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Against the Odds by RIgirl
Against the Odds by RIgirl
Summary: What if Red Impulse were a woman, instead of a man? Inspired by the concept drawings of Roberto Ferrari, who envisioned Red Impulse as a woman, this story chronicles the journey of Kaori Washio from test pilot and single mother to undercover spy and her ultimate transformation into the mysterious Red Impulse.
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Berg Katse, Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Goon, Jinpei, Joe Asakura, Jun, Ken Washio, Kentaro/Red Impulse, Original Character, Phoenix/God Phoenix, Ryu Nakanishi
Genre: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, Tragedy
Story Warnings: Adult Situations, Death, Mild Adult Situations, Mild Language, Mild Sexual References, Mild Violence, Sexual Situations, Suicide, Violence
Timeframe: Episode Rewrite, Mid-Series, Prequel
Universe: Tenuously Canon
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 4 Completed: Yes Word count: 45763 Read: 4055 Published: 04/11/2012 Updated: 04/11/2012
Story Notes:
Many thanks go to Madilayn and Condorcandi for their initial beta-ing and for helping to set the character; to Green, for her inspiration and insight into character motivation; to ChrisW, for the suggestion for adding a little more depth in the “Jigokillers” scene; and thanks to everyone at Gatchamania who followed the story as it progressed and offered words of support and encouragement!

For me, this was a labor of love for a character I have always loved.

1. Chapter 1 -- The Test Pilot to Spy by RIgirl

2. Chapter 2--From Spy to RI by RIgirl

3. Chapter 3--The Mysterious Red Impulse by RIgirl

4. Chapter 4--Found and lost by RIgirl

Chapter 1 -- The Test Pilot to Spy by RIgirl
He heard each footfall ring off the tiles, echoing down the empty corridor. Solid, self-assured, unyielding; as relentless as the one who now approached was. Nambu turned as the footsteps suddenly ceased at the doorway and studied the figure standing there.

A straight back; a gaze that was piercing and direct. Her hair, pulled back in a French twist, looked dark in the subdued lighting of his office, though he knew, were it down or if the lights were brighter, it would be a light brown with dark honey highlights. She wore a minimal amount of makeup; none at all during test flights, and Nambu was glad of that. It made it easier for him to not think about the fact that he was repeatedly asking a woman to put her life on the line, even if she was the best test pilot his research facility had.

The winter white suit she wore was cut to flatter her figure, but was not so tight that it revealed much. Actually, it revealed nothing. Even the striped silk blouse she wore gave the illusion that she exposing more than she really was.

And that, Nambu reflected, was what made Washio Kaori very dangerous. And also why he was approaching her about this situation.

“You wanted to see me,” she stated without preamble, without greeting or smile, as she hit the door with her hand so that it swung shut behind her as she walked further into the room.

Nambu nodded his head sharply, but did not begin speaking until the snick of the lock caught in the door. “I did, and I thank you for meeting with me on such short notice.”

Kaori gave an almost imperceptible shrug of one shoulder. “What is so urgent that it could not wait until a more decent hour?”

Nambu let the question hang in the air between them for a moment. He used the time to pull up the items on his computer that he wanted to show to her. With a final keystroke, he glanced up to find her staring at him, waiting. Not impatiently, not even a flicker of curiosity on her face. Simply waiting in an ‘at ease’ stance which silently spoke of her years in the military. He let the first image flash up onto the large wall monitor before he spoke.

“It has come to my attention that a certain group has become more bold in their activities,” he hit a button and the screen changed, flashing up a map, “and it appears that they are centering themselves in Hontworl, but whether that is their main base of operations or not, I don’t know. What I can tell you, though, is that reports have been coming back to me that there is rumored activity regarding a new armament in the works.”

“Nuclear?”

“Possibly, but it’s hard to tell.”

Kaori frowned in thought. “I thought Hontworl was a neutral country.”

“It is, and, unfortunately, the pacifist government currently in place refuses to acknowledge that such things are being done, preferring to keep their heads buried in the sand.”

Kaori shrugged. Politics were only of marginal interest to her. Games that men play. “So we’re looking at the possibility of some resistance cell thinking to take over Hontworl? Or is this actually sanctioned by the so-called pacifist government?”

Nambu licked at his lip and took a deep breath. “So far, everything that I’ve told you is classified, but not so much that I would need to make sure that you had clearance to hear it.” He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts, selecting his words. It was now or never. The next few minutes would pull her in and he would either have one more person to worry about knowing this … or he would have the person he needed for the job. “What I tell you next is to never to spoken of, or even thought of, again outside of this room. Are we clear?”

“Crystal.”

“There is a two-pronged problem at hand here,” he continued. He changed the screen again, this one blurry, of some sort of blueprints, but nothing that could provide useful information. “First, we have news of a weapon being built, with or without the government’s permission, by an organization that makes world mafias look innocent. We would need to get proof that this is what is being done so that the perpetrators can be routed out before any real damage is done to Hontworl, its economy, and its people.” He paused a moment, to let this sink in.

“And second?” she prompted.

“Second is that I have it on good authority that this weapon is so powerful that, should it go off, earth and everything on it would be a mere memory in its wake.”

“That’s what this is?” Kaori asked, a brief nod towards the monitor.

“Part of it,” Nambu acknowledged. “Unfortunately, the image is too blurred even with computer enhancement to decipher it. It was sent to me by a field operative a few days ago.”

Kaori tilted her head. “Then why not just ask him to take another?”

“Because they realized what he was doing and eliminated him,” Nambu responded, hitting the button and changing the screen image once more. He steadied himself against the desk as he added, “and his family. If our analysis of what happened is correct, when they discovered his deception, he watched as his family were killed before his eyes, probably in an attempt to get him to talk, though his corpse likewise bore evidence that he was most likely tortured before he died as well. This is a ruthless, nasty group who will stop at nothing in order to get what they want.”

“I see,” she said curtly, then looked over at him. “So?”

And here it was. Nambu steeled himself and launched into it. “So I need someone to go in, find the evidence of just who is funding this weapon and to obtain the plans for it so that we’ll know just what, exactly, they’re planning on doing and figure out a way to counteract it, if possible. It had to be done under wraps, as discreetly as possible, because the consequences of being found out are severe, to say the least.”

“And you are telling me all of this why?”

“Because I want you to be that someone.”

“Me?” she queried with a quirked eyebrow. “Why me?”

“Because I know I can implicitly trust you. That you would be the last person to fall under their spell and be swayed by their promises.”

Kaori gave a short laugh. “Not good enough, Nambu. Not by half. You have any number of people, including your own spies – oh yes, I know all about them – who could do this job for you just as easily as I. Bottom line it, Nambu. Seriously, why me?”

Nambu squared his shoulders and stared her right in the eyes. “Because you are the only one who has the … skill set needed to get the job done, and possibly more, if required.”

Kaori’s brow arched slightly higher. “‘Skill set’?” she echoed. “Or physical attributes?”

Nambu colored under the accusation, but could not deny it. For starters, she was right and he acknowledged this. There was no point in even attempting to be diplomatic or politically correct any more.

“Partially, yes. This is organization, such as we know about it so far, is a tight network, strengthened by the fact that greed seems to be the common denominator. To try to put a man in there would most likely be next to impossible. They would scrutinize him carefully and he would be regarded with caution, if not outright hostility. Look at what just happened to my last male agent. A woman, however, could simply cozy up to one or another of them, any one of them, and be able to get in and get what we need. You could easily go under their radar. Female spies are not unheard of, but you have to admit, even now in today’s day and age, they aren’t still the first ones to fall under suspicion.”

“So you want to pimp me out for this information and to find these plans,” she stated baldly. Nambu blanched at her choice of words.

“Not true,” he denied. “I’m not telling you how to do the job, and I’ll leave the what and the how entirely up to you. And you still have the option, now, to say no and leave.” He paused a moment, then added quietly, “By the way, I think I should warn you. This is a mission that is totally off the books and files. Only I will know the truth behind what you are doing and why.”

Kaori stared at him unblinkingly, then inhaled as she inclined her head ever so slightly, her blue gray eyes narrowing. “So if it goes off the wire …”

“ … there will be nothing anyone could to do help you, yes,” Nambu finished. “I am hoping, in time, to be able to send in others to help you, as backup, should it become necessary, but it will take time for me to find the right ones for the job.”

“Then why not just wait until all the players can be in place?” Kaori countered.

“Because I need someone on the inside and I need them there now,” Nambu retorted equally as fast. Modulating his voice, he dropped the tone lower. “This can’t wait, Washio. Every minute that ticks by is one more minute that they have to perfect this plan of theirs. To start implementing it. We would need to get you in there, nameless, traceless, have you disappear somehow, so that they could never ever think to trace you back here, or anywhere else. And once there, you would be completely on your own. You once said that you would volunteer for a special ops job, if one ever came along. Well, this is it.”

Kaori studied the map between them. To go in, under cover, and to actually be of some importance in keeping the world safe from this lunatic fringe organization or cartel, or whatever it was they were calling themselves, was what she had worked towards her entire life. On its face, it did not even seem that difficult, really.

All she had to do was go in, find the plans and get out. How long could it possibly take? More to the point, how long would it take her? It was a tantalizing challenge …

Then a solitary thought brought her up short.

“What about my son?”

Nambu blinked, his mind trying to comprehend the meaning. Then he remembered, vaguely, that she actually did have a child. “What about him?”

Kaori gave an ever-so-slight huff of impatience. “What am I do with him? I can’t just stroll off, pretending to be missing, or disappearing, or whatever it is we come up with, and not make some sort of provision for him.”

“Well, how old is he?”

“About four,” she replied with a slight hesitation, unusual for her, the words ‘I think’ unspoken but still heard.

Nambu sighed hard. This was an unforeseen complication that he had not anticipated. Had he remembered that she had a child, he never would have approached her with this. At least, he thought he wouldn’t. Then again, maybe he would have anyway.

“I could still do this,” she said quickly, as if reading his mind. “It’s just that some things would need to be seen to before I can feasibly start, if I decide to do this. You just said yourself that these people were vicious, so it stands to reason that they probably would not hesitate to use force against a one small child if necessary. We would need to find a way to keep him safe, should my identity become known at some point.”

Nambu looked at her. That answer said it all; she was interested and her mind was already trying to work out the details. It encouraged him, to think that he would soon have an agent he could trust beyond a doubt on this, and it saddened him beyond measure, for reasons he could not express, even to himself.

“Would the boy’s father be able to care for him?” Nambu hazarded a guess.

Kaori gave him a cutting look. “The boy’s father has no idea that he even exists and it will stay that way, so do not expect help from that quarter. I suppose I could simply put his nanny on a permanent retainer, but that is no guarantee to me that he will be properly looked after. People can, and often do, change in the face of different circumstances, especially if they know that they will not be held accountable for their actions to anyone. At the very least, I would want to know in the back of my mind that he is adequately provided for while I’m gone.”

Nambu nodded. “Of course,” he conceded. “I realize that this is a hard decision for you. Perhaps there is a relative or someone close that the boy could stay with?”

She was shaking her head before he even finished speaking. “No, there is no one else. He would be at the mercy of strangers, no matter where he is to go. And I did not go through the trouble having him just for him to end up in some orphanage or welfare agency. He deserves better than that, at the very least.”

Nambu’s mind turned over the matter, trying to consider it from all angles. What it boiled down to was that he was asking a lot of her and she was willing to make the sacrifices. Now it was his turn.

“I could always take him in,” he volunteered, the words said in a single breath. “Him and his nanny. My house is large enough, they could stay with me. This way, after you are gone, he would still have someone familiar with him. I could even give you progress reports on him then, if you wanted ...”

“No,” Kaori interrupted swiftly. “It would probably be better if you did not. It would serve no purpose and would only be a distraction.” Her eyes held his in an icy stare. “It would also be one more possible way that a connection could be established, tying him to me.”

“Still,” Nambu followed up, his voice hushed, “you would know that you could reach him, if you wanted to. If you had to. And even if they did somehow find out your real identity, he would be well protected.”

At this last, the corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly. “After all, if he would not be safe with you, he would not be safe anywhere, is that it?”

“Something like it,” Nambu replied, glancing back down as his laptop. “It is your decision, but I need to know before you leave here now.”

Kaori lowered her eyes as she considered this offer. The ensuing silence enfolded them as Nambu waited for her final decision. When she next looked over at him, she had made up her mind and gave him her final answer.

“I’ll do it.”

* * *

She pushed back a strand of her hair with the heel of her hand, using the opportunity to look around the factory floor once more. The manufacturing plant was large, covering nearly an acre of land and, while many of its processes were automated, there were still jobs that could only be done with the human touch. Like the job Kaori now did.

She double-checked the gauges, reset the machine, and hoped it did not jam again. It was hot, tiresome, noisy work but, for the moment, it also provided her with her only source of income and, with any luck at all, she would not be doing it that much longer.

So far, though, since beginning her work under cover, Kaori had yet to see or establish a connection between those missile plans Nambu had gotten and this factory, despite the fact that this was where the operative claimed to have been at the time.

To her surprise, Kaori found that her biggest problem was not remembering to respond to her new name, but to remember that she was to be compliant and quiet. Her natural instinct to just take over and lead had to be tamped down, especially when she saw things that could be done better, or faster, or easier.

But that was not why she was here, she kept reminding herself. She had to blend in, become part of the scenery, make it so that no one would even take notice of her, let alone question her presence. And, for the most part, she seemed to have succeeded. The longer she worked at the factory, the less people took notice of where she wandered, though twice she had to use the old “looking for a bathroom and got lost” excuse. Still, it did not stop her and she used her breaks to scout around, taking the time to search for something that would provide the tip that she needed.

In fact, that was the real reason why she took the third shift in the first place; there was more opportunity to search and less chance of being seen doing it and raising suspicion. There had been some whispered rumors, murmured conversations alluding to a “big job” but so far, she had found nothing concrete.

As Kaori began her shift on this night, however, she immediately noticed a change in the atmosphere, pushing her senses to high alert. Workers moved with more speed and efficiency than they normally did, the joking and friendly banter that was typically the norm suddenly reduced to just essential comments, and all were job related. Something was definitely up.

At around midnight, as Kaori bent to check a gauge on a machine behind her, a sliver of light caught her eye. A door, which up until now was never used, suddenly swung open and several men in suits walked in, five in all, and, paying no attention to those in the factory proper, continued their way up the stairs. They had obviously done this before and knew exactly where to go.

The noise on the floor from the machines drowned out any hopes that Kaori had of trying to overhear their conversation. From her position, she surreptitiously watched as they all headed for the conference rooms on the second floor, whose windows overlooked the factory floor below. Kaori saw the light in one of the conference rooms flicker on. About five minutes later, two more men came in and disappeared up the stairs. Of them, Kaori thought she recognized one of the men, but the lighting was poor and he held his face away from her, so there was no way she could be certain.

As she worked, Kaori divided her attention between the task at hand and the square of light on the second floor. At times, one or more of the men would stand, pace around, appearing briefly at the window, only disappear again as they returned to their seats or went back further into the room.

Three hours later, the meeting broke up and Kaori got the chance she was hoping for – as each man came down the stairs and through the door, she got a good, clear view of him. Some she was certain she had never seen before; a few looked vaguely familiar and she felt certain that she should know who they were. A couple she definitely recognized. She nearly looked away again when the seventh man stepped through the door, accompanied by a tall blonde woman.

Kaori blatantly stared at them, positive that she had only seen seven men walk in. So where had that woman come from?

The woman paid no attention, her eyes not even seeing the factory as she headed out the door. The man, however, paused and met Kaori’s stare with his own. He was a short middle-aged man with a stocky build that was running to fat. His dark wavy hair was slicked back, conforming to the shape of his skull like a greasy cap. With wide-set eyes and wide, thin lips, he instantly reminded Kaori of a bullfrog.

His small eyes narrowed at her and she quickly dropped her gaze, busying herself with her machine. Now was not the time to get into staring matches. Out of the corner of her eye, however, she saw the blonde woman turn back and say something to him, and he answered, his eyes still locked onto Kaori. At another word from the blonde woman, he gave up, turned, and followed the blonde through the unmarked, previously unused door.

Kaori felt a shiver of uneasiness ripple through her.

Who were they?

* * *

It became an established pattern after that. The same seven men would show up for a midnight meeting on the second Wednesday every three months, with the blonde woman sometimes leaving with them, and sometimes not seen at all.

Though Kaori had had no luck in finding out her identity, she quickly established the identities of the seven other men. Three were from the manufacturing company itself, those being its Chief of Operations, one of the Chief Executive Officers, and one of the accountants; two were from a rival manufacturer in a neighboring country, and the remaining two were government council members.

It was establishing the identities of the two council members that made her decide that she could no longer wait before contacting Nambu.

