit's added strength. Kimiko felt nearly invincible in this getup. She wondered if Takashi would allow her to keep it. It could prove mighty handy for the tasks she had in mind. When this was all over, when Saito's blood stained the soles of her boots, there was a whole list of people she had to pay back for injustices done.
"Slow down." She heard Yusuke tell her.
"If that boyfriend of hers can't keep up, that's his problem." She kept moving at her regular pace. Honestly! Since when did she become a babysitter to so many whiny adolescents?
"I am fine, Yusuke-san." Hirotaka did lag behind a bit but he did well to keep up. "And what does she mean by boyfriend?"
"You mean you and my sister are not…"
"Yori? Me? No."
"You don't say." Yusuke and Hiro paused behind Kimiko, peering around another corner.
"Why? Did she talk about me often?" Hiro sounded hopeful.
"She does speak of you highly. As a ninja, I mean. We didn't have much time to catch up before we rescued you so all I know is what I know."
Kimiko nodded and they were on the move again. "And what do you know?" Hiro pressed.
"That she's lucky to have a friend like you. I appreciate everything you've done for my sister. And I want you to know that any friend of Yori's is a friend of mine."
"I am touched. And I accept your friendship. Though if you don't mind me asking, what is your relationship with that Kimiko woman?"
"She's my sparring partner."
"And not your partner?"
Yusuke laughed. "If you want a crack at her, be my guest. But I'm warning you. She has Yori's fighting skills and my temper. Not a good combination."
"I see. Then you have made a move on her before."
"Oh I moved alright. Clear across the dojo, flat on my ass."
Hiro smirked. "So she plays rough."
"Very. Though she has her charms."
Another corner, another lull in the escape.
"Her cheeks puff up whenever she gets angry. She's easily excitable. Don't know how she lasted this long when she can't even control her temper."
"Must run in the Ishimura women. You know Yori was such a hothead back at Yamanouchi. It took her forever to learn the most basic techniques."
"I thought she was a prodigy."
"She was when I got through with her. I taught her patience. Control. Discipline. She'll never admit it, but I'm the reason she became Yamanouchi's top student."
"Is that right."
"Indeed. But she can still be very emotional at times. She tries to hide it behind a wall of ninja training, but I can see it in her eyes. Take the man you're carrying for instance."
"I'd rather you take him."
Hiro chuckled. "What I mean is, she harbors deep feelings for Ron Stoppable, yet he has pledged his heart to Kim Possible. Now Yori may try to act as if their union does not disturb her, but it does. She's one of the most talented ninja to ever wield a blade, but in matters of the heart, I'm afraid Yori's very much a white belt."
"And what do you think about all that?"
"Me?" Hiro thought on it. "I do respect Ron Stoppable. He is…unique in his approach to combat, but far be it from me to question his results. At Yamanouchi he is considered a warrior-hero worthy of notice along the types of Toshimaru, our founder."
"I meant Yori and Ron. Does it bother you knowing she feels for him that way?"
"I understood exactly what you meant. I was simply avoiding the question."
"Than it does bother you."
"A bit," Hiro admitted.
"Then you do have feelings for Yori."
Hirotaka seemed perplexed at the complexities of the question. How does one cope with an attraction that has defined his very being with another person yet is unable to express it?
"I care about her, yes. Yori is…extraordinary. She is the most amazing woman I have ever met."
"But…as much as I feel for her, I must remember that we are both ninja, sworn to uphold a code that has existed for centuries. Ninja do not make good boyfriends. We don't often live long enough to develop relationships. Yori is completely devoted to her training and I…I am just her friend."
"But is that good enough for you?"
"It is good enough for both of us," he said without much emphasis.
"Do you think she might feel the same way for you." He motioned to Ron. "Now that blondie's out of the picture, I mean?"
"I do not think so."