Using a disposable phone and using the number to a dedicated private line, Kaori reached him. It was picked up on half a ring.

“Yes?” Nambu answered, his voice sounding gruff and harried. Without wasting words, Kaori outlined everything she was able to discover so far. The part about the government council members made him pause.

“You’re sure of who these men are?”

“Positive. Visual ID, plus a few workers were able to provide some background details, though it’s more in the nature of gossip at this point …”

“What about security cameras? Surveillance tapes?” Nambu interrupted.

“Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” Kaori replied sarcastically. “Oh, wait, right. I did.”

Nambu ignored her. “And?”

And the security cameras in those areas apparently have a knack for developing glitches or are listed as being ‘under repair’ at the time of the meetings and then miraculously work or are fixed the next day.”

“I don’t like the sound of government officials being there. It smacks of dirty backroom deals, and there’s no telling how many other members are also in on the take.”

“Bloodless coup?”

“It’s possible,” Nambu admitted with a sigh, “but we need to know more. I can’t go to the Hontworl president accusing members of his staff and Cabinet of treason without solid proof. These are serious accusations that could ruin these men for life, not to mention the consequences it would have to the governing party. We have to be beyond reproach with this.”

“Like what? I’ve already given you names, dates, places …”

“I need something substantial, like photographic evidence, recordings of conversations or meetings …”

“Then can’t you send in someone else to investigate that part?”

“We’ll see,” Nambu hedged vaguely. This was not a problem he really wanted to focus on just yet; he had other, more pressing concerns at the moment. “For right now, keep your eyes open on that aspect and step up doing what you can to get those plans.”

Kaori sighed hard and disconnected.

* * *

She watched them, noting which way they headed. It was an unprecedented event; never before had the seven men and one woman left the conference room to go elsewhere in the building, but tonight, they did.

At 2 am, Kaori was allowed to take her break. She controlled her movements, keeping her stride measured and unhurried. Once in the hallway and away from the watchful eyes of those in the factory room, she quickly headed the way she had seen them go. She searched each room along the way, but found them all to be dark and unoccupied, not even a scrap of paper left behind.

She slowed her steps as she walked back. She had seen them come this way, so where had they gone? What could have been so important that they felt the need to change conference rooms after all this time? That was when a small strip of light caught her eye at the bottom of a door. She glanced up and saw that the small sign affixed declared it as “Janitorial Supplies.”

Hearing voices echoing down the hall, Kaori thought better of investigating and hurried away. She had waited this long, she figured she could wait a little longer.

* * *

Unfortunately, “a little” longer turned out to be a lot more than she had anticipated. After that last meeting, job orders of insane proportions poured in and the number of workers on all shifts were doubled.

In order to keep up with the now near-frenzied pace, Kaori found that she no longer had the free time she used to have, as the number of breaks were drastically reduced. They were watched like hawks by the foremen and the reprimands came fast if they were not doing their jobs fast enough to suit them.

Still, Kaori tried to get down that hallway again, but met with little success. There were too many people now, and too many were keeping close watches on those around them. Even at the few times she was able to get there, it always seemed as though at least two or more people were also there, lingering, talking, watching …

Her frustration grew, but there was little she could do. The factory itself was now running on a 24/7 schedule; there was no point when it closed, no day off or holiday, when there was no fewer than several hundred people around.

And then … just like that … the pattern was broken. On what would have been a scheduled midnight meeting night, no one appeared. No seven men, no blonde woman, no meeting in the second floor conference room. Nothing.

She waited for the next meeting date … and then the next …

For nothing.

A sense of urgency nearly closed her throat as she tried to focus on the machine gauges in front of her. Whatever was in that room, whatever secrets the janitorial supplies closet was holding, she had to get in there. One way or another …

Using what would have been her half hour meal break, she slipped away from the others heading to the break room, claiming she had forgotten her food in her car. Kaori walked in the direction of the door leading to the parking lots, right up until she was sure no one was watching anymore, then hurried over to the one hallway that held such promise.

Only one person was strolling along the corridor, his back to her. She waited until he disappeared around the corner, then hurried over to the janitorial supplies closet and was just about to reach out to open it when she paused, then pulled her hand back.

Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a pair of thin latex gloves and put them on. Then she opened the door and slipped into the deep walk-in closet before anyone else had a chance to enter the hallway. Kaori steadied her breath and waited until her eyes adjusted to the dark, not wanting to turn on the light and alert someone to her presence in there.

As she looked around, turning in place, her eyes picked out a faint thin line of light to the back right of the closet. Carefully avoiding stacked boxes of paper towels, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies, and stepping around a couple of extra buckets with their mops bristling out of the holders, she braced herself against the corner of a shelf to lean in and get a better view.

It was a door. Definitely. She ran her hands along the edges, but found no knob. She began to press into the wall, but no luck there either. Kaori expanded her search, her mind tumbling through all of the possible types of ways there could be to open a door or panel.

She felt a trickle of sweat ease its way down her spine as the pressure of the ticking minutes was measured with her heart beats. It was taking too long. This was taking her too long. She should be able to …

And at that moment, she felt her fingertips brush over something about a foot behind the shelving unit. She pressed the button in and relief washed through her when the panel slid open.

To her surprise, she was confronted with a flight of stairs. Three of them, to be exact. Kaori swiftly descended and found herself in a whole different hallway, in an area of the factory that, up until now, she had had no idea even existed. She blinked and paused a moment, her mind trying to call up the layout of the factory three stories up. This would be directly under the factory floor, she thought, mentally sizing up the distances she had walked.

Setting the logistics question aside, Kaori quickly canvassed the hallway. Lots of locked doors, most leading to small offices, based on the looks of the ones that had been left open. A few turns, left, right, and Kaori’s casual glance as she walked by one doorway revealed a light left on over a drafting table. Next to the table was a laptop, but it was not turned on. Had someone forgotten to turn the light … or was whoever it was going to return soon?

Looking around, Kaori tried to determine the purpose this room served. It was large, with drafting tables dividing the space into work stations. There was not enough light from the one left on for her to really see the work spread out on the other tables, but judging from the work on the table with the light on, it looked to be for engineering, maybe research and development. For the factory or something else?

She flicked her wrist and studied her watch. Time was too short to boot up the laptop now. Quickly snapping a photo of the blueprints on the drafting table, she gave the computer one last, longing look, then left the room and ran down the hallway, retracing her steps to the iron staircase leading up to the supply closet.

She returned to her post flushed, and slightly out of breath, but only two minutes late. Hopefully, no one noticed. Or, if they did, they would just think that she had had her break in her car and had just run back in.

* * *

Nambu studied the photo that he had just clicked opened. He braced his chin with his hand and swiveled the chair he sat in lightly as he considered this. It was possible, though it would take more than just a few minutes of casual observation to make a definite determination.

Moving into action then, he transferred the photo from his email inbox to the special file in his computer that could only be accessed with a series of codes, which codes were changed every few weeks. Then he deleted the email. Later, he would purge the hard drive, making sure that the e-mail was well and truly gone. For right now, however, he had to know.

He pulled up a split screen and compared the two, one blurry and out of focus, and the other, obviously a different view, a different section, but still … it could be the same …

Over an hour later, he reached over to his phone and hit the dedicated line, his eyes still comparing the specs as he listened to the rings until it was answered.

“It looks like you found it.”

* * *

“I’m telling you what I saw,” he said, tapping his pencil against the rim of the drafting table. “That a woman came out of the supply closet. The closet, you comprehend? … no … no, because if she did, wouldn’t she have been holding something? Her hands were empty … because I saw her … yeah … yeah, okay. Well, just keep an eye out, huh? We’re too close now. We have got to be on our guard, just like boss lady said ... right … right.”

He disconnected and snapped the cell phone shut. Dropping it onto the desk next to his laptop, he picked up his coffee cup and swirled the contents for a moment.

If he had taken just a minute less in the bathroom, or decided against getting this cup of coffee, he would have found her red-handed.

Well, he thought with a smirk, as he took a deep drink from the cup, if his suspicions were correct, there would always be next time.

* * *

She was inundated. There was no other word for it. Every hour of every night of every shift, from the moment she walked through the door until the end of her shift, and sometimes for an hour or more beyond, Kaori was continually given job orders, the output of her machines running nearly double to that of the other person doing the same job.

As if they knew, she thought uneasily, carefully plucking out a few items for their quality control inspector. She dropped them into his hand without a word and he turned and left, tapping in a few notes on his tablet.

The thought continued to plague her. Glancing around, everyone else was equally busy, no one had said or done anything to make her think that she, in particular, was under watch.

So why did she keep feeling like she was? Was it just the product of an overactive imagination? Was this undercover work finally getting to her and she was just being too paranoid? She did not know; all she knew was that she had to get back into that room.

It took awhile for all of the right elements to come together, but when they did, Kaori seized her chance. Without the hesitation of the first time, and knowing exactly where she going and how to get there, it took her far less time to locate the engineering room than before.

Only this time, there were no lights on. The laptop she had previously seen was gone, too, but another had been left behind at a different desk. She booted it up, plugged in the small USB code breaker, and, as it did its job, Kaori began the second part of her plan.

Snapping on one light at time and using her cell phone, she took photos of all of the layouts and blueprints on each of the drafting tables, along with all of the scaled replicas and engineering models that sat on tables lining the walls. She was about halfway through when a small ping indicated that the code breaker had done its job. She inserted a blank USB key and began the sequence to download all of the files from the hard drive onto it. Then she took photos of the documents on the remaining desks.

When the computer finished its download, she turned both computer and light off and took just a moment to make sure that everything was turned off and exactly in the same positions as she had found them. Pocketing her phone and the code breaker in one pocket, and the USB key in a safer place, she left the room and ran to the stairwell.

She made it back to her work station with only a few minutes to spare. Almost giddy with the thought that she finished this assignment, Kaori returned to work with shaking hands and an enigmatic smile on her lips.

* * *

She could not wait. She had to call him and let him know. Kaori had just finished her shift and was rapidly crossing the parking lot towards her car, when she pulled out her phone and dialed, taking the advantage of the fact that no one completing their shift with her was walking out the building at the same time.

“Yes?”

“I’ve got it,” Kaori said in a low, excited whisper. “I’ve got it all. I’ll send it to y – ”

Her words were cut off as rough hands grabbed her from behind.

* * *

He heard the sudden gasp, several indistinct sounds … and then … silence. Not a dial tone, not a disconnect, not even static.

“Are you there?” Nambu yelled out, panic blooming out from the center of his chest. “Can you hear me? Answer me! Ka - ” He bit off the name as a slight flicker of a shadow out in the hallway caught his eye. “Who is that? Who’s there?”

No answer.

“Show yourself this instant!”

Slowly, the nine-year-old boy stepped into the open, his shoulder rolling around the edge of the doorframe. The look on his face was not one of contrition at having been caught, but rather, one of challenge.

“Ken, what have I told you about eavesdropping and sneaking up on people?” he demanded.

“That we should practice until we are like shadows, silent, noiseless and unseen,” Ken instantly answered back.

“Only in training practice,” Nambu snapped, his nerves taunt, as he slammed the receiver down in its cradle. He straightened his back and fixed Ken with a hot glare. “Around here, I want to know when you are approaching and where you are at all times. Do you understand?”

A trace of an emotion close to defiance flickered through the boy’s blue eyes, which then narrowed. “Who were you just talking to?”

“No one that you need to concern yourself about,” Nambu answered curtly. “Isn’t there something you should be doing right now? Are you ready for your lessons? If not, go and get ready.”

Ken stared at him a moment, then lowered his head as he walked away, his feet taking dragging, loud, slow steps so he could not be accused of ‘sneaking’ again.

* * *

Nambu waited until he was sure that Ken was far enough down the hallway so as to not overhear anything anymore. He sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling, torn between doing what he wanted to do … and what he knew he should do.

His gaze returned to the phone. Would she call back? Was she even able to? His fingers itched to redial, wanting to know what happened, wanting to know that it was just a simple malfunction and not something more ominous …

Nambu pushed that thought away and returned to the problem of Ken’s eavesdropping. How much had the boy heard? They had not spoken for very long, before the conversation was cut short. It could not have been much. Was it enough though? Enough to make him suspect?

Nambu had thought that, once Ken moved past the original grief, it would get easier. Instead, as he got older, it only seemed to have gotten harder.

For reasons known only to himself, Ken suddenly began to insist that his mother was still alive, refusing to believe that had she died during a test flight. At first, Nambu thought it was because the child was idolizing his mother, wanting to think that she could do no wrong, that she could not have made a mistake that resulted in her leaving him.

Then, as his insistence grew, Nambu began to think that it was just a sort of wishful thinking on the child’s part. After all, there had been no funeral, there was no gravestone, nothing to actually point to and say, ‘that’s where she is.’ He had nothing to hold onto but the dream that she might yet return to him.

Nambu stared hard at the phone, wondering if the lie had just become the truth.

A few heartbeats later, he picked up the receiver and dialed the memorized number in staccato taps.

* * *

He slipped back into the room, giving just the briefest of glances over his shoulder to make sure no one had followed him. He was supposed to be getting a book that he had forgotten in his room, but headed for Nambu’s now-empty office instead, his curiosity getting the best of him.

He knew what he heard. Nambu was definitely going to call out a name beginning with a ‘K.’ He was positive of that. True, Nambu knew lots of people with names that started with the letter ‘K.’

Like his.

Like his mother’s.

He had to know.

Ken went behind Nambu’s desk and eyed the phone a moment before picking up the receiver. He punched in the code that would automatically dial the last number that the phone had been connected to, whether dialed in or out.

His heart thumped in his chest as it rang, skipped a beat when the phone was picked up, soared with hope at the sound of a woman’s voice, then tumbled into his stomach as he heard her words.

"At the tone, the time will be precisely ... six …thirty … eight …”

* * *

Instinctively, she dropped the phone and hoped that Nambu would have enough sense to immediately disconnect. The phone fell to the ground unimpeded and disregarded.

And right now, Kaori could not think of him, or the phone. She struggled against her captor, who had threaded his arms around her own, as a second man appeared before them. He grabbed her face, cupping her chin with one hand, his fingertips digging into her cheeks.

“I believe you have something that belongs to us,” he said, leaning in close so that they were nearly nose-to-nose.

Kaori shook her head. “I have … nothing … of yours,” she managed to say despite his tight grip on her jaw.

“Oh, but you do,” he insisted, letting go of her mouth with a rough shove. “You think we don’t know? That we don’t see? Now, I’m a reasonable guy, but my partner here, he’s not so much. So here’s what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna do what we tell you to and answer our questions, and maybe he won’t have such a good day, cause there’s nothin’ he don’t like more than to pound on traitors to Galactor.”

“Galactor?” Kaori repeated in a rasp, struggling against the man’s hold. He tightened his grip as a result.

“Yeah, as if you don’t know that already.”

“I don’t. I’ve never heard of any Galactor.”

The second man shrugged a shoulder, the corners of his mouth turning down, as he tilted his head. “Really? Never heard of us? Just happened to pick this factory and start snooping around for the fun of it? Okay, have it your way. You don’t know us. So, then, why don’t we start with something easy first, eh? Who sent you? Who’re you really working for?”

Silence.

“Feds? Interpol?” he guessed. “ISO?”

Instead of answering, Kaori just stared at him, hostile anger reflected in her eyes. He backhanded her across the face. The bitter taste of iron filled her mouth as she tentatively licked at the spot where her lip had just been split.

“So you just wanted that information for what?” he continued. “You doin’ a scrapbook? Writing a novel? Or is spying just a hobby for you?”

More silence. The man’s face turned red as his anger rose and he hit her again, snapping her head against the man’s chest behind her.

In the back of her mind, Kaori kept thinking that someone had to be leaving the building … seeing this … would come to help her …

And then, belatedly, she realized the truth. That was the reason why they had all stayed behind. Supposedly delayed on the pretense of an administrative error. All, but her.

“Where it is?” he screamed, getting in her face again, grabbing at her shoulders and shaking her so hard her teeth hit together. The man behind her yanked her arms back even further. “We know you have something. So where is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Kaori snapped back.

“Yes, you do,” the man said, this time shoving his hands into her jacket pockets, then stripped the garment away from her body as much as he was able. Kaori twisted in an effort to stop him but his searching hands patted down her torso and touched her waist.

As he thrust one hand into her pants pocket, he leaned into her, a leering smile on his face. “You know, I don’t think my partner and I would be against doing a full body cavity search, if necessary. Or is that what you’re hoping for …”

Without no further thought, Kaori’s military training took over and she reacted automatically, not even conscious of her own actions. She just moved.

Her knee connected solidly with the groin of the man in front of her and he went down in a crumple. Pushing back with her hips, she took the man holding her by surprise enough that he momentarily loosened his grip, having been knocked slightly off balance. She caught the inside of his knee with the heel of her shoe even as she swung her elbow back into his gut.

A whoosh of air grunted out of him as he bent forward, his face meeting her fist on the way down.

Now free, she paused only long enough to scoop up her phone and ran for the rental car that she switched every three weeks or so. The second the engine caught, she threw it into gear and hit the gas, her tires squealing all the way.

She bought herself some time, but it would not be long before they followed.

As if in answer to her thoughts, she heard a couple of bullets ping off the side and back of the car. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she could that the one man was still on the ground, the other holding his nose with one hand, but both were aiming their weapons at her.

As soon as they were able, she knew that they would be close on her trail in their own vehicle. She had just run out of time.

* * *

Over the next several days, she kept on the move, going around aimlessly, not daring to stop in fear that they would find her. Everyone that she came across was suspect, no action or word, however well meant, could be taken to be as innocent as it appeared. She was tired, she hurt, and she was still shaking. Her eyes felt gritty from the lack of sleep, but she pushed herself to stay awake.

At the first opportunity, she ditched the car, knowing that it was her biggest liability, and their biggest hope in being able to find her fast. She hopped onto the first bus she came across, and switched buses several times, not having a care for the destination, just so long as it took her away.

Now, as she finally allowed herself to rest, having taken a room in a small motel several hundred miles from where she started, she found that sleep would not come. Her mind raced over the recent events, and what it would mean for them. For her.

The USB key and the chip from the cell phone were already on their way to Nambu; she sent them knowing that, even if they did catch up to her, at least he would still have the information and this would not have been an exercise in futility.

She closed her eyes and flung one arm over her face, in an effort to try to block out her thoughts as much as the light that she had purposefully left on in the bathroom. She had no intention of being taken by surprise ever again.

Kaori had been through some hard training; she had taken falls, been hit, sparred with men twice her weight and strength. She had been in combat situations, hand-to-hand at times, but never before had she had a reaction like she had in that parking lot.

Instead of just thinking about her own survival and simply doing her job, what her training dictated, in that split second when she was grabbed, there was only one thought that flashed through her mind in that parking lot.

Ken …

Her mouth trembled in remembrance and she fought the urge to call Nambu, to demand to know how her son was … to hear his baby-bright voice call out to her – Mama! Mama! – as he had on that day … to see him again … and, with the realization of just how much time had passed since last she saw him, the tears finally fell, and were then followed by a deep, dreamless sleep.

* * *

She woke up disorientated and confused, but only for a second before it all came back to her in a rush. Once it did, she pulled herself off the bed and began sorting out the items she had purchased in various small stores along the way at different bus stops and rests.

The first thing she dealt with was her hair. At the beginning of the mission, she had dyed it a middling brown, nothing eye-catching and, with her skin tone, it made her appear almost washed out, especially when paired with the hazel colored contact lenses that she wore. Without makeup, she was entirely forgettable.

Now a light ash blonde, she gathered up her shoulder-length hair in one hand and, with a pair of scissors in the other, cut it. The short strands fell around her face in a modified bob. It was the shortest she had worn her hair since her tour of duty in the military ended.

Kaori fussed with the ends for a moment, trying to at least even it out and make it not look so choppy. She was tempted to go to a beauty parlor, but she had limited funds and no idea of how long she would be on the run. For right now, this would have to do.

The next bag she opened contained two changes of clothes and a small, cheap overnight bag in one of those fussy, busy prints that some women seemed to favor. After a long, hot shower, she put on a new set of clothes and placed the other set into the overnight case. Her old clothes she simply stuffed into the now-empty plastic bag and knotted the ends, planning to discard them at the first available trash bin.

She applied the makeup with a heavier hand than she normally would have and, when she was done, she stepped back to review the overall result.

To her eyes, and to anyone who looked at her, she was just another approaching-middle-aged woman, hair blonde enough to hide the beginning gray, enough makeup to presumably hide the effects of aging (but in reality, to obscure the bruise marks left by her interrogator), and wearing a twin sweater set and matching pants, ending with low, flat shoes. Contact lens changing her eye color from blue to brown completed the image. It was a far cry from how she looked just a couple of hours ago.

And hopefully, she thought running a critical eye over her hair, enough to throw off any who might still be looking for her.

Kaori quickly packed the makeup into the case with the clothes, then gathered up the remainder of items to be thrown out. Sitting in the shabby room’s only chair, Kaori carefully opened the small slit she had made in the lining of her purse and removed the fake IDs that Nambu had provided to her back at the beginning. Good forgeries all, and Kaori did not even want to know how Nambu had managed to obtain them. They even had her own photo, digitally altered, on them.

She sifted through the three remaining sets, then chose the one that most closely matched her current look. Her eye fell to her new name – Kelly Winslow – and smiled at seeing that she would regain her old initials.

She glanced at her watch, then reached for her new disposable cell phone and dialed Nambu’s number.

* * *

He had nothing to say that she wanted to hear.

“So all of that was for nothing?”

“I didn’t say that. What I said was that if this is all you were able to get, it isn’t going to get us very far.”

“Meaning what?” she demanded. “I’m telling you, there was nothing else in that room, unless they were using the office equipment as part of the design.”

“Meaning that Galactor probably farmed out pieces,” Nambu said, then mused, “the company you were at probably only had one piece, while another factory somewhere else probably was given a second piece, yet another company could have a third. This project could have been sliced any number of ways and divided between who knows how many people.”

“But why do that? Wouldn’t it be easier to just keep it all at one central place?”

“No. Think about it. All of this has been engineered specifically so that Galactor can keep a tight rein on all those involved. Without all of the pieces, it makes it easier to insure that even if a single company sold them out, they wouldn’t get very far.”

“So all of this has been for nothing?” she repeated.

“No, not nothing. What you’ve given us is more than what we had, and, while not complete, and we can’t make them so, it at least gives us an idea of where to start looking and focusing our own efforts.”

A brief silence, then Kaori asked, “So is this it, then?”

“No,” Nambu answered almost immediately.

“You want me to try to infiltrate another company?”

There was a slight pause before he answered again. “No. The other parts could be spread out around the globe and I don’t want you to waste time trying to track down each and every one of them. Besides, I need you to remain in Hontworl.”

“All right,” she acquiesced reluctantly. “May I ask why?”

“Because I want you to get in as close to the government as possible. You know who all of those players at those midnight meetings were, so now we need to know who is paying them, who knows what, and who’s doing what to whom and when.”

“And then?”

“And then get the evidence we need to stop them.”

“Please tell me you’re joking.”

“You know I would never do that. Not about something like this.”

“But I know spit-all about politics,” Kaori protested.

“Then you’ll fit right in with them,” Nambu shot back.

“Seriously, the whole idea is insane. I don’t do politics …”

“Then learn it fast,” Nambu replied crisply. “I need you in there for this. Like I said, we still need to know who’s profiting from this, and who the main contacts are for Galactor. Not to mention the fact that we still need to establish the identity of that blonde woman, and you’re the only one who saw her …”

Kaori frowned at his reference to that woman, the thought still rankling that she never did find out who she was. “So, then, that Galactor reference? They are the ones behind this? Who are they anyway?”

“They are … the organization that I had originally suspected to be involved,” Nambu partially answered, “but the bottom line is, we need to get proof establishing the connection between Galactor and those players; to prove that there are those currently in the Hontworl government who might possibly be setting things up for a hostile takeover from the inside. And since you’re already in deep, you’re the best one we’ve got to go in.”

Kaori closed her eyes, her mind already calculating out how much she would need in order to return to the capital city.

“I will expect a full update once you get established.”

“Understood.”

* * *

There were days when Kaori almost missed the anonymity and repetitive work of the factory. Today was one of those days.

With both the President’s Cabinet and the Council sessions in full swing, with all parties present, the pace in the government offices was dizzying. Drafts of proposed amendments and bills were expected to be prepared and ready for review almost the moment the Council agreed on the last terms, then copied the 59 times needed and run over to the Council for their final review and approvals. All this, in addition to their normal workloads, telephone calls, and dealing with the “concerned public.” By 11 AM, Kaori was ready to throw herself out the first available window. Instead, she jumped at the opportunity to hand deliver some documents to the courthouse.

In the three years since she managed to procure a job within the aides for the general Council members, Kaori had found quite a bit. Embezzlement, larceny (petit, grand or otherwise), fraud, perjury, blackmail, even bribery – what she had turned up so far read like a laundry list of crimes in a student attorney text book; unfortunately, none of it even vaguely related to the missile plan or Galactor.

She also found that she had to exercise extreme caution in her activities, even more so than when she worked at the factory. The people in the government had the latest and best in security measures and they were not shy in employing every new trick and device that came out. Kaori was forced to continually keep pace with the security technology – laser scanners, heat and motion detectors, mini and micro cameras … they had it all and then some.

Upon her return to the Government Building, she found Janine, the secretary who sat directly across the room from her desk, in tears. They had struck up a friendly acquaintance of sorts and, since Janine had a good twenty years experience in her position, Kaori found her to be a wealth of information, especially in the beginning. Janine’s basic good heart and general maternal instincts made her want to help everybody, but where their co-workers found Janine to be sometimes overbearing and pushy, Kaori welcomed her help.

So it was a surprise to see the older woman, normally unflappable, in the state she was in. Tears trembled at the edges of eyes and her quivering lower lip stuck out.

“I don’t want to go,” she said softly, in answer to Kaori’s inquiry. Her eyes dropped to her hands, which were folded in her lap. “I love my job. Love it here. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

“But I don’t understand,” Kaori said, rolling her own chair closer to Janine’s desk. “Why would you need to go anywhere? You will still be a Council aide, right? Wouldn’t you stay with the rest of us here, regardless of who your new boss is?”

Janine’s mouth pursed. “But that’s just it. It’s who my new boss is. Didn’t you hear?” Kaori frowned and shook her head. “It’s him.” Janine stuck her chin out towards the doorway. Kaori turned only slightly, only enough to see the man now standing in the door frame. And her heart skipped a beat. It was him. The seventh man. The one who always seemed the closest to the blonde woman.

“Your new boss is him?”

Janine’s eyes flooded with tears again. “Armand Boritz,” she spat the name as though it were poison. “He’s just been named as the Director of Security, and I’ve heard things about him, Kelly. Awful things. I know that no one can replace Councilman Stefan, he was a wonderful boss, may he rest in peace, but I never thought that they would actually see fit to move me to a different secretarial position.”

Kaori mulled this over a moment. For years, Boritz had remained inaccessible to her, though she carefully monitored his rise from Commissioner of Police to Secretary of Security. Because those positions were outside of the present Council and Cabinet, they were, of necessity, located in a different building. Now, however, if Janine was that close to him …

Janine swallowed hard and dropped her eyes to her hands again. “This means that I have to move, because all of the support staffs for the Directors are close to them. I won’t be able to see you or the other aides anymore. I’ve been sitting at this desk for twenty-two years and now … now …”

“And the other Directors are fine with this appointment? Does the President even want him that close?” Kaori mused out loud, not really following Janine’s train of thought.

“Apparently, they’re supposed to be very good friends,” she said with a wet sniffle.

“Really?” Kaori’s mind began turning over the possible implications. To know someone so close to this man, this Armand Boritz, would finally be a break in the right direction for her. “So … what are you going to do?”

Janine shrugged. “What can I do? I need my job. My pension won’t start for a few more years and we need the money. I have no choice.”

“Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

Janine and Kaori glanced up at the sound of a loud, rough voice boomed through the open space of the aides’ work area.

“Yes, sir, I intend to make my position count,” Boritz bragged. As he spoke, he swept his gaze around the room … and stopped. A frown deepened the creases that bracketed his mouth. His small eyes narrowed. Taking the cigar out his mouth between two fingers, he pointed at Kaori. “I know you?”

“Apparently not, if you have to ask,” Kaori replied sharply. A few woman giggled nervously.

Boritz’s face turned a dusky red. “And to whom do you report?” he demanded.

“Councilman VanVelding.”

Boritz stuck his cigar into the corner of his mouth. “I see. And he appreciates that his aide is so disrespectful to Directors of the State?”

“When it is warranted,” Kaori replied coolly.

“If you were my secretary, I wouldn’t put up with such insolence. Don’t think I won’t be having words with VanVelding about this.”

At his loud declarations, the room fell silent. Janine’s eyes were large and frightened. Boritz stabbed the air with his thick index finger at Janine next. “You. There. You – are you the one to be my secretary?” Janine nodded helplessly. “Then grab what you need and let’s go. I want my office and staff set up and ready for work by the end of the day.” On that note, Boritz turned on his heel and left.

“Please don’t make me go alone,” Janine whispered to Kaori, alternately wiping away her tears and gathering up her personal effects.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Kaori promised, her mind already trying to find a way into Boritz’s office.

* * *

It was the perfect plan, really. The only small, minor detail was that she had to be sure that she would not kill him within the first hour. All she had to do, though, was to just keep reminding herself what better way to keep an eye on him, to know exactly what he was doing and where he was going and who he was seeing? As his secretary, she would be privy to [i]everything[/i]. Or, at least, that was what Kaori intended. She also knew she was playing with fire, especially if he should actually remember where he had last seen her.

But, Kaori reasoned, that was years ago and even she did seem familiar, there were lots of people in the world who resembled someone else. The coincidence could easily be explained. She hoped.

With her back straight and her head held high, Kaori walked into the Director of Security’s office and took possession of the secretary desk. When Boritz barreled through the door, slamming with such force that the frosted glass, which bore the stenciled title of his office and its official seal, rattled in its frame. He saw her sitting there and stopped in his tracks.

“What are you doing there? Where’s Jane?”

“Janine.”

“Whatever. Where the hell is she and why the hell are you here?”

Kaori calmly gathered together the phone message slips into a small, neat stack and held them to him, looking him straight in the eye. “Janine requested that she be returned to the aide secretarial pool, which request was granted …”

Boritz’s eyes narrowed. “No doubt by VanVelding.”

“ … and so I have been sent in her place,” Kaori finished. “Here are your phone messages. The top three are the most important and you are scheduled for a phone conference at ten, lunch at one, and a meeting with the other Directors at three.”

Boritz snatched at the messages with one hand and scratched his chin with other. “I suppose you’ll do. But you keep that tongue of yours curbed or you’ll find yourself out in the street. I will tolerate no insubordination. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

“Yes, sir,” Kaori said, nearly choking on the words.

Big picture, big picture, she chanted to herself as she sat back down. Just concentrate on the bigger picture.

* * *

The small boat chugged along, taking the choppy waves on Hontworl’s largest lake hard. Kaori gripped the rail near her seat with one hand while keeping a tight hold on the file she was to deliver to Boritz with the other. The last thing she wanted was for the lake winds to scatter three hours’ worth of work across the scenery.

Kaori glanced over to her left, the darkening expanse of Lake Chantrain in the dusk like a pool of spilled ink over the land. She remembered vacationing here as a child with her family, and for a few summers with Ken, though they had always stayed at the southern end of the lake, and not here at the northern end, which catered more to the tourism business.

Now, though, a chill breeze was announcing summer’s end and, with it, the end of the bustling summer season. The far-off shore beaches were swept clean of sunbathers; the pleasure boats dry-docked and shrink-wrapped against the elements, leaving the only boats out on the lake belonging to those die-hard residents who refused to give up their hobbies of sailing or fishing until winter’s teeth bit into the lake and frosted it over with ice.

The boat approached the small island and Kaori turned her attention to the sheer rise of stone walls, slick with moss and algae at the water’s edge, that was Boritz Castle. From her research on it, Kaori was surprised to find that it had actually been in the Boritz family for centuries and that Armand Boritz was the last of the line who held title and possession of it. Though a section of the large building had remained as a private residence, one enterprising generation of the Boritz family opened the larger area, hoping to cash in on the tourism.

It proved to have been good decision, as it quickly became a popular place for students, families, and history buffs for several decades. However, five years ago it was closed to the public for “renovations,” or so the message on their web site said. It had remained closed ever since.

Kaori blinked out of her thoughts when she realized that they were now moving parallel to the building, instead of towards it.

“Where are we going?” she yelled out over the engine and wash of waves against the boat’s body.

“To the dock,” the man behind the boat’s controls yelled back. “It’s on the other side. Can only get to it by circling around.”

“There’s only one?”

The man turned and gave her skirt and high heels an apprising look. “Yeah, unless you want to wade in.”

Ignoring his dig, Kaori turned back to her study of the castle, though the name was not quite accurate. It had been built as a fortress, with only narrow slits cut into the rock to serve as windows … and look-out posts. Surrounded by the deep water of the natural lake, it was impenetrable and stood through several centuries of wars that had stormed through Hontworl before its leaders declared it to be a neutral country. Now, it sat like a crouching beast, hunching its shoulders in against the onslaught of the modern world.