Yusuke turned to him and, with a pat on the shoulder, said, "You may not get out much, but take it from a guy who's been around the block more times than he can count. A woman's heart is a complicated thing. So complicated that even they don't understand it. The best way to get to that heart is to show them yours. Then and only then can she know what she really wants."
"You make it sound so easy."
"I try to simplify things. Life's hard enough without us making it more complicated." Yusuke smiled. "Trust me on this. I think she cares more about you than she lets on."
"You know this after spending only a few hours with her?"
"Of course. I am her brother."
"Boys?" They both looked up to Kimiko. "For a couple of so-called ninja, you seem to have a hard time grasping the concept of silence!" She rasped the last word.
When Kimiko got them moving again, Hirotaka ran beside Yusuke and whispered to him. "So have you ever thought about using that strategy on Kimiko?"
Yusuke only shook his head. "My friend, a woman needs to have a heart for that to work."
"He's planning to kill Fujimori," Miss Tique continued. "And take his power as his own."
"Fujimori?" That was the name of Yori's grandfather, the former head of the Yakuza. "But he's dead."
"No," the woman said. "He isn't. His body may have been destroyed but his spirit lives on."
"Start making sense."
Miss Tique didn't like this. Yori was standing over her like armor-clad executioner with her hand at her throat. The slightest twitch and Yori could easily snap it. Miss Tique didn't think the girl had the heart to murder someone in cold blood but with the way the ship was rocking, it wouldn't take much for Yori to lose her footing and accidentally break her neck. So this is what it's like to be on the other end of the chair, she thought.
"Saito updated me on your last meeting. He told you how Fujimori and the Yakuza helped bring Japan out of the dark ages of the post-war period, right?" Yori nodded. "He used youma technology to reconstruct Japan's shattered infrastructure and to put an end to the food shortages. Then using his connections in the demon world, Fujimori placed several key members in the Japanese Diet. From behind the scenes, Fujimori effectively ran the entire country, controlling its resources, influencing its foreign policies, making it so the people had the highest standard of living on Earth."
"Why go through the trouble?"
"Healthy humans make great hosts. You don't think demons can just stroll onto the mortal plane without a vehicle? That would be like humans traversing the ocean without boats. Eventually you're going to drown. The youma use us as vessels when they walk the human world. They've been doing it for centuries and now with the Japanese population at its peak, Fujimori essentially paved the way for an influx of illegal immigrants. Only customs won't be able to catch them. Demons are even better at staying hidden than ninja. No offense."
"None taken. Continue."
"Imagine," she froze when after another blast rocked the ship. Yori was as motionless as ever, her hand never leaving her jugular. Realizing she dodged yet another bullet, Miss Tique continued. "Imagine having millions of agents on Earth controlling one of the world's most powerful nations with an economy to put most Western nations to shame. You have a highly-educated, well-trained populace with access to some very lucrative markets. With that power base, the youma can and will extend their influence through the rest of the human world. They'll start by putting a few minions in high-ranking positions: senator, prince, prime minister, queen, president, and work their way down. Before you know it, half the United Nations will be under the control of the youma and with the planet's greatest economies under their belt, the rest of the human race will follow."
"So that's it. Saito wants to take control of the world by stealing Fujimori's power."
"You underestimate him." Miss Tique smiled a smile that Yori did not like. "Saito does not want to take over the world. He wants to save it. You may think him an evil man, but let me tell you that Fujimori was a thousand times the demon than Saito is the strategist. Fujimori was a monster. Even the youma were said to have feared him. Had he succeeded in obtaining the power of the youma he'd have devoured every living soul in Japan before moving on to the next unfortunate country. Saito put a stop to all that. Twenty years ago, he led an uprising against Fujimori's regime. The battle was short but costly for both sides, old guard and new."
"So then Fujimori enlisted the aid of the youma," Yori surmised.
"Not exactly. The youma cannot directly interfere in the affairs of the human world. Not yet anyway. They can only advise and influence. They saw the civil war as a way to thin out the ranks, to weaken Fujimori's hold on the country and to make way for Saito's rise to power."
"Why would they want to help Saito? Wouldn't his uprising hinder their plans for Japan?"
Miss Tique smiled. "The youma are far more cunning than anyone can understand. You'd admire them if you knew them like I do."
"You've met youma?"
"I've studied them. I spent hours looking through ancient texts and scrolls. Their kind have played on humanity's dark emotions for centuries. They feed on war and hatred. Violence and prejudice. Men like Fujimori were just pawns they used to further their own ends. Saito didn't trust them. That's why he never looked to the youma for help. In a way that was his greatest advantage during the war, for it enabled him to gain the upper hand. Fujimori was too slow. Saito was dynamic and brutal. The youma seemed to favor Saito's methods over Fujimori, which some believe is why they stopped supporting the old guard."
"This change of fortune made Fujimori desperate. In the final days of the war, he was approached by a renegade youma with a proposition. This youma was no ordinary demon, but a prince of the highest order. By giving it his soul, the Yakuza was effectively under the demon's protection and could not be harmed. But Fujimori did not go into the pact blindly. He knew his days were numbered for even as the war came to an end, he was an old man with not much time left. There was a condition he made before agreeing to the terms of the blood pact. In addition to giving the youma his soul, his mortal body would be bound by his daughter's. So long as she lived, so would he, therefore prolonging his existence on the mortal plane. Fujimori's daughter was young and beautiful. Still, Fujimori was never much of a father to her and her existence was just a formality to cement an alliance with another powerful Yakuza. Overnight, she became his most prized asset."
"The war ended and Saito claimed the leadership of the organization, effectively giving him the run of the entire country. This did not sit well with the old master who spent the better part of his life building up the Yakuza. He spent many years trying to find a way to topple the new regime. He found his answer in a handsome new recruit named Kenji Ishimura."
Yori held her breath.
"Kenji was infatuated with his daughter, Yuriko. They fell in love and in time Fujimori saw a way to turn this to his advantage. After Kenji and Yuriko married, he revealed to him all his darkest secrets, including the blood pact he made with the demon prince. Because he was Yakuza, and because he adhered to the ancient traditions of the name, Kenji's loyalties lay with Fujimori and the old man confided in him all his plans. He wanted them to leave the organization under the guise of starting a new life. Saito could hardly refuse a request from the old master, so he consented. Kenji and Yuriko left the Yakuza, taking with them all their secrets."
"I'm told they lived happily for a time. Fujimori and Saito had spies watching them. They never talked about Fujimori, Saito, or the Yakuza, preferring to live their days as ordinary people. They bought a nice house out in the country and started a family. All the while Saito and Fujimori planned for the inevitable. Saito wanted to sever all ties with the youma for fear of their influence. He knew that would not happen so long as Fujimori remained in power. To assassinate him would only ignite another civil war, so he chose a more subtle approach."
"Eighteen years ago, Saito sent some of his men to meet with Kenji. He knew Fujimori's spies would be watching. Fujimori sent word to the Yamanouchi School for aid."
"Why would Yamanouchi assist the Yakuza?"
"They wouldn't. They'd assist Kenji. He helped the Yamanouchi years ago and they owed him. So when word of Saito's plans reached Fujimori's ears, he had a messenger deliver a warning to the head of Yamanouchi via their secret contacts. Lo and behold, the ninja arrived just in time to stop the Yakuza from taking Kenji. It was all part of the plan. Saito had learned about the blood pact and sent one of his most dangerous agents, an abomination called Brushshogun, to aid in the recovery effort." Another tremor. Miss Tique looked at Yori questioningly as if she should save this interrogation for later.
"Continue." Yori spoke with a cold edge in her voice. This was the moment her life changed forever. She would not leave until she knew everything.
"Saito counted on Yuriko being caught in the crossfire. The blood pact specifically stated that she could not be harmed intentionally, but if an accident were to occur, say the car she was in being slammed against a tree…well you can hardly call that intentional."