It also served as Boritz’s private residence and as his main base of operations. Although he still maintained an office within the government building, he made it clear to Kaori that now, with his recent appointment as Defense Minister, he would be required to work steadily, round the clock if necessary, and that he expected her to do the same.

Which was what brought her here, in a small, outboard motorboat, at the edge of night, heading towards Boritz’s home. It was the only area of his life that she had not been able to touch in the four years since beginning her work with him, and she was eager to finally breech that last wall.

She had had glimpses, a few potential leads, over the years – meetings he deigned to schedule himself, yet refused to tell her with whom; telephone calls that took place not on the office land-line phone, but on his cell, which would then be replaced with another – all of which panned to dead ends. He had been careful to make sure that nothing stood out beyond the normal work for which one in his position would expect to have.

This new turn of events, however, brought her that one step closer and, as it was a well-known fact that people were generally more relaxed in their own homes, Kaori was hoping that the tight control he maintained in public would be slightly loosened here. Just enough for her to get what she needed. That’s all she wanted.

The man motored towards the slip, which winked in and out of the boat’s lights, then, when they were only a few yards away, he cut the engine. As they bobbed there, he threw out a line around a mooring post and slowly guided the little boat in. Though rough in tone and manner, he was still a gentleman at heart, and he held out his hand to help Kaori keep her balance as she stepped from boat to dock.

For just a moment, she glanced over towards the far shore and could see the silhouettes of a flock of migrating birds perched on the empty tree branches, as though filling in for the leaves newly lost. An inexplicable wave of sadness swept through her, causing her to hesitate, stumbling slightly on the rough wood boards.

“Watch your step,” the man said, stating the obvious.

“Thank you,” she murmured in return, then turned to stare at the front of the castle. A coat of arms, presumably of the Boritz family, hung over the large stone portico that served as a cover for those who may have had to wait in line before being able to enter through the large wooden door, complete with black iron work forming the hinges and door knob. It was not a door that exuded any type of warmth or welcome and, as Kaori approached it, a movement high up on the exterior parapet caught her eye. She squinted, not sure if she saw correctly or if it was just the darkening shadows playing with her.

As she came to the door, it swung open. Of course, her approach and arrival had been seen and anticipated. It was something to keep in mind. A dour-faced man who she had seen a few times previously, usually serving as Boritz’s chauffeur, greeted her now.

“I’ll just take that,” he announced. “No sense in keeping Harry waiting with the boat.”

But having come this far, Kaori was not so willing to give up that easily. At least, not until she had seen more.

“No offense, but I’d rather not give this to anyone except directly to Minister Boritz,” Kaori said coolly, “especially since he did not give any instruction to do otherwise.”

A look of annoyance flicked over the man’s face but rather than argue, he simply turned on his heel and disappeared down the hallway, leaving Kaori alone.

Though not completely, she noted. While she had expected to see a staff in a place this large, and this old, she did not anticipate that some of them would be armed with semi-automatic weapons. She mentally heaved a sigh. Nothing was ever easy.

As she waited, Kaori casually strolled down the corridor, her steps loud against the cold marble floors. Doors were closed, presumably to block out drafts and to keep heating costs down. Of the rooms that opened out into the foyer, Kaori could see that they still had their velvet ropes up, still doing their duty to keep the non-existent sightseers away from the antiques and treasures contained behind them.

It was all very ostentatious – lots of gilding and velvet, elaborately carved, dark, heavy wooden furniture, every available surface of the room’s walls, ceilings and floors decorated in some way or fashion. The thick layer of dust covering these surfaces, however, attested to the fact that there were obviously no housekeepers as being part of staff.

Or perhaps, Kaori considered, they simply did not come into this part of the castle. The foyer ended in a wide expanse of stairs covered in carpet worn at the treads. So much for the promised “renovations.” So, then, what was the real reason the castle was closed?

The sound of approaching footsteps made Kaori turn around.

“Follow me,” the dour man said, not looking too happy that his own judgment had just been overruled.

Kaori briskly stepped after him as they ascended the stairs and came out onto the second floor. Here, too, the entire length of the hallway had marble flooring, long rows of Doric columns lining each side. Just as Kaori was hoping to continue down a hallway that opened at right angles to the one they were in, the man stopped short at a door.

“What’s down there?” Kaori asked innocently.

“Nothing,” was the short reply.

With one sharp rap, he opened the door without waiting for an answer and walked in, Kaori following, her heart pounding so hard that she was surprised the others could not hear it.

If she did not know where she stood, she could have been any man’s office anywhere in the world. Bookshelves crammed with books lined the walls, dusty spines proving that they were more for decoration than actually read, a large desk piled high with papers, at least two old-fashioned telephones perched at one side of the desk, and a large humidor on the other. Boritz glanced up from the document he was hunched over, an unlit stub of a cigar clamped between his teeth at the corner of his mouth. He did not even bother looking up as she approached the desk.

“Here’s the file you asked me to compile,” she said by way of greeting.

“Let me see it,” he ordered, holding out a hand. Kaori snapped it into his palm, then waited as he perused the contents. She spent the time trying to read the documents scattered around. Most she recognized, a few she even typed up, but there were some others …

“What do you think you’re doing?” he snapped, finally looking at her.

“Just thought I would straighten things up …” Kaori offered, her hands still tapping a small pile into a neat stack.

“Don’t. Just leave it.”

Kaori gently placed the stack back on the desk with a sigh and went back to standing there, her hands loosely clasped in front of her.

“Is the affidavit in here?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t see it.”

Then open your eyes, Kaori wanted to scream. Instead, she said, “I know it’s in there. Near the top.”

“Well, I can’t see it. Here,” he said, handing her the file back, “you find it.”

Kaori opened the file, flipped over two pages and handed him the affidavit. He glanced at it and handed it back to her.

“You have the report in there as well?”

“Yes.”

“Two copies? I need two copies.”

“Yes, there are two copies in here,” Kaori reassured him. Actually, there were three; she had tucked a third into the back of the file, not trusting that he wouldn’t lose the other two.

Boritz picked up the document he had been reading when she first entered the room. “Just leave the file there then,” he instructed, indicating the far corner of his desk.

And just like that, she was dismissed. Any further investigation would have to wait for another time.

* * *

The room was a near duplicate of Boritz’s room, with the exceptions of a cleaner desk and a smaller humidor. There were the same bookcases lining the walls. The only feature of the room that was different, and which now had Kaori’s attention riveted to it, was the large, bank-style vault door set into the wall behind the desk.

A vault that size on the second floor of a building? Kaori’s eyes narrowed in thought. Typically, such vaults were set on ground floors or basements due to their sheer weight and size. Even in a place like this, such an item would create undue stress and strain on the building’s main supports. Which could only mean that it was just the door set into place, not the whole vault.

So, unless the entire Boritz family had a deep distrust of banks and kept all of their money close to them, Kaori concluded, that door was currently holding a secret of a different type …

Just as she leaned in to examine the type of lock on it, she heard sharp steps and an angry voice behind her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the chauffeur-cum-butler demanded as he entered the room. “I told you before, this area is off-limits.”

Kaori straightened up and smiled sweetly as she walked over to where the man stood. “My apologies,” she demurred, “but the Minister was taking so long to review those contracts, and there was no one else around to ask, so I just thought I could find a bathroom on my own.”

The man scowled. “And you thought there would be one in here?”

Kaori shrugged. “Well, one never knows in a place like this. They tuck things away here and there, repurposing them from one thing to another. So, what is behind the vault door, if not a bathroom?”

“Nothing. You should not have come in here,” the man reiterated, watching her as she walked up to, then past him, to step back out into the columned hallway. He followed her, slamming the door on his way out. She heard the door latch catch, but was curious if it locked as well. She would have to find out on the next trip down.

“I am sorry,” she repeated, “but I really do need a lavatory.”

“You should have waited.”

“But it’s one of those …,” and here Kaori gave him a coy look as she dropped her voice to a near whisper, “women’s issues, if you know what I mean.”

The expression on his face did not change, but his face paled. “Uh, see that door, second to the left? There’s one just in through there.”

“Thank you ever so much,” Kaori said brightly as she headed in that direction. She had yet to meet the man who was willing to deal with anything even remotely connected to women’s issues and it always amazed her that not one of them ever questioned it yet.

She sighed as she walked into the bathroom. She was so close …

* * *

He pinched her rear at the same time he handed her the paperwork and walked away chuckling. Fighting the urge to stuff the documents in his mouth and break every bone in his hand, Kaori turned … and walked straight into the arms of the man who had seen the entire exchange. She instantly recognized him as Warren Sayer, the newly appointed Minister of the Interior.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured under her breath, regaining her balance and trying to step around him.

“I’m not,” he quipped, holding out his arms to prevent her passing by. He tipped his head to one side. “May I see you in my office for a moment?”

“But I really need to – ” she started to say, then stopped. Would serve that odious little man right to have the delivery of his proposed amendments delayed. “Certainly, Minister.”

Kaori followed Sayer into his office and he closed the door behind them. Leaning against the door frame, he casually crossed his arms over his chest and studied her a moment.

“You seemed to be having a bit of a problem out there. Is there something you would like to share?”

“Not particularly,” Kaori replied, “but I thank you for your concern.”

He chuckled lightly. “You are an amazing woman, do you know that? One minute, you look as though you’re going to rip a man’s head off and the next, you’re all prim and manner proper.”

Kaori felt her cheeks burn, and dropped her head slightly. “He only pushed his luck because he knew there were others in the hallway.”

“Is Boritz like that with all of the aides and secretaries?” Warren asked concernedly, his dark blue eyes riveted to Kaori’s face.

“No. No others. Mostly, just me,” Kaori confessed.

“He targets only you? Have you reported his behavior? If this has been, and is, an ongoing and repeated situation, then it should be stopped …”

Kaori shrugged. “He’s more annoying than anything else. Besides, Frogface was only trying to antagonize me. I think he’s trying to get me to quit.”

He blinked, then burst out laughing. “Frogface?”

Kaori felt her cheeks burn for the second time since entering his office. “It’s just a …”

“Term of endearment?”

No,” she answered swiftly and emphatically. “Most definitely not.”

Sayer grinned. “Good to hear. You had me worried for a moment there.”

Kaori reached around him for the door handle. “Well, if you’ll just excuse me, I really should be going …”

“I’ll excuse you …” he said, arresting her hand by the wrist, “but only if you’ll agree to go to lunch with me.”

Kaori looked him square in the eye. Sayer had been asking her out on dates for weeks now, ever since he came in as Minister, and she always turned him down. She needed to concentration on her job – both of them – and she did not want or need any distractions …

“Please, allow me to at least make up for the boorish, inconsiderate and inappropriate behavior of my colleague.” Sayer playfully held up his hands. “I promise, we will be in a public place at all times, in full daylight, and I will be the soul of politeness. Besides, I’m willing to bet that you haven’t had lunch yet either, and you need to eat.”

…simply cozy up to one or another of them, any one of them, and be able to get in and get what we need …

Nambu’s words suddenly echoed through her mind.

“Well, I …” she hesitated. Could she do it? She studied the man before her, his open, trusting face, his eager expression. Could she do it to him?

“Please, give me just this one,” he appealed, placing a hand over his heart.

He was naīve and innocent. To use him to further her own ends …

But, she quickly rationalized mentally, it’s only lunch we’re talking about here, not an affair. What could it hurt?

“Please?” he prodded.

“Oh, all right,” she capitulated with a sigh. “Just let me get my purse.”

Warren grinned like a boy who just got what he wanted for his birthday. As she stepped through the door, she heard him speak.

“You’re a hard woman to pin down, Kelly Winslow.”

She turned and glanced back at him over her shoulder, her lips curved into a playful smile, though her words were anything but. “You have no idea, Minister Sayer. No idea at all.”

* * *

Kaori was almost sorry when the hour was up and they had to return back to their offices. It felt good to share a meal with someone again and have the light, bantering conversation that went along with it.

“Thank you, Minister,” Kaori said as they walked back into the government building, “this was very nice, and I would very much like to continue our conversation some time.”

“Then how about tonight?” he asked in a rush. Kaori blinked.

“What?”

“Well, I am presuming that you will need to eat dinner tonight as well, so … how about we continue then?” he offered, then stopped as a thought crossed his mind. “Or, if you’re busy, tomorrow night?”

“I thought there was a special session slanted with the President and all of the Directors for then.”

“Oh. Right. Well, then, what about the night after that?”

“Won’t work for me,” she replied, even though she had nothing in particular to do. It had been her experience, though, that it never paid for a woman to make herself seem too available all the time.

“Okay, what about the next? No, wait. Not then …”

“Why not Sunday?” Kaori asked out of curiosity, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly.

He grinned at her sheepishly. “Because I promised my grandmother that I would dine with her.”

“Oh, well, then you definitely don’t want to disappoint her …”

“But she might understand if she knew the reason. Hell, she might even insist …”

“I will hear of no such thing,” Kaori said firmly. “If you cannot make Friday and Sunday, and I cannot do Saturday, then I suppose we will simply have to have dinner tonight, then.”


* * *

Kaori leaned back in her chair as the waitress placed their desserts in front of them. Warren immediately picked up his spoon and began fixing his tea to taste.

“…so by not only limiting the amount of commercial traffic on the lake, but also placing strict guidelines on the boats allowed on it …”

Kaori stirred her tea, impressed at how vehemently and passionately he spoke about his duties to his country. Listening to him speak, there could be no doubt that Warren had entered the political arena strictly with the goals of helping to preserve the land and resources that kept Hontworl what it was.

“…that’s not to say that I’m against progress, or big corporations, mind you. I thoroughly believe …” he trailed off. Kaori quirked a brow in question. He smiled at her. “I thoroughly believe I’m boring you to tears.”

“Not at all,” she averred, taking a testing sip of her tea. “I find your opinions fascinating and you have some very good ideas for going forward.”

“But I’ve done nothing but speak of work,” Warren chastised himself, “and I apologize. I tend to get carried away on that particular subject.”

“So I’ve noticed.”

Warren grimaced. “I’m doing very badly here, aren’t I?”

“Not at all.”

“Nothing more about me,” he declared, lightly slapping the table with a hand. “What about you?”

Kaori lowered her gaze. “What about me?”

“What do you do? What about in your free time? What do you like? What are your passions and your joys?”

Kaori shrugged. “What I do is work for the Defense Minister. As for free time, I have none. For the reason, see the answer to the first question. And … that’s about it, really.”

“But there must be something else?” he pressed.

“No, not really. Guess I’m not as exciting as you thought I was.”

His eyes darkened with emotion. “On the contrary. You are still every bit as mysterious now as you have been since I first saw you. I want to know you, Kelly. Everything about you. All of your secrets. If you’ll let me.”

“Really, Minister …”

“…Warren …”

“Warren, there’s nothing to know,” she insisted, not liking this new turn. “There’s nothing at all to know about me, really. I am just plainly what you see.”

He leaned back in his chair, then gave a light shrug. “We all think that there is nothing special about us, Kelly, but there usually is, and I, for one, think you very special.”

The waitress appeared then with the check, saving Kaori the trouble of having to reply to that. Once outside of the restaurant, they paused for a moment.

“How about a walk before heading back?” he suggested hopefully, offering out his arm to her.

“That sounds lovely right about now,” Kaori replied lightly, sliding a hand into the crook of his elbow. “I could use the exercise after a meal like that.”

As they strolled along the edge of a park, neither of them seemed to be in any hurry to end their time together. In silence, they watched others in the park, who were likewise taking advantage of a night that seemed more fitting for summer than autumn.

As they reached the park’s center, a boom and a spark of light streaked across the sky. Heads craned up at the sound, which was then followed by another. A red firework was followed by one that seemed to send glittery bits showering down from the heavens.

Warren smiled at the sight. “Must be a wedding at the Chateau d’Orzae,” he speculated. “They offer a fireworks package, to be set off at some point during the reception.”

“And you know this how?” Kaori asked, angling her head slightly to see his face, which was still tilted up to the sky, watching intently.

“My little sister,” he replied. “She must have dragged my parents and me to every venue possible around here when she was getting married. I remember that was one of them.”

“Is that where she had her reception?”

Warren sighed melodramatically. “Alas, no. I guess she wasn’t feeling the fireworks thing as much as I was.”

A movement caught Kaori’s eye and she watched as a mother pointed out the fireworks to the small child in her arms, while a group of children who had been playing as their parents stood chatting nearby, also stopped to watch them. Her heart contracted at the sight and her arms ached with the want of holding her own son. She watched as a golden firework bloomed in the night sky. Would Ken enjoy the display as much as the other children here?