Yori felt her blood boil. The way she spoke about her mother's demise, so cold, so uncaring, made her grit her teeth.
"With Yuriko out of the way, Saito was free to deal with Fujimori as he pleased. But the old man was too quick. Before Saito could meet with him, Fujimori took his own life."
"But that doesn't make sense!" Yori screamed, causing Miss Tique to flinch as her hand squeezed her throat. "Why would Fujimori try to protect his daughter if he was planning to kill himself all along?"
Miss Tique gulped and Yori had to force herself to ease her grip on her just a little. "Tell me!"
"It wasn't his daughter he was trying to protect. It was himself. When Saito discovered the deal he made with the youma prince, Fujimori knew he had to act fast. Even with his daughter dead, he knew Saito could not kill him or risk a new power struggle within the organization, but if he were to take his own life the Yakuza would survive and he would take his secrets with him."
"You mean to tell me he gave his life for the organization?"
"Hardly. You see Fujimori had one last card to play, the youma prince. By taking his own life, Fujimori's soul now belonged to the prince. Without his influence and guidance, the Yakuza grew weak and so did the country. Japan's economy hit a rut and went through a gradual decline over the past two decades. Many Yakuza blamed Saito. His popularity waned and his position was no longer secure. Realizing the only way to cement his authority was to do something drastic, he went looking for Fujimori."
"But he's dead," Yori spat.
Miss Tique only shook her head. "I told you only his body is dead. His spirit is very much alive and it's about to make a comeback." The ship shook again.
"You mean to tell me that Saito is fighting Fujimori right now?"
"The youma did not cancel their plans for the human world, only postponed them. With times being as tough as they are, the Japanese people would start losing faith. They'd become depressed. Angry. Resentful. Did you know Japan currently has the largest suicide rate in the world? The people are ripe for the picking by the youma. Japan is still strong enough to remain influential in world affairs, yet is disenfranchised to the point where it is far easier to manipulate. The youma are capitalizing on this. Since Fujimori's death, they have been secretly building a staging point to launch their invasion. We only found out about it recently. The magnitude of dark energy emanating from that place is staggering. We sent people in to investigate. None have returned. Fearing a demonic onslaught, Saito kidnapped the head of Nakasumi Industries and used his company to create an army to fight the youma. The army is only superficial. Its job is to keep the youma occupied while Saito confronts Fujimori."
So that's it, Yori thought. Everything had been leading up to this final confrontation between Saito and Fujimori. Her parents were merely pawns in their game. She was a pawn. But there was still one more thing Yori needed to know. "My f…Kenji Ishimura. Saito has been looking for him all this time because he believes he knows a way to defeat Fujimori once and for all. Unless he somehow acquired Kenji in the past few hours I doubt the situation has changed."
"Saito says we need to attack now. Those were his orders. As for Kenji's whereabouts, who knows?"
Yori closed her eyes. So it looks like her father will remain missing afterall.
"I told you everything I know. Anything else you take up with Saito."
"I think I'll do that." Yori let her go and walked toward the exit.
"Wait! You can't leave me here."
"The thought had occurred to me," she said. "You tortured my friends."
"I was under orders."
"We all take responsibility for our deeds."
"To leave me to die would make you no better than Saito."
Yori's voice was a whisper. "You would lecture me?" She moved so fast that Miss Tique could not follow her. Yori ripped the chair from the floor and tossed Miss Tique out of it. She hit the ground hard and squirmed to get away from the furious kunoichi. Yori grabbed her, turned her around and placed one knee on her chest to stem the oxygen to her head. Gasping, Miss Tique's eyes pled for mercy, but Yori was not moved by her suffering.
She grabbed her chin and forced her to look at her face. "Look at me. This is the face of the woman who will kill you if you ever come near me or any of my friends again. I never want to see you again. I never want to hear from you again. If we're so much as in the same time zone, I will find you and hunt you down. And then I will kill you. Do you understand me?"
Weakly, Miss Tique muttered "yes."
"Good." She removed herself from the terrified woman and left the room. Smoke filled parts of the corridor and Yori knew where she was needed next. Going stealth, she made for the upper levels.
It was like a scene out of an end of days picture. Creatures of all grotesque forms filled the air and the sea. They savaged the human ships below, picking sailor, mercenary, and Yakuza alike off the surface before tearing them apart. Blood splattered the decks. The humans fought with automated weapons but they proved of little use against things which knew no pain.
Helicopters and battleships exchanged fire with the larger creatures. One such beast resembled a giant slug and it devoured an entire ship, crew an all, in one gulp. It opened its mouth to reveal a chasm of teeth and darkness. Several ships and choppers fired everything they had at it. The slug exploded in a gory mess of flesh and teeth.
The fleet was being overwhelmed so that's when the humans unveiled their new army. From the deck of the tanker and others like it, crates opened up to reveal an army of killer fighting machines. Upon activation, the robots took flight or joined the humans on the deck. Their introduction evened the odds and soon the waters ran red, and green, and black, and purple with the blood and oil of countless casualties.
The escapees could hardly believe what they saw.
"Insanity. This is insanity." Hirotaka wondered if he were safer back in Miss Tique's torture chamber. At least there he could die at the hands of a beautiful lady. "We must get out of here."
"That's what I've been telling Yori, but you think she listens to me?" Kimiko led them to the Kurunai which was still in stealth mode off the ship's bow. Yakuza and their robotic allies battled wave after wave of hellish creatures. They traversed a series of mangled body parts, some of which were still moving. Kimiko stepped on an eyeball the size of her fist and almost slipped. "Piece of shit!"
"I know, dumbass!" Kimiko shot back at Yusuke. They had just reached the Kurunai. "I don't think stealth counts for anything anymore. Takashi, lower the cloak."
"You got it."
The ship materialized. Its sleek surface resembled a mirror which was actually a hull built to deflect bullets and lasers. It looked like a three-sided blade with the cockpit being in the middle point. There was no noise as it floated effortlessly above the water. Complete and utter silence. Everything about the ship was designed to match the persona of a ninja.
Kimiko hopped on board, still carrying the wounded Kim. A compartment door slid open without a sound allowing her access to the interior. A bullet ricocheted off the bow and Kimiko froze. Above and behind them, three antagonists had been awaiting their arrival. Red Cochrane had taken the shot at her. He could have shot her head easily but he wanted his prey to know he'd been the one to kill her.
"Y'all ain't thinkin' of leavin' yet are ya?"
"The fun's just begun." Gillian Hunt was flying on his hoverboard.
Fukushima donned his ninja gi but without the mask. He still bore the scars left on his face when Rufus attacked him. "Drop the outsiders and step away from the clichéd, high-tech escape vehicle."
"Fukushima," Hirotaka growled. "I was hoping to see you again."
"Know him?" Yusuke asked.
"He is a traitor."
"Don't recall seein' you folks before," Red motioned at Kimiko and Yusuke. "Looks like we got us some new blood, boys. Pick yer partners."
"I'd rather I finish off the outsider, but seeing as he's in no position to fight thanks to yours truly, I will settle for killing you, Hirotaka." Fukushima leaped off the crate and tackled Hirotaka.
Yusuke cursed as Gillian came at him next. He managed to put Ron safely on the ground before he leaped away, Gillian in hot pursuit.
Meanwhile, Red was taking careful aim at Kimiko. "Drop the lady."
"I'm…okay." Kim spoke up.
"Put me down. Slowly. Don't let him know I'm up."
Kimiko did just that. She quietly laid Kim down on the wing of the ship and turned to face Cochrane. "Ready when you are."
Red took careful aim. Kimiko readied herself. A bullet flew at several feet per second from Red's revolver. Kimiko brought up her left hand, the fan expanding to life just a second before the bullet touched her face. It bounced right off, saving her life.