But no, she caught herself. Ken would not be so young as them any more. It was hard to remember him as anything but the four-year-old he was when she left. She quickly calculated the years. He was a teen now; his childhood already left behind. She glanced up to prevent the tears that stood in her eyes from falling.

“I guess it’s over.”

“What?” Kaori asked, startled, his comment almost echoing her thoughts.

“The fireworks. They seem to be over,” Warren clarified, then gave her a concerned look. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yes,” Kaori bluffed, clearing her throat. “Fine. So, anyway, you’re going to be presenting that new bill tomorrow?”

“That’s right,” Warren said, taking the cue of subject change. To Kaori’s relief, he continued to talk of it until he brought her to the front of her building. They stood there awkwardly for a second or two.

“Well, this was fun,” Kaori said, glancing at the door.

“Yeah, it was,” Warren agreed, then hesitated. “So … any chance I’ll be able to see you again some time?”

Kaori smiled warmly at him. “There’s always tomorrow at work.”

He laughed lightly. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“We’ll see,” she hedged. “Good night.”

“Good night,” he repeated, then took her hand in both of his and raised it to his lips, placing a soft kiss on the back, his eyes never leaving her face. “Until then.”

He waited until she opened the door and stepped into the lobby, then she watched until he got into his car and drove away.

When she was sure that he would not return, she rapidly walked through the main lobby of the building and then exited through the rear. Keeping as close to the shadows as possible, she began the long walk back to where she actually lived.

Trust did not come easy, plus she could not be sure that they were not being followed. Either one of them. Still feeling the pressure of his lips on her hand, she again began to question the wisdom of this newest plan of hers. Though she did not think it possible, it seemed that perhaps she had more to lose than she thought.
Chapter 2--From Spy to RI by RIgirl
Emboldened by her smaller successes over the past few weeks, Kaori decided it was time to try something a bit more daring. Being neat and efficient, Warren’s office and desk usually did not have anything out in plain view that he was not working on at the time. Which meant that he would be sitting there, hunched over it.

Not exactly ideal for spying purposes, though a few times she was able to read phone messages upside down. Although Warren’s primary concerns were of an environmental nature, there was apparently something else going on which involved several calls from both the primary Hontworl police force and the Secret Police. It was this last that made Kaori decide to attempt further investigation.

Waiting until she knew he would be out of the office, Kaori approached Annette, Warren’s young secretary, timing it so that she approached just as Annette was getting ready to go to lunch. Kaori gave Annette a conspiratorial smile.

“Is there any way that you could let me into his office for just a quick minute?” Kaori asked the woman, quickly showing her the small folded paper she held cupped in her palm. Leaning close to the girl, Kaori whispered, “I just want to leave him a little something to find when he gets back, you know?”

Annette flashed her a bright smile, her eyes lighting up at the thought, and immediately retrieved the key to Warren’s inner office door from her purse. “Of course! And take your time, there’s no rush. He shouldn’t be back for a while.”

Kaori straightened up and watched the twenty-something year old open the door. Annette was a big fan of romance novels, and had just begun dating herself, so any romantic gestures were met with great enthusiasm, especially when they involved her single boss.

Annette turned and winked at Kaori, who merely nodded her head in thanks. Once Annette left, Kaori softly closed the door, dropped the square of blank paper into her pocket and went to work. She booted up the computer first, then typed in his pass codes. She sighed inwardly.

A creature of habit, he used the same pass codes on a rotating basis; if one failed, Kaori simply tried the other. Within a minute, she was in. She really needed to tell him that he needed to be better about changing the codes. After she got what she needed, of course.

Scanning quickly, Kaori copied the documents that looked to be of particular interest to a blank USB key she had inserted into the computer. Just as it finished downloading, she heard a voice directly outside the door and could see a man’s outline through the frosted glass.

Warren! She glanced at the clock. He had come back early and there was no graceful way out …

* * *

“Just e-mail me the changes,” Warren called out to the Minister of Transportation, “and I’ll look them over tonight.” Warren unlocked the door and swung it open, then stopped short at the sight before him.

“Well, this is a nice surprise,” he said, his eyes taking in the sight of Kaori standing before his bookcase, a large volume held open in front of her. She had stripped off her jacket and unbuttoned the top three buttons of her blouse. She had bit her lips for a dark pink, pouty effect, which she now rounded to an innocent ‘o,’ her eyes widening as if just caught red-handed.

“Warren! I thought you weren’t supposed to be back yet,” she said in a breathy and breathless voice, holding the book close to her as if hiding behind it.

A corner of his mouth lifted in a smile as he stepped into the room. “I wasn’t, but a dignitary from Ameris overbooked himself and we had to cut the meeting short.” His eyes pointedly grazed over her figure. “To what do I owe this visit?”

Kaori licked at her lip. “Well, I … just thought it would be a perfect time to … read up a little more on …,” she quickly glanced down at the book she held and read off the title, “ … the effects of offshore sound waves on aquatic life.”

Warren blinked. “Really? I didn’t know the subject interested you.”

“Oh, yes,” Kaori bluffed. “In fact, I was watching a program about it last night, and I knew you would probably have more information on it – who better, really? – but I didn’t want to bother you, so when I saw you were out, I just thought I’d come in and see if I could find something …”

“Oh, sure,” Warren said, moving past her to the bookshelf, “in fact, there are some other books here, then, that you might also be interested in. Here’s one on sonar testing …” he pulled one weighty tome off of a middle shelf, then leaned down, “ … and one on dampening offshore energy sound.” When he straightened up, he held the two thick volumes out to her. For just a moment, she saw his eyes drop to the V of her blouse.

“So, uh, anyway,” he stammered, trying to find the thread of his thoughts once again, “you could borrow these, if you’d like.”

Kaori gave him a deep and knowing smile, then quickly moved and grabbed her jacket from the chair. “Thank you, Minister. That’s very kind of you.”

He gave her a puzzled look at her sudden formality, then belatedly realized that there was someone standing at the door.

“If you gentlemen will excuse me,” she murmured as she quickly stepped out and hurried back to her own desk.

Warren watched her leave with a decidedly disappointed look on his face. The Director of Community Affairs chuckled beside him.

“Sorry to have interrupted, Warren,” he said with a grin, “but I really do need to talk to you ….”

* * *

“All I’m asking for is one day,” Warren pleaded.

“I just don’t think we should,” Kaori held out, knowing full well where this would lead and not really wanting to go there. It was one thing to go out to dinner with him, and to accompany him to concerts and movies and such, but time away, even for one day ... just the two of them alone ... made her feel as though she were standing at the edge of cliff deciding whether or not to jump. What they had now was enough. Couldn’t things just stay that way?

Warren blew out a sigh and ran his hand through his hair before he tried one last time. “Please, Kelly, it’s a holiday weekend. You said yourself that you had no plans and you’ll be all alone anyway. Does it really matter if you’re with me instead of alone for just one day?”

Yes, she answered mentally, it matters a great deal.

“Just come with me and at least let me show you the cabin. You would only have to stay the day,” he bargained, “and I promise I will drive you right back again. What do you say?”

What could she say? Kaori turned her attention to the window. Outside, the first few flakes of snow were beginning to fall.

* * *

They made it to the cabin just before the flurries turned into a full scale snowstorm, turning the world a pure, clean white. With the roads treacherous with black ice and mounting snow, it was clear that neither of them would be returning to the city any time soon.

After an early dinner, they bundled up and went for a walk. Warren, engrossed in pointing out different landmarks and telling her of the stories connected to them, never saw her bend down briefly to scoop up some loose snow in the palm of her hand, nor pack it. He did not realize what she was up to at all, until the snowball hit him squarely in the back of his coat.

“I cannot believe you just did that,” he admonished.

Kaori grinned back at him, another snowball balanced innocently on the palm of her hand. “Why? You really think me incapable of throwing a snowball?”

“No,” he said, a wicked smile lighting his face and he bent down, “I just thought for sure that I would be the one to make the first pitch.” And with that, he threw a snowball at her. She dodged, but need not have bothered as it went wide and low. Kaori quickly threw the one she held, then packed another snowball and threw it, this time striking him on the shoulder.

“Oh, that is it, missy,” he teased. “The gloves are coming off, now!”

“Better not,” Kaori called back, “or you’ll get frostbite!”

By the time they went back inside, the darkness falling as fast as the snow, they were both flushed and breathless and soaking wet. They were also still laughing as they shucked off their boots and wet outer things.

Reaching over, Warren swiped at a bit of snow that clung to Kaori’s hair, just as their eyes locked. Without seeming to, without meaning to, before she could think, or act, his lips brushed against hers, then hesitated just a moment before returning, demanding, daring her to pull away.

Not that she wanted to. But she did anyway.

“It would seem that a warm bath would be in order,” she commented softly, suddenly conscious of her wet hair and clothes.

“Uh ...” Warren tried to think of a fast response, but his mind went blank.

“There are bathrooms here, right?” she said with a smile.

“Uh, yeah. Uh, you can take the upstairs bathroom, I’ll use the one down here ...”

“ ...and I’ll be on the couch before you?” Kaori quipped.

Warren nodded. “Sounds good. There should be a bathrobe in the closet ...” he paused a moment, a wicked light in his eyes, “if you really need it.”

* * *

Her hair was still wet, though this time from just having been newly washed, as she padded back into the large common room where Warren crouched before the fireplace, a cheery fire blazing. His hair, too, was still wet and slicked back, and he wore a robe similar to hers, except his was of a dark flannel.

“Well, don’t you look all rugged,” Kaori said as she took a seat on the couch, folding her legs up beneath her. He blinked when he saw her, dressed as she was in the white, fluffy, full length bathrobe and slippers she had found.

“Thanks. I see the robe fits.”

“Oh, yes, very well, thank you. Hopefully, it won’t take long for our clothes to dry.”

Warren shrugged. “It’s not as though we’ll need them fast. No one’s going anywhere just yet. There’s hot chocolate in the mug there, if you want it.”

Kaori took up one mug and held it for a moment, letting the warmth of the cup seep into her cold fingers.

“I take it that it’s still snowing out?” Kaori asked, as she watched Warren stoke the fire, his muscles moving with an economy of motion, the fire warming his complexion and his bathrobe gaping open at the neck ...

“Yeah, it’ll probably turn out to be the last storm of the season too,” he answered as he turned to look at her.

Suddenly self-conscious, she quickly took another sip of the cocoa.

“Is it hot enough for you?”

“What?” she nearly choked.

“The cocoa,” he clarified as he rose to his feet and joined her on the couch. “Is it hot enough for you?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, taking another sip for show, “it’s fine. Great.”

“If you’d rather have tea, or coffee ...”

“No, no. This is fine. Really.”

The fire filled in the silence as they each sat on their side of the couch, unsure as to what to do or say next. Kaori swirled the cup and watched the liquid spin. When she looked over at Warren, she blushed to find him staring at her.

“Did you have any marshmallows?” he asked in a sudden non sequiter.

“What?”

“I completely forgot about them,” he said as he reached to retrieve a small bowl that Kaori had thought was a sugar bowl. He held it out to her. “Would you like some, for your cocoa?”

“That’s okay, but thanks anyway.”

Kaori smiled as Warren helped himself to two, one of which he popped into his mouth. Before he could do the same with the other, however, Kaori impulsively arrested his wrist and led it to her mouth, and after she took the mini marshmallow from him, licked off the powdery sugar dust from each finger. Warren felt his breath catch at the back of his throat.

Leaving his one hand in hers, with his free hand, he lightly brushed his fingertips against her cheek.

“Warren ...”

Moving slowly, he leaned in to her, his eyes never leaving hers. Kaori gripped the mug in an effort to keep from spilling it. From her cheek, he drew his fingers down to her mouth and traced along her bottom lip, letting it linger there for just a moment before placing his lips there, as though his finger had merely been marking the spot.

Kaori felt the feather light touch tease hers, and wondered at the response it drew from her. She returned the kiss, tasting the sticky sweetness as their lips met, and, just at the moment she thought he would take full possession of her mouth, he broke it off and placed his forehead to hers.

“Please,” he whispered, his eyes studying hers.

“Please what?”

“Just … please,” and he covered her mouth again, deepening the kiss just as she had hoped he would.

It would be so nice, she thought, to just give in, and give over, just once more.

She felt his hands slip beneath her robe and he gave a throaty growl.

“Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” he asked, his voice harsh with emotion.

“No,” she said, swallowing hard, “but I wouldn’t object if you wanted to tell me.”

He reached up and stroked her still damp hair as he looked at her as though trying to memorize each and every detail of her face. “So what tipped it in my favor?”

She shrugged as she placed a hand on his arm, felt the latent power of muscle and bone beneath the robe’s flannel. The fire’s heat brought a hot blush to her face.

“You ...” she breathed out, all of her desire conveyed in a single word.

He stood then, taking her by the hand, and taking the cup from the other. With knowing anticipation, she let him lead her upstairs to his own bedroom.

It had been so long …

* * *

“You look like the cat that swallowed the canary,” he teased the next morning as she awoke.

“Not possible,” she yawned. “The cat would be full and I am decidedly hungry.”

He gave her a wolfish grin and slid closer to her, one questing hand finding the curve of her bare hip. “I guess, then, it would now be a question of what kind of hunger, because I am ravenous as well ...” his words trailed off as his hand continued on its way.

As his hand slid over her stomach, caressing the smooth skin, his fingertips trailed down, eliciting the desired moan. Her eyes were closed, head tossed back against the pillow as she reveled in soft touch of Warren’s hand on her body. Then he stopped.

“Were you injured here?”

Kaori’s eyes snapped open. “No. Why?”

His fingers stroked her lower abdomen again, this time with deliberate concentration. “What happened to your skin here ...”

Her heart skipped and she followed his gaze towards the marks. “Oh, that,” she replied, swallowing hard. A lie was always more believable when there was a kernel of truth to it ...

“It’s from when I was pregnant.”

“You have a child?” Warren exclaimed, his eyes widening as he struggled to sit up.

“No. I bore a child, but I do not have a child.”

“You gave it up for adoption?”

Kaori licked at her bottom lip as she thought about how much to tell him. “I was too young, really, for such responsibility.”

He blinked at this news, this woman who was such a mystery continuing to surprise him at every turn. “Kelly, I had no idea. To think that you ...”

“Warren, please,” Kaori glanced away, the sudden tears in her eyes blurring her vision. The pain of the truth lanced through her, while at the same time she felt a sudden need to not reveal too much. Even now, even with him, she did not dare. Anyone and everything was still suspect. “Can we please not talk about this any more?”

“I’m sorry,” he apologized quickly. “It’s just that ... you really take me by surprise with things, you know?”

He relaxed back beside her, taking her into his arms once more.

“Was it a boy or a girl?” he asked a few minutes later. “Do you know where the child is now?

“No, I don’t know,” she replied honestly, quietly adding, “and I was never told of its gender.”

Shock registered openly on his face as he rose up once again. “You bore a child and you don’t even know whether it was a boy or a girl?”

“No,” she responded swiftly, turning her head to stare him in the eye. The complete lie came fast and easy to her. “When I went into labor, I requested that no one tell me and they obliged. Afterwards, it was as though I had merely had a medical procedure and nothing more.”

“But how can you stand to not know?” he insisted. “I would want to know ...”

“Yes, I know you would, but you have to understand that it just ... made it easier ... things being this way,” she said, pressing her lips together a moment, the fleeting image of Ken the last time she saw him rising up in her mind.

He returned to his place beside her again, his body pressing against hers as he slid one arm under her shoulders while the other took possession around her waist. He leaned in close and whispered, “Do you think that, perhaps, with the right temptation, you would be amenable to eventually having another?”

She locked her mouth onto his, moving her hands such that he groaned and moved into her. And through it all, Kaori hoped that he would not remember that she never answered his question.

* * *

It was a large gathering, larger than he cared for, but in his capacity as Security Chief in the ISO, attendance at such things were called for, especially in the political climate within which they now found themselves. Nambu waved away a server bearing a silver tray of champagne flutes, as the Secretary to State of Ameris greeted him. As the man talked, Nambu saw a couple enter and his mind barely registered them. Until he looked again.

It was her. Wasn’t it? Granted, it had been a long time since they had seen each other face-to-face, but he could recognize the shape of the nose, the curve of the chin, for he saw them all the time in the face of her son. It had to be her.

Tall in the high heels she wore, but still slightly shorter than the man standing beside her, Kaori wore her now light ash blonde hair in a loose bun, ringlets falling charmingly around her face and down the back of her head. Still thin, now elegantly so, in a dark blue column gown that hugged every curve. From the front, the dress had a draped boat neck collar to her shoulders, and she turned around, it plunged to the small of her back, where it stopped in a small, gathered drape of fabric, then fell in a straight line to the floor. A dramatic slit up one side revealed one leg to mid-thigh. The only jewelry she wore were a sparkling pair of diamond earrings.