Red whistled. "Nice. Does that come standard?"
"Shut up!" Kimiko charged off the Kurunai and leapt onto the crate that Red was on. The cowboy chuckled, backed away, and brought up his second revolver. He fired several rounds at her. Kimiko used her shield and her natural agility to block and dodge while she came in close. Once she was within easy reach of the man, Kimiko reached down with her right hand to her thigh. Upon contact, the invisible blade came into focus. She tried to sever his jugular but managed to just graze his chin.
Red hopped backward. "Whew! I like you. You're spunky."
Kimiko kicked and roundhouse kicked, missing Red each time. "You're not half bad, yourself," she said with a smile.
"This is goin' t' be one helluva dance!"
Staring one another from across the crate, fires blazing in the background, demons and robots clashing in the burning sky, Red Cochrane and Kimiko charged right in.
Kim slumped down next to Ron. She gently caressed his battered face. "Ron? Ron, it's me. It's Kim." No answer. "Ron, please be okay. We're going to get out of here. I'll get you home and then I'll buy you all the Nacos you could ever want. Would you like that?"
Ron breathed out a breath.
She fought back her tears. In all their encounters with Drakken, Shego, Monkey Fist, Killigan, or DNAmy, never had she or Ron been injured to this degree. Kim was used to fighting half-wit villains with hair-brained take over the world plots. This Saito was in a league of his own. Kim knew he would not hesitate to kill her or Ron if given half the chance. There'd be no elaborate traps with an obvious means of escape. No simple SHUT DOWN switch with a big label above it. There were no hijinks, shenanigans, or corny one-liners. This was real. This was too real.
Ron was hurt and it was for real this time.
"Hang on, Ron. I'm getting you out of here."
"Need some help?"
Kim looked up. "Hoshi!"
Hoshi helped Kim balance Ron between them and they headed for the open hatch. Once inside, they placed Ron in the back seat where Kim immediately went to applying first aid using the nearby kit. Hoshi shut the door.
"Wait a minute!" Kim said. "They're fighting out there. Aren't you going to help them?"
"They can look after themselves. Right now we're needed elsewhere."
Hoshi took her place at the pilot's seat. "Okay, I'm needed elsewhere." She turned to Kim. "But believe me when I say we're going to help Yori."
"She'll need all the help she can get."
Yori arrived just in the heat of the battle. Of course no one could see her—her stealth system was still activated. Not that anyone would have noticed. Those crewmen who had not yet been killed or severely wounded were fighting for their lives against the hellspawn. Yori could not believe the carnage, but right now she needed to get to her friends.
What she found instead were Yusuke, Kimiko, and Hirotaka battling three of Saito's elite fighters. She watched Kimiko and a man in a cowboy hat exchange quips and blows on one of the empty storage crates. Hirotaka was fighting Fukushima down in the aisles below. Thiers was a battle of pure martial arts. Even from this distance she could see the pure hatred in their eyes for one another.
An explosion caused her to duck as Gillian Hunt came zooming over head. He had Yusuke on the run as he peppered the deck with explosives shaped into tiny metal balls. Yusuke had dodged them so far, but a bomb need not hit you directly to do any damage. He leaped into one of the ramps overlooking the rest of the tanker, performing a half-assed swipe of his sword as Gillian flew in close enough just to taunt him.
"You'll have to do better than that!" Hunt threw another explosive which destroyed the ramp Yusuke had been standing on. Her brother managed to jump up, having the blast propel him upward. Yusuke pulled himself over onto the next level which was right underneath the bridge. Standing up, he activated his stealth ability.
Hunt's eyes widened. "Well that's a new trick." He almost fell as his board as something jumped on. "The hell!" Something punched Gillian and he fell onto one of the crates below. Yori winced as his body hit the metal.