Nambu watched as the man beside her placed a hand to the small of her back. Possessively. As if he had the right. And, remarkably, she let him do it as he guided her over to the next small clutch of party attendees.

Nambu took the proffered glass and had consumed half its contents before he remembered that it was champagne. He coughed as the alcohol hit the back of his throat.

“Are you okay, Hakase?” the Ameris Secretary asked, a ripple of concern on his features. Nambu waved him away.

“Just ... swallowed wrong. If you will excuse me, I think I need to step out for a breath of air.”

“Certainly, certainly,” the man said jovially, immediately turning to his left and inserting himself into the conversation of the people standing behind them.

Nambu walked out onto the large esplanade and went to the thick stone balustrade that encircled it. He placed his half-empty glass on the stone top and breathed in the warn summer air deeply. From where he stood, he could still hear the spill of laughter, talk and music from the ballroom, but it was quieter here, and no one was around. Until she stepped beside him.

“I would be remiss in my duties if I did not say hello to you, Nambu Hakase,” she said, loud enough so that anyone listening nearby would not find it strange that they should be there together. “My name is Kelly Winslow, and I am personal secretary to the Defense Minister of Hontworl. How do you do?”

He took her hand, shaking it briefly as he turned to face her directly. “You think this is wise?” he asked sotto voce.

“It would look very much out of place if I did not,” she replied in an equally low tone. Together, they turned so that they stood side-by-side, gazing out over the city lights.

“You are looking well,” he finally said after a time.

“Thank you. You as well,” she returned. She paused a moment, then said, “I should tell you now that I have come to a decision.”

He glanced over at her, but did not move his head, nor did he speak.

“Once this part is done, I am finished with this. I want out.”

“That’s not possible. Your position ...”

“Then make it possible,” Kaori interrupted.

“It’s not that easy and you know it. You’re the only one who knows all of the angles and the details ...”

“Long ago you said you would bring other agents. Well, start bringing them up to speed now so that whenever this is finished, I can step out. Permanently.”

“May I ask what brought this on?”

“I’m tired of this, Nambu, and I want to try to have a life as other people do, while there is still life yet left to live.”

“With him?” he guessed.

She nodded her head. “Yes, with Warren.”

Nambu’s eyes narrowed as concern washed over his face. “Does he know? About you? About what you’re doing?”

Kaori sighed and looked Nambu in straight in the eye. “No. Not everything. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Right now, he only knows that I ... that I had a child. But that is all.”

“It could enough. Suppose he is a double agent ...”

“He isn’t,” Kaori snapped impatiently.

“Really, I don’t think this is a wise idea. And as your colleague, I can’t understand ...”

“Then try to understand as my friend,” Kaori said gently, firmly, “and just be happy for me.”

“How can I? What about him?” Nambu asked pointedly.

“What about him?” Kaori repeated. “He will simply come with me, of course. I know we won’t be able to pick up where we left off, but still ...”

“He isn’t some pet, some pliable baby any more, you know.”

“Of course I know that,” she countered. “I’m well aware of the years. But that still doesn’t mean ...”

“You can’t just drag him from pillar to post and completely uproot him ...”

“We can work out, Nambu,” Kaori argued. “We still have time. We can always come up with something, so that it won’t be so jarring or disruptive to him.”

“You’re not understanding me. His training can’t be interrupted now ...”

“Training?” Kaori slid a sidewise glance at him. “What training? I thought you said he was at the Academy.”

“He was, but he has also been in, ah, special training, in addition to what he has learned at school.”

“But ... training for what?”

“He’s been selected for placement on an elite team.”

“He’s that good?”

“Good enough.”

“And what, exactly, is this team for?” Kaori persisted. “And what type of special training are we talking about here ...?”

Rapidly approaching footsteps halted Nambu from replying.

“Nambu?” When he did not answer, Kaori turned then, following Nambu’s gaze and saw a man -- Warren -- step up to them. A warm smile lit his face as he caught Kaori’s eye.

“Sorry to interrupt, but I need to borrow Kelly for a moment. We’re having a bit of a lively debate and I need her to be our referee.”

“Certainly, Warren,” Kaori said with a beaming smile of her own to him. She turned to Nambu. “It was very nice meeting you, Hakase. I trust that we will take up this topic again soon?”

“Perhaps,” Nambu replied faintly, his eyes meeting hers unflinchingly. Then she turned and they walked towards the ballroom doors. Once again, Warren had placed a proprietary arm around Kaori’s waist. Together, they were the picture of a glittering, perfect couple.

Was this really righteous indignation that he felt, on behalf of Ken, that his mother could behave so thoughtlessly? Or was it because of a jealous envy?

Nambu grabbed the glass in front of him and downed the rest of it, hoping that it would dull his senses just enough to keep him from thinking and get him through the remainder of the evening.

* * *

Kaori stopped in the hallway a few feet before the open door and listened.

“I know what I saw … no. No, absolutely not ... that’s an insult! I will not ... I refuse ... Yes, absolutely ... who do you think are, to say such things to me? ... oh, really? ... and if I choose not to? ... you think so? ... yes, that’s correct ... No, I do not wish to hear any more of anything you have to say ... yes, you can directly me quote me all you like to your captain.”

Kaori held her breath as she listened to Warren’s side of the telephone conversation. When she heard him hang up, she waited a few seconds, then walked in.

“Hey there,” she said, walking around the desk to where he sat. “I missed you.”

Warren sat back in his chair and reached for her, pulling her by a hand until she was seated on his lap. He stroked the filmy, silky fabric of her nightgown against her thigh.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, nuzzling her shoulder as he breathed in the smell of her lilac-scented shampoo on her hair. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“You didn’t,” she said, then, “is there a problem?”

“Nothing you need to worry about,” he said abruptly. “We’ll handle it.”

“But maybe I can help …”

“It’s nothing, Kel,” Warren said tightly, “just drop it.”

“But, Warren, it almost sounded as if you were being threatened ...”

Warren pulled back and stared at her with a fixed intensity, then his features softened. “It’s nothing. It’s all just verbal sparring. You know how it is in politics ...”

“No, I don’t,” Kaori said, her voice hard. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“Because you don’t need to about such ... petty pissing matches. And besides,” he said firmly, “I don’t want you involved with this. Trust me … the less you know, the better.”

* * *

She grabbed the phone receiver on the second ring. “Ministry of Defense.”

“Hey, Kel, it’s me.”

“Yeah, Warren, what’s up?” Kaori glanced at the clock on her computer monitor and frowned. 12:35. “Aren’t you supposed to be at a lunch meeting?”

“I am,” he said and she could almost hear the smile in his voice, “but I forgot the environmental impact studies in my office and Annette’s not answering her phone.”

“She must have stepped out for lunch.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Anyway, would you do me a favor and go into my office, get the studies and bring them to me here?”

Kaori frowned in thought. “Sure, where’s ‘here’?”

“Our restaurant.”

“On my way.”

Within minutes, Kaori grabbed her purse, walked down the hallway to Warren’s office to retrieve the requested documents, and was on her to the restaurant where they had gone on their first date. They frequented it so much since then that they knew the owners and staff by name and, though the restaurant was not normally open during business lunch hours, they would make exceptions for Warren, all so that he could entertain the heads of governments from around the world in their humble little restaurant.

It was here that Kaori now headed and strolled in through the front door without a thought. Warren rose to his feet at the moment he saw her, and she handed him the file. A murmured thank you, a furtive, quick kiss on the cheek, and Kaori turned to leave, when on second thought, she headed back towards the kitchen. She was deep in conversation with Maria, the head chef and owner’s wife, when she heard the unmistakeable sound that had her moving without even realizing it.

“Everybody get down,” she yelled in strained whisper. “Down! Down!”

Maria looked at her with large, frightened eyes. “What was that noise?”

Kaori shook her head and placed a finger to lips to indicate that no one was to speak. She waited a moment, then, using hand gestures, indicated that they were to leave through the back door. Instead of allowing them to remain huddled at the door, she led them back, farther into the alleyway.

“What was that?”

“What just happened?”

“Just stay here,” Kaori snapped. “Just stay put until I or the police come to get you, all right?”

Taking the nods of assent as their promise, Kaori returned to the rear of the restaurant, staying in a low crouch and keeping close to the walls. She pulled out the small handgun that she wore in a thigh holster. It lacked the fire power she would have preferred, but it was a gift from Warren and he meant well.

Holding the gun braced with both hands, she re-entered the restaurant kitchen, then slipped into the small hallway, stopping short of the double hinged doors leading into the dining room. One door was closed, but the other stood propped open at an angle. From her vantage point, Kaori could see into the room. Several bodies were on the floor, including Warren’s.

Her breath hitched in her throat and her heart pounded double time. He had taken four bullets, one in the stomach, two in the chest ... and she would have been the first to administer first aid were it not for the fact that the final bullet took half of his skull with it. Even from this distance, she knew that glassy look in his eyes meant that he was now seeing a world beyond this one. Tears momentarily blurred her vision and then her attention was snapped back at the sound of voices.

Moving noiselessly, she eased as close to the door as possible without actually stepping through it, using it as shield. She could now see the people in the dining room through the double reflection of the mirrors lining the room’s walls.

To her surprise, she recognized several men as being from the Secret Police. How had they gotten there so quickly? No one from the restaurant had thought of calling before she herded them out ... and surely no one from a neighboring building could have heard the bullets ...

Kaori’s blood froze in her veins as she recalled Warren’s conversation only the night before.

“... you can directly me quote me all you like to your captain.”

That explained why Kaori could not find anything leading to a third party. It was not that they were looking the other way; that someone was paying them off to cover up, have evidence appear or vanish on demand, and allow things to drop quietly. They were the ones doing everything internally. And now they killed him ...

“ ... and the woman? Where is she?” a voice demanded. “We know she came in here. We saw her.”

Without waiting, Kaori ran back through the kitchen and into the alleyway.

“Go home,” she instructed to the small group without pausing as she ran down the alleyway. “Just go home and, if any one asks, say you never left.”

Keeping to the alleyways, Kaori stopped only once, to pull out a scarf, which she used to carefully cover her hair. A pair of dark sunglasses followed. When she reached a certain area of the city, she was forced onto the main sidewalk but fortunately, the icy blast of winter winds meant that most people kept their collars turned up, their heads down, and no one was particularly interested in anything other than getting to their destination to warm up.

She wandered around, ultimately seeking out a secluded part of the park. A rush of tears came as she remembered that first date, when they came here and watched the fireworks. Pushing the thought away, she walked around in circles until her cell phone rang. Flipping it open, she just started speaking.

“They killed him ...”

“I know, I just heard ...”

“ ... the bastards murdered him!”

“I know. Where are you? We’ve got to get you out of there.”

“I want them dead! Do you hear me? I want their balls in a bag ...

“Will you listen to me?” Nambu’s hand shook at the sound of hysteria in her voice. “We need to get you out of there now ...”

“No,” she said flatly. “This isn’t over yet ...”

“For you it is,” Nambu ordered. “As of right now, I’m pulling you out of there. Do you hear me?”

“I won’t go,” she refused again. “Not until that filthy scum pay for this ...”

“You need to leave. You’re not safe there and you won’t be doing anyone any good the way you are now. You need to get away, just calm yourself down...”

“I am calm!”

“ ... and when the time is right, we can get you back in. You’ll still get your chance, I promise ...”

“I can hunt them down right now ...”

“Please, listen to me ...” Nambu paused for a breath and waited a moment. When she did not reply right away, he continued. “Do you know where the Pondieux air strip is?”

“I-I think so.”

“Can you get there immediately? Or are you with others right now?”

“No. No, I can do it.” Her voice was more subdued now, if still slightly strained.

“All right. Go there and a contact will be waiting for you.”

“Understood,” she acknowledged. Then, “how will I recognize him?”

“Them,” Nambu corrected, “and trust me, you’ll know them when you see them.”

* * *

Boritz had suspected there was something off about her. Something that he did not like and did not trust. His instincts, as always, were right on the money. And he did not like the thought that she had played him for a fool. He was pacing when the group of Secret Police entered his private home office.

“It has all been done as you requested, Minister,” the Head of the Secret Police reported. “It should be all over the internet and the news that the murders of several high officials has been committed.”

“And you have her in custody, yes?” Boritz demanded. The Head of the Secret Police hesitated a moment. “Please tell me that that traitorous bitch is going to be the next one through that door, dead or alive!”

“Actually, no,” the man said, giving a small bow. “With all due respect, it would seem that she had escaped our initial foray into the restaurant and has not been seen since. We have all units on alert ...”

“Not good enough,” Boritz declared coldly, then reached under the desk to pull out a small handgun. “With all due respect, when you work for Galactor, you do everything properly the first time, because there is no second time.” With that, he shot the man squarely in the chest.

As the man fell to the floor, Boritz turned his attention to the dead man’s second in command. He had heard things about the tall blond man with the small, hard eyes and long, thin face. Apparently he had certain proclivities that involved riding crops and whips. To Boritz, however, that was neither here nor there, so long as he got the job done. He made up his mind in that instant. “You there. You are now the new Head of Secret Police.”

“Thank you, sir.” He gave a little bow in Boritz’s direction.

“I trust that you will be able to succeed where your predecessor has failed?”

“I will try, sir. I mean, yes, sir!” the man said nervously, eyeing Boritz’s dark look and obviously quick trigger finger.

“I want you to find her. Find out who she is, all of her aliases, everything there is to know. I want everything about her.”

Boritz stood there a moment, one hand clenched behind his back, as his other hand held the cigar that he now chewed on thoughtfully. “One more thing. Your official report will read, in part, that whoever she is, when you find out her real identity, a k a Kelly Winslow, and whatever other false names she has used, is to be assumed and approached as armed and dangerous, wanted, in part, for various crimes of treason against the country of Hontworl, up to and including tampering and/or theft of official government documents, to be used or sold to known enemies of the country, as well as being the primary suspect in the murders of several of its most prominent citizens, all of whom served in a governmental capacity to the good of the people.”

“Yes, sir,” the newly appointed head of the Secret Police said with a slight bow. “Anything else?”

“Yes,” Boritz said, fixing the man with a hard stare. “When you find her ... and I do expect you to find her ... I want her brought in alive, you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I want to be the one who brings that bitch to heel,” he said, snapping his teeth tightly into the cigar, “and then I want the pleasure of seeing her die ... slowly ... at my hand.”

“Yes, sir,” the man repeated, then turned to leave.

“Oh, and on your way out,” Boritz added as he stepped over to the window, “be sure to take that one with you,” here he made a vague gesture with his hand towards the corpse on the floor, “and dispose of him as you see fit. Hell, add him to the list in your report. Died in the line of duty. That ought to make his mother proud.”
Chapter 3--The Mysterious Red Impulse by RIgirl
He had been right about that part, at least. The Pondieux air strip was a small airport in the middle of empty fields and there was no mistaking the two men in scarlet red standing in the midst of the gray and brown barren, winter ground. As she walked up to them, the shorter of the two men greeted her with a small smile and a slight bow, while the taller man wordlessly handed her a bag with a small two-fingered salute to his temple.

“Through that door,” the stocky man said, “and to your right, is a ladies’ room. Change in there and, I hate to rush you, but we will leave in five minutes.”

Kaori blinked at that, but said nothing. Once inside the bathroom, she locked the door and saw that the bag contained the same red uniform as theirs. Slowly, reluctantly, she stripped off her own suit jacket and skirt and held onto them for a moment, swaying slightly. To let go of them now would be to let go of another link to him.

That he was really gone ... killed right before her eyes ...

A sharp rap at the door brought her out of her thoughts. Quickly, she finished dressing, stuffed the bag and her own clothes deep into the trashcan and walked out. The stocky man again gave her another slight bow when he saw her.

“Allow me to be the first to welcome you as the captain of the Red Impulse squad,” he said with a broad smile. “We need to be going, though, as we will be making a number of connections. It was thought best to take a slower, more circuitous route so as to not raise any more flags than necessary, but unfortunately, it means we will be traveling for quite some time.”

Leading the way out to the air strip where a transport plane stood ready, its engines idling, the stocky man kept up his commentary.

“My name is Masaki, and he is Oniishi. I’ll explain why he is not able to speak at a later, less public time ...”

He continued talking long after they were in the air, often asking Kaori questions that she answered with one word and half a mind. She wanted to think back, to remember, but Masaki and his questions would not allow that.

Later, she realized that that was no doubt what was intended.

After all, how would it have looked if the captain of the Red Impulse squad was sitting there bawling her eyes out, once the anger burned off and only the searing pain of grief remained?

* * *

They left her alone for the first three days, with one or the other of them leaving trays of food at her doorstep, most of which she did not even touch. Beyond that, they did not bother her. She watched Warren’s funeral via internet web casts, her heart tearing in pieces to see his family there, his grandmother, and her, his fiancee, noticeably absent, with a warrant out for her arrest ...

Before daybreak on the fourth day, however, a crisp knocking on the door woke her out of a fitful sleep.

“Rise and shine,” Masaki called out good-naturedly.

“Leave me alone,” she yelled back, pulling the blanket over her head.

“My deepest apologies, but we cannot do that.” He waited for a half a minute and when she did not answer, knocked long and loud on the door again.

“Go away!”

“We have our orders, and you do too,” Masaki reminded her, “which means that either you come out voluntarily ... or we will be forced to enter.”

Another five minutes past, but the two men stood next to the door. Since they could hear movement, they assumed that she was getting ready. Another minute more and the door was flung open and she stormed out.

“There,” she snarled at them. “Happy now?”

“Truly, you are a ray of sunshine ...”

“Oh, stuff it, Masaki,” she muttered, stomping by them.

As they watched Kaori’s progression down the path, Masaki grinned and looked over at Oniishi. “Not really a morning person, is she?”

A faint smile tugged at Oniishi’s mouth.

“Are you two going to stand there and take pot shots at me,” she demanded, turning to look back at them, fisted hands on her hips, “or are we going to get on this? Because if not ...”

“You have only to issue the order, captain,” Masaki murmured as he and Oniishi followed after her.

* * *

The weeks and months after that blurred into one endless training session for Kaori. It was not until she was back with the two of them that she realized how far she had fallen from the shape she had been in when she had been in the military. She was not even in the same physical condition as she had been in when she was a test pilot.

To blot out the pain, and the grief, Kaori threw herself into her re-training, pushing herself far harder than Masaki or Oniishi thought wise, but she would not, they knew, listen to them.

The only thing that brought her even a modicum of solace was the fact that she was able to fly a jet fighter once more. They went on practice runs, learning how they flew individually and as a team, perfecting and coordinating their movements so that flying as a trio became as natural as breathing to all of them.

Whenever they were called in for duty, they wanted to be certain that there would no error on their part. They each had their own reasons for hating Galactor, for wanting an end to this madness, and they each put aside their own personal lives for this.

No longer three individual people, from this point forward, they were Red Impulse. They only needed the chance now to show the world what they could do.

* * *

Even after all these months, it still seemed odd to talk to Nambu via a monitor. To speak aloud, without fear of being overheard by the wrong people, was an idea with which she still felt uncomfortable.

“How are things progressing with the squad?” Nambu asked.

“Very well. There are a few things that we have decided we would still like to work on, a few techniques that we want to try, but all in all, we should be ready for deployment at any time.”

Nambu glanced down in thought, a hand cupping his chin. “That’s good to hear.”

After a few minutes, he still did not look up at her and Kaori began to feel a little foolish standing there, staring at the monitor. It also made her suspicious.

“Is there anything else? Or was that all you wished to know?”

“Ah ...”

“Nambu?” she prodded, her eyes narrowing though he could not see the action through her visor. It was not like Nambu to not just say what he was thinking plainly, no matter how painful or distasteful. He was never one to sugar coat anything. It was one of the things she liked about him. So why the hesitation now? “Obviously there’s something else, so what is it?”

“Have you heard the news of the recent attacks?”

Kaori blinked. His question was not what she had anticipated. She thought back over the past few months. “What kind of attacks? You mean that one with some mecha called the Turtle King?”

“Yes,” Nambu said stronger now, and he looked up at her, knowing, at last, how to bring up the subject. “Exactly. There was also the giant mummy mecha ...”

“Oh, yes,” Kaori said with a nod, “I remember reading about that one not too long ago. Why?”

“They were all the work of Galactor.”

“Galactor? Are you sure?” Kaori asked, surprise lacing her voice. “I thought they were more of a political group than an active military one.”

“Apparently, they’ve decided to step up their operations.”

“To what end?”

“Ultimately, to declare Earth for themselves.”

Kaori shook her head. “I knew they were crazy, but this is beyond insane. So as part of the ISO’s special forces, we can look to be deployed at any time, is that it?”

“In part, yes. You and your squad will be on a constant on-call status.”

Kaori nodded. “It’s pretty much as we figured. But tell me, then, how is it that we have not yet been called into action if there have already been attacks?”

“Because the Science Ninja Team has performed beyond all expectations. I would anticipate that they will continue to do so, but things happen ... and back up is sometimes required ...”

“I’ve never heard of the Science Ninja Team,” Kaori murmured, as she turned over this new name in her mind.

“That is because they are a new elite team that I have organized specifically with the goal of defeating Galactor.”

“An elite team?” Kaori repeated, instantly remembering the last time she had heard Nambu say those words. Her mind made the connection, with all of its implications, in a heartbeat. “That’s what he needed that ‘special training’ for?”

“You have to understand, they have all been training under my direct supervision ...”

“After all that we know about them ...”

“ ... which is precisely how we knew what areas to train each of the members in ...”

“After all that we’ve seen them do, how brutal we know they can get ...”

“ ... and you know I would never send anyone into a situation that I did not think they could not handle ...”

“ ... After everything we did to make sure that he stayed out of their reach, and yet you let him go and fight against this band of killers?”

“ … I didn’t ‘let’ him …”

“He’s only a little boy,” Kaori insisted.

“ … he’s eighteen …”

“How could you possibly think that he could be ready to be part of a special ops team like that?”

“He’s eighteen. When you were his age, you were already enlisted and flying in the air force.”

“That was different.”

“How?” Nambu demanded, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Because that was me!”

“And you have a problem with him doing the same thing why?”

“Because this is my baby we’re talking about.”

“Who happens to be of legal age,” Nambu finished his argument.

“That shouldn’t matter!”

Nambu gave her a flat stare, causing Kaori to stop and take a step back, figuratively and literally. Nambu merely waited now, watching the expression on her face as it finally registered in her mind what she had just said.

She licked at her bottom lip as she looked everywhere but at the monitor. “So what you’re telling me is that, as an adult, he can do whatever he wishes,” she conceded softly.

“This is true.”

“And this is something that he wanted?” she asked, almost contritely.

“It is.”

“Then it really doesn’t matter what I think or how I feel now, does it?”

“No. I think we are well beyond that point now.”

“I see.” Kaori paused, trying to formulate her feelings into the proper words. “So … why are you telling me this now, if it doesn’t matter and there’s nothing I can do?”

“Because I thought you would want to know, especially considering that one of the jobs that the Red Impulse squad was created for was to provide support to the Science Ninja Team.”

Kaori lifted her head in surprise. “We … what?”

“It was one of the reasons why I held the slot of captain open for so long, actually,” Nambu confided. “I wanted only the best pilots on the Red Impulse squad, and I figured that you would want to at least be as close to him as possible. This seemed to be the best compromise we could arrange, under the circumstances.”

“Yes, under the circumstances,” Kaori said in a murmuring echo as she thought over all the implications of this new twist. “That means that I would be able to see him, then? We would actually be able to talk each other?”

Nambu’s mouth downturned. “Don’t get carried away, Red Impulse,” he warned. “Remember, he won’t know who you are ...”

“But it won’t matter now, if he knows or not, right?” Kaori countered. “I mean, if he’s already fighting Galactor, then there could be no harm in him knowing.”

Nambu opened his mouth to speak, then stopped, studying the small image of Kaori on the monitor. He chose his next words carefully, walking the thin line between the truth and not wanting to cause her any pain. Telling her that her son had spent years wishing for her return would do nothing but cause her regret and sorrow. He needed to keep them both focused, but he did not want to see them suffer, either. He closed his eyes a moment, his head starting to ache.

Visions of what Ken had been like as a child, doggedly holding onto the notion that his mother was still alive flitted through Nambu’s mind, and he had neither the strength nor the inclination to go through all of that angst again. And he certainly did not want to go through it now with Kaori. Once was more than enough with one of them.

“He is new to all of this, Red Impulse,” he began slowly. “He is not the experienced soldier that you are. Would you really want to have him so distracted like that? He needs to be focused, to have his mind cleared of all but the mission at hand given to him. He needs to learn to be a leader, not regress to being someone’s child.”

Kaori’s lips thinned as she pressed them together and she did not say anything for a moment. “You’re right,” she said at length. “Yes. Of course. He will have enough on his mind without my adding to it.”

“So then we agree that we will not to say anything to him regarding your true identity?”

Kaori opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated, before finally answering. “Yes.”

The only thing was, how hard would it be to keep her part of that agreement, she wondered.

* * *

The Godphoenix, in and of itself, was a remarkable aircraft, capable of being flown in air or in water, along with possessing the power to become the legendary firebird for which it was named.

However, in addition to its abilities of war that the Science Ninja Team knew about, the Godphoenix was also a designed for scientific purposes. Numerous sensors strategically placed around the ship sampled ambient conditions and sent the information back to Nambu’s lab, where it was stored and later analyzed.

It also gave him a good idea of what was happening. Certain feeds told him of any damage that the Godphoenix sustained and where such damage was located, while other sensors indicated things like fuel levels, air levels and pressures, and conditions through which it was flying.

And since they left on this newest mission, Nambu hovered over the monitors, going from one to the other, his anxiety mounting. The ‘fog’ that the Godphoenix had found itself in was a chemical composite, and it was also enough to make him call Red Impulse and send them to at least be in the area, on patrol.

When Ken called in for permission to fire a bird missile, he had given it, but now, as he nervously tapped his fingers against the desk, he could see by the counter that more than one had been fired. When that number dropped to only five remaining, he ordered Red Impulse to move in and at least report back to him as to the status of the situation.

Minutes ticked by. Missiles remaining two. Then one. Then none. And still no word from the Science Ninja Team that the mission had been completed.

Now he could only sit back and hope that he had made the right decision in sending Red Impulse out.

* * *

“It’s empty,” Joe said, disbelief in his voice, not wanting it to be true.

“Joe, are you sure?”

“What are going to do now?”

“Ryu, try evasion tactics,” Ken suggested. “Go back underwater.”

Just as the Godphoenix began its dive, Ken glanced up towards the horizon to see three jets streaking towards them.

“I wonder who that is,” Ken voiced his thought aloud.

“Awesome looking jets,” Jinpei admired, moving to the front.

“Watch out!” Ken said. “They’re heading our way!”

“I see ‘em, I see ‘em,” Ryu acknowledged as he pulled up on the controls, three missiles barely missing the Godphoenix, striking the three enemy aircraft behind them. “But you have admit, they’re a lot smaller and a whole lot easier to maneuver than our ship.”

“Just stay out of their way,” Ken ordered, as one of the jets passed below them, its wake shaking the Godphoenix hard enough to jolt all of them.

In short order, the three jets flew around them, no missile wasted as all found their targets.

The three jets made one last past, taking down the last three remaining enemy saucers.

“Wow,” Jinpei breathed, “they took out all of them.”

“Big deal,” Joe scoffed, “with a few more missiles, we could have too.”

“But who are they?” Ken asked, his voice soft in his awe of the piloting skills he had just witnessed.

The sound of a woman’s light laughter came over their open communication line. “Members of the Science Ninja Team, we are Red Impulse! May we meet again soon!”

“Red Impulse?” Ken gasped, though he was hardly the only one surprised. “A woman?”

“Aww, man, you mean we lost to a girl?” Jinpei groused, grumpily crossing his arms over his chest. “Girls aren’t supposed to be able to fly like that ...”

“Like what?” Jun asked, her eyes narrowing at him.

“You know, better than us men ...”

“Jinpei!” Jun admonished. “How could you say something like that? Are you saying that I can’t be better at something than a boy?”

“But, Sis, you aren’t a girl ...”

“Then what am I?” Jun demanded, her hands on her hips.

“Well, you know what I mean, you aren’t a girl girl,” Jinpei backpedaled, then looked around the control room. “Joe? Ryu? C’mon guys, help me out here ...”

But the Condor remained eerily quiet in his seat and Ryu kept all of his attention specifically concentrated on flying.

“Ken?” Jinpei tried again.

But Ken was still lost in his own thoughts. “Red Impulse,” he said aloud again, his mind replaying the superb aerial dogfight they had just witnessed. “Who are they?”

Jinpei looked up at the still angry Jun, hitched up his shoulders and gave a nervous laugh. “Their jets really were cool ...”

* * *

Masaki watched as she lined up her shots, right hand bracing her left arm just at the elbow. She squeezed off three shots in rapid succession, smoothly switched the gun from one hand to the other, and fired off another three.

Masaki squinted down the firing range at the paper target and he could just make out the six perfect holes – one in the center of the head, one at the throat, one in the target’s actual bull’s eye, one where the heart would really be, one at the stomach and the last at a place that made him cringe just thinking about …

He waited at a respectful distance until she noticed him.

“There’s a call from Nambu,” he explained as she removed the protective goggles and earmuffs.

“Thank you, Masaki,” she murmured, snapping on the gun’s safety before sliding it into the holster at her side.

“That’s some impressive shooting,” he said appreciatively, eyeing the target once more.

“I’ve been told that practice makes perfect. I thought I’d see if that were true,” Kaori replied with a shrug as she reached for the phone extension and picked up the receiver. “This is Red Impulse.”

“I want you and the Red Impulse squad to immediately fly here for stand by,” Nambu said over the crackling line.

“For?”

“We’re about to the launch the Blue Hawk. The Science Ninja Team will take the lead and escort, but I would feel better if I knew you were somewhere close by, just in case.”

“You really think Galactor would be stupid enough to try to attack something like the Blue Hawk?”

“I don’t know,” Nambu admitted, “but I would prefer our special force squad to be there and on call, just in case.”

“Understood,” she confirmed, then, “Nambu?”

“Yes?”

“Will Gatchman be flying solo or with his team for this?

There was a short pause. “Why?”

“Oh, no reason. It just occurred to me that if he were going to be in his own jet, that we should be aware of it. I mean, he does fly it out on missions and other times on his own, right?”

“Whatever it is your planning, just forget it.”

“Nambu, I’m shocked and hurt to think that you would believe such a thing of me,” she said with feigned injury.

“Now I know you’re up to something.”

Kaori pursed her lips, weighing her options. “Well, you can’t blame me,” she said in exasperation, opting for honesty. “I’m dying to see how he handles himself in the air, especially after everything you’ve told me about him.”

The line crackled with static as Nambu turned this over in his mind. “It might not be a bad idea, actually.”

“What was that?” Kaori said, pressing her ear harder to the receiver. “Did I actually hear you say that an idea of mine might be a good one?”

“I’m not saying it’s something we’ll do right now,” he countered, “but it might be worthwhile for you to evaluate his skill set, see where he might be lacking ...”

“Exactly,” Kaori pushed, “I mean, who better to know than me, right?”

“Of course, I would have to trust that even your biased opinion will also take into account that if Ken needs further training and he does not receive it, he and his teammates could die.”

Kaori frowned. “My opinion would not be biased ...”

A noise came down the line that, at first, Kaori did not recognize right away. Then, she realized what it was. The man was laughing. Actually laughing.

“Well, Nambu, you trained him,” she reasoned, “so it isn’t as though mine is the only opinion you’ve sought out. He must have been tested prior to joining the team.”

“He was, but I would want your honest opinion on his abilities as they stand now,” Nambu answered, his mind already thinking this out further. “I’m afraid that he might be getting too complacent, especially if he believes that there is no further room for improvement. I need him to push himself, to hold himself to a higher standard then everyone else. He has to be the best if we are to succeed against Galactor. And, as you pointed out, who better to know his strengths and weaknesses as a pilot than you?”

“Exactly,” Kaori said, trying to keep the excitement out of her voice. A chance to fly with her son! Just fly … no mission, no pressure … just them …

“Why don’t we discuss this further when your squad arrives. I want you here as soon as possible.”

“Understood.”

As Kaori placed the receiver back in its cradle, she could see the dark outlines of Masaki and Oniishi waiting in the doorway.

“Pack your toothbrushes, boys,” she called out to them. “We’re heading out.”

* * *

Nambu’s call meant that her own plans for the afternoon were scrapped, but since it meant flying with Ken, Kaori did not really mind.

She headed her jet towards the coordinates Nambu had given her, and as she got close, began scanning the empty blue for his plane. A red blip from her jet’s radar told her where he was. She pursed her lips at the sight of the small prop plane. Not exactly the best plane to evaluate flying technique in …

… and then, in a flash and the blink of an eye, it was the G-1 before her eyes. Obviously, he had seen her.

And now that they were more evenly matched, she thought happily, they could have some fun …

* * *

Ken frowned at the fast-approaching red jet. Initially, Ken had been impressed with their flying techniques, which were tight and precise, but in the three times since they had seen or heard of the Red Impulse squad, he was no closer to knowing who, exactly, those pilots were. And, for some unknown reason, that bothered him.

“So you’ve decided to show up again, Red Impulse?” Ken called out on the open radio.