Yusuke deactivated his stealth, standing on Hunt's board with a look of triumph on his face. "Is that good enough for you?"
To Yori's surprise, Gillian stood up. "Not bad," he said. He raised his hand to reveal a metal band on his wrist. "But try this on." With a push of a button, the board went spinning. Yusuke was thrown clear off and through the window of the bridge, startling the captain and his crew.
Hunt had his board fly low enough that he was able to jump back on. Yori watched him fly through the hole Yusuke made in the window. There was a lot of commotion, many men screaming, and several explosions that followed suit. She could swear she heard Yusuke's obscenities overshadowing Gillian's taunts. One crewman leaped out the window and crashed face-first in front of Yori. He did not get back up ever again.
"Madness," Yori said. She deactivated her stealth.
A demon spotted her and moved in for the kill. It was long, worm-like with a maw that encompassed its entire head. It swooped down on long, leathery wings with the intent on devouring the seemingly helpless ninja.
Yori didn't do helpless.
She back-flipped over the creature's snapping jaws and went along for the ride. It was like some bizarre rodeo show as Yori bucked upon the hideous thing. With no bone structure to warrant cramps, the worm-thing reared back its "head" and tried to eat her. Yori extended her arm. Like magic, a paper-thin blade materialized into her hand. In a heartbeat, Yori sliced through the creature's maw like it was paper. Blood spewed forth and it howled as its sliced cheeks flapped in the air.
Not done by a mile, Yori brought the four-foot blade down. She used gravity to slice open the creature's stomach, spilling its entrails all along the tanker. The creature spasmed as it fell, coming to a rest along the bow of the ship. It looked like a deflated balloon animal with its guts cut out, the body deflating with each passing second.
Yori removed herself from the carnage. She looked down at her blade. It was four-feet long, blue, and made of titanium alloy. Her brother spared no expense in preparing her for anything she might need. Though in truth, Yori much preferred her war fans over a sword. She sent a mental signal through her arm to the sword, and it retracted back to pocket size, fittings nearly on her wrist.
Yori took stock of the battle. Her friends seemed to be holding their own but…where was Kim and Ron…and where was Hoshi?
The gods had a strange way of giving you what you wanted. The Kurunai materialized right behind her. Yori turned to find Hoshi at the helm. She was waving. Her voice carried through the intercom to her ears. "Need a ride?"
"Hoshi." Yori did not sound happy to see her.
"Look I know I have a lot of explaining to do, but that woman was wide awake. Did you really want me to spill the beans while one of Saito's top goons was right there listening?"
Yori didn't budge.
"Look there's a lot going on right now. Your Yanks are on board with me and right now I need to be someplace else very fast. So do you."
"I am not abandoning this fight."
"Who said anything about running away? Yori the real fight is dead ahead."
At that, Yori stretched her gaze out to the horizon. There was an island up ahead. From its bowels came all the hellish creatures which plagued Saito's war fleet. A twisted palace of bone and iron that mocked all modern concepts of architecture. "That's where Saito's going," Hoshi continued. "And that's where we'll find Fujimori."
Yori looked at her.
"I will tell you everything, Yori. I promise. It's going to be you and me all the way. We've both been haunted by this. Now we must finish it." She raised her hand. "Look I promise you that if I'm lying you can give me seppuku."
Yori's face blanched. "Seppuku is ritual suicide. You kill yourself."
"Oh I know. Just trying to break the ice between us."
Now she crossed her arms. "It will take much more than bad jokes, Hoshi."
"Then it's settled. Hop on!"
Yori thought about it a moment, figured that at least there was no way Hoshi would be able to escape her aboard a ship heading for the middle of hell, and knew her skills would be better put elsewhere than here. Her friends were all formidable fighters and at least Ron and Kim were safe. Now was the time to strike at the heart of the enemy—she may never get another chance.
Yori leaped onto the ship and joined Hoshi inside. Turning, Hoshi piloted the vessel straight for the demon castle. All bets were off.