“Oh, so you do remember me, Gatchaman?” Red Impulse responded, a slight teasing in her voice.

She banked her jet and flew directly across his path, he moved in response, then followed her, before she tilted down and away, before suddenly appearing like a red streak across his flight path once more. Ken reacted, dipping his jet’s wings to avoid a collision.

“Not bad, Gatchaman. You’re just as skilled as I would expect from someone trained by Nambu Hakase.” Then, once more, just for fun, she made a hard banking left, and the belly of her jet crossed over the canopy of the G-1.

“Just who are you?” Ken demanded, his hands tightened on the controls to keep his jet steady in the air currents generated in the wake of the other jet, which dipped down and was now behind him.

“Does it really matter?” Kaori laughed, “and besides, if I were you, I’d concentrate more on polishing my skills.” Kaori shot her jet past the G-1, a plan in her mind.

“So help me,” Ken muttered, working his hands for a better grip on the jet’s controls, “today is the day I’ll find out who you really are.”

He tailed Red Impulse but she made a hard banking right before he realized it, and suddenly their jets were heading right at each other. Just seconds before Ken would have had to make a decision to stay on course or move, the red jet went up and over him, then disappeared into the horizon.

“Amazing,” Ken whispered with a shake of his head, the pilot in him appreciating the skill that Red Impulse possessed.

And based on the speed she was moving when she left, Ken could only guess that she got a call in to be somewhere else. Just like he did ... Nambu! He had nearly forgotten ...

* * *

Ken walked into the room to find Nambu staring out the window.

“On the way over, I was met by Red Impulse,” Ken informed him.

“Is that so?” Nambu replied, keeping his voice neutral.

“She really is an amazing pilot,” Ken admitted.

“There are a great many people who are gifted pilots, Ken,” Nambu admonished without thinking. “You are, and so was your mother ….”

The second the words were out of his mouth, Nambu could have bitten his tongue. The mere thought brought a look of revelation to Ken’s face.

“My mother? My mother could fly like that? Just like Red Impulse?”

Nambu heaved a sigh. “Ken, we’ve already been through this, time and again,” he said wearily, “and I’ve already told you. Yes, she was an extraordinary pilot, she was my best test pilot, in fact, and now she’s gone. You have to accept that ...”

“But I’ve never really believed it. I’m still positive that she survived and she’s out there somewhere ...”

“Ken, that’s wishful thinking and you know it. You have taken her place and instead of admiring someone else now, I need you rise to the occasion, and become the best in your own right, for the Science Ninja Team and for the world.”

“But do you think it’s possible?” Ken persisted. “Could she really be my mother? After all, there are not that many talented women pilots out there …”

“Ken, just because Red Impulse is a good female pilot, that fact in and out of itself does not make her your mother.”

Ken crossed his arms over his chest as he mulled over his last line of thought. “But if my mother really was Red Impulse, then Galactor ...”

“Ken,” Nambu interrupted, “I brought you here because I have a special mission for the Science Ninja Team ...”

Deftly, before Ken could formulate any further debates, Nambu continued, issuing the orders for the Science Ninja Team to escort the Blue Hawk to its destination.

* * *

Kaori waited anxiously as the time bomb was installed into her jet. Masaki and Oniishi likewise waited, though they were already seated in their planes. Once given the all-clear, they headed out.

“You will only have one shot,” Nambu reminded her, “so make it count.”

Kaori cut a glance over to him, a slight smile on her lips. “Given its size, Nambu, I think I should be able to hit the Blue Hawk at some point, don’t you? Or are you suggesting that I can’t hit the broad side of an aircraft?”

“If you don’t,” he replied, ignoring her jibe, “then we really have just handed over one of our best war birds to them.”

“It’s not going to happen. We won’t let it happen.”

“Good. I’ll be issuing orders to the Godphoenix to return to base, so they shouldn’t be in your way.”

Now, as they approached their target, Kaori felt the pressure of her words. She eyed the huge war machine in front of them, searching out the best place for the one missile that mattered most. That was when she spotted the bottom missile hatch open, and a missile turn to aim behind.

Right at the Godphoenix, which, for some inexplicable reason, was still flying escort.

“Masaki! Oniishi!” They were already firing before their names were spoken and the missile separated and fell away harmlessly from the Blue Hawk.

“I know regular bullets and missiles won’t deter them,” she said as they sized up their opponent, “but maybe if we go in guns blazing, it will at least provide us with a distraction. Just make sure the Godphoenix doesn’t get caught up in any of the crossfire.”

Each flying in a predetermined, designated open ‘X’ pattern, they opened fired on the Blue Hawk, and kept it up until Kaori found the spot she wanted. Her eyes narrowed, fixed on the exact moment the cross hairs met up, and she fired.

On her word that the job was finished, they pulled back and flew off.

Within a minutes, however, their radars told them that they were not alone.

“Who is that?” Masaki asked.

Kaori sighed. “Never mind. Hopefully, he’ll just give up in a few minutes and return back to the Godphoenix.”

But he did not. They watched as the G-1 continued its dogged pursuit of them.

“I don’t believe this,” Kaori muttered to herself. To Masaki and Oniishi, however, she said, “You two go on back to base and I’ll take care of him.”

Banking out of formation in a wide right turn, Kaori headed out, with Ken right behind.

“You can’t escape me,” she heard him say over the open radio.

“Gatchaman, please, stop following me.”

“Anything you can do, so can I!”

“This isn’t a contest. You need to return to your team!”

“Not until I prove once and for all who you really are.”

Kaori sighed and flew out, Ken’s jet following closely. She could not recall the specs for the G-1, but Kaori was fairly certain that outrunning him was not an option. Out-maneuvering was possible, and Kaori took a few wide turns and steep climbs and drops.

For nothing. Ken still trailed after her like a shadow.

“This is pointless, Gatchaman,” Kaori tried again. “Return to your team! Don’t you have orders to return?”

“Never mind about me. You attacked the Blue Hawk and that makes you an enemy!”

Kaori reversed her direction and Ken shot past her, but quickly corrected himself so that he was following her once more.

“I know you’re just trying to get away!” Ken said, “and I’m not going to let you!”

Just as Ken’s jet made the same cut and fly by across her canopy that she had done to his jet earlier, Kaori heard Nambu’s voice in her ear.

“Red Impulse, respond at once!”

“I’m here, Nambu. What’s the matter?”

“The ‘matter’ is that I need you to send him back!” Nambu practically yelled into the earpiece.

“What do you think I’ve been trying to do?” Kaori snapped. “He won’t listen to me!”

“Well be more forceful!”

“Why don’t you just tell him? It would be a whole lot easier coming from you …” There was a telling silence that filled the airwaves. “Nambu?”

“He turned off his communicator,” Nambu admitted finally.

“Oh, he shouldn’t have done that. Although, I must say, he really is very good …”

“Can you please focus? We’ve got a situation here … I can’t get through to the Godphoenix at all. We think they’ve been taken hostage along with the Blue Hawk.”

“What?!”

“I’ve been trying to reach them, but it’s as though all of their communication lines have been jammed or blocked somehow. The last we had them on radar, they were still on the same course with the Blue Hawk. But they must have landed because about five minutes ago, both aircraft disappeared.”

“Understood,” Kaori acknowledged. “I’m on my way.” Kaori signed off and switched on the tracking device and the red homing beam glowed on her rader. “Nice to know at least one thing can go the way you expect.” Taking a wide, banking turn, Kaori headed towards the destination.

With Ken following close behind.

Kaori sighed. “Still so very stubborn. Okay, then, let’s go see where this leads.”

* * *

Kaori landed first, and after double-checking to make sure that the coordinates coming from the missile’s homing device were correct, she got out to stare at the only place it could be. A smoldering volcano. Or so it appeared, but it would not be the first time that Galactor used such devices to misdirect and mislead. Behind her, Kaori could hear a second jet land and she turned to watch him get out.

In a brief instant, she saw his dark silhouette against the bright disc of the sun flash above her head and she instinctively moved to her right. With his intended target gone, Ken stumbled a moment, tripping over her extended leg, then took to the air again, to come straight at her, leading with his heel.

Once again, she deflected him, and he lightly somersaulted away from her, then spun around, his hands up and ready. She anticipated what he was going to do the moment she saw him pull back.

The second his arm shot out, she sidestepped and grabbed his wrist with one hand, arresting the punch. This contact made him stop and his eyes snapped to hers.

Just like that, Kaori found herself face-to-face with the boy that she had not seen in fourteen years. She held onto his wrist tightly, not wanting to let go; if anything, she wanted to pull him closer. Were his eyes still as blue? Was his hair still the same color, or had it darken as he grew up? She wanted to rip off her visor and his helmet ... to gaze at her son’s face and know him again as she had from the moment he was born ...

But ... that had to wait. Mustering all of her military training, Kaori set aside her own personal feelings. There were lives at stake and they had no time.

From his vantage point, with the bright sun on a slant across her face, it gave Ken the chance to see her eyes through the tinted visor. Eyes that seemed awfully familiar …

Her voice jolted him out of his thoughts before he could get a clear hold of the image that was just at the edge of his memory.

“Gatchaman, listen to me. The Godphoenix has been taken along with the Blue Hawk …”

“No …”

“… while you’ve been ignoring Nambu Hakase and persisted in playing games with me,” she finished.

“So, then, everyone is …”

“ ... assumed to be in the hands of Galactor,” she finished sharply. “Had you bothered to leave your line of communication open, you have known that the Blue Hawk had been taken before it even left the ground.”

“Noooo …” Ken groaned, falling to his knees.

“In that dogfight, I was able to fire a timed missile into the Blue Hawk,” she explained, turning to face the volcano once more. “Using its signals, we were able to determine that it landed in there … in that volcano. If we are not mistaken, it should also be where your teammates are being held.”

“But I don’t understand,” Ken said, rising to his feet. “Exactly who are you?”

Kaori glanced over her shoulder at him. “I am Red Impulse,” she said simply, “and if we don’t get moving and rescue the Team, that missile is going to take them out, along with the Blue Hawk, that volcano, and everything else around it.”

* * *

As they cleared the top of the volcano, they looked over the rim and could see a metal floor, vents releasing steam that acted as the screen of it being an active volcano. Ken went down first, with Kaori following, and he was already lifting up a hatch door as she joined him. Together, they looked in to see the Blue Hawk and Godphoenix below.

With an exchanged look and a nod, Ken dropped down, landing as planned on the top of the Blue Hawk’s nose, while Kaori went to the floor.

“Execute them now!” Berg Katse ordered to the soldiers standing near him. As they shouldered their guns, Kaori took aim. At the split second she saw one finger flex, she shot out the trigger, throwing the soldier back, which made the other soldiers stop to look. Taking advantage of the confusion, Kaori aimed and fired, dropping as many soldiers in as many bullets.

“Who are you?” Katse demanded.

“Red Impulse,” came the answer, “and I’m really getting sick of that question.”

Katse smirked. “All right, you want fight Galactor, then we can certainly send you to the next world along with the Science Ninja Team.”

Several panels set in the walls revolved, revealing more armed soldiers. As they jumped down, Ken’s boomerang sang out, cutting them down where they stood. Catching it on his way down, Ken landed to stand beside Kaori.

“Get them!” Katse screamed. “Get them!”

“Don’t you know that televisions should not be so loud?” Kaori said, raising her gun and taking aim. “You could ruin your hearing listening to such trash.” Katse was silenced as the monitor shattered with the single bullet that Kaori sent through it.

While Ken dealt with the onrush of Galactor soldiers, Kaori lined up her shots and was able to break apart the manacles holding the four members of the Science Ninja Team. As they fought, Kaori dashed under the Blue Hawk and located the missile she had shot there.

“There’s no more time left,” she called out to Ken, “we’ve got to get away!”

On his signal, the five members took wing and headed for the Godphoenix. Kaori waited until they were all on board and safe before she joined them.

“What about the Blue Hawk?” Jinpei asked as they lifted off.

“We’ll have to consider a gift to Galactor,” Kaori answered.

Jinpei pouted. “What a waste.”

“True, but there’s nothing we can do now.”

Within a minute, the missile detonated, taking out the Blue Hawk and the base.

Once back to where their jets were, Ken insisted on flying a little way with her and, this time, she did not stop him. Flying side by side, she glanced over at him, and seeing him in the G-1, it was hard for her to believe that he was her son. As his jet veered off, heading back towards the Godphoenix, her vision blurred with tears.

“Stay well, and do your best,” Kaori said, “and hopefully, we will meet again.”

“Goodbye, Red Impulse,” Ken replied as he flew off.

“Goodbye, Ken,” Kaori thought, a tear finally spilling down her cheek, wishing this moment could have lasted just a little longer.

* * *

Seated behind her desk, Kaori barely heard the hum of the cheap, battered air conditioner that barely kept the interior of her small one-room dwelling cool. Her only concession to the heat was that she removed the heavy red flight jacket of her uniform and draped it over the back of her chair.

Oniishi and Masaki, she knew, would not only have removed their flight jackets, but the black turtlenecks as well, and would be doing the maintenance checks on their jets in their standard issue, basic white t-shirts. For them, it really was too hot to do otherwise and she did not blame them in the least.

Head bent over blurry printouts of documents that she had recently procured from a prominent cabinet member in the Hontworl government – without said gentleman’s knowledge – she used the back of her hand to absentmindedly wipe away a bead of sweat as it trickled from her temple. Her eyes scanned the documents, searching for the words that would free her – and them – from this nightmare. So far, no luck, but maybe on the next page …

The shrill tone of the dedicated private line jarred her out of her train of thought. She glanced over, as if needing visual confirmation that the red light was lit and that it was, in fact, that line.

“Yes?”

“Red Impulse,” Nambu’s voice greeted her over the line that was untraceable, untappable and utterly the last word in private. “I need you to talk to Ken.”

Not exactly the words she thought he would say. Her brows raised with her surprise. “Anything in particular or do you just want me to wing it?”

Nambu ignored her attempt at levity. “He’s not answering my calls, he’s ignoring his communicator, and his teammates say that they haven’t seen him for the last several hours.”

Kaori shrugged and wearily pushed back a strand of hair that was plastered to her forehead. “Nambu, you’re not seriously bothering me over a bout of teenaged rebellion, are you? Whatever it is, I’m sure he’ll get over it. And, really, you’re in a much better position than I to deal with – ”

“One of his team mates decided to act on her own,” Nambu interrupted, then quickly outlined the last 48 hours for her – the foreign plants with flowers that only seemed to attack women, the AWOL teammate, the field of flowers turned into flaming ash, the situation as it now stood.

“So what do you want me to say to him that you can’t say yourself?” Kaori responded at the last.

“He refuses to speak with me, that much is clear. I need you to talk some sense into him, pound it into him if need be. I need the Science Ninja Team – [i]all[/i] of them – ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. I can’t have him off on his own and unable to lead the remainder of the team.”

Kaori sighed as she mulled this over, her mind going back to the last time she and Ken were face-to-face. “Honestly, Nambu, what makes you think he’d listen to me? We’re not exactly on the best of terms here …”

“But he will listen to you,” Nambu insisted.

“I can’t do the whole tea-and-sympathy thing …”

“And I’m not asking you to,” Nambu continued, “but he needs someone to snap him out of this. He’s got to go into this with a clear head.”

“And how is my talking with him going to do that?”

“Because you and he are commanders. You both lead specialized teams. And you, of all people, would be able to relate to how he’s feeling now.”

Kaori pressed the fingertips of her free hand to the point between her eyes, the thought of Warren still threatening to overwhelm her. “Loss is an inevitable part of war, of life. Surely he’s well aware of that by now …”

“So remind him again.”

“And how am I supposed to do that, Nambu? I don’t even know how to talk to him. Every time I do, it just seems that I end up antagonizing him …”

“I don’t need excuses,” Nambu snapped. It was bad enough that Ken did not trust him any more, he didn’t need her questioning him as well. “Just do it.”

“But …” Kaori found herself talking to static. Annoyed, she gathered her paperwork together, slid it into the secret compartment under the desk top, and grabbed her jacket. She could only hope that Masaki and Oniishi had finished in their tasks and that at least one jet would be ready to go.

* * *

“‘Just talk to him,’ he says,” Kaori muttered under her breath. “‘He’ll listen to you.’ Ha! What teenager ever listened to any adult?”

Her first, and most obvious stop, was the small house at the end of the local airport runway that she knew her son now called home. She scowled at the structure, its interior dark. Obviously, wherever he was, he was not here. Rather than run in circles, Kaori decided to wait. She had no idea that she would be waiting for hours.

Leaning up against the body of Ken’s plane, she closed her eyes as night lapped up and around her, unintentionally concealing her from the front of the house. It was the sound of footsteps on the crushed gravel walk that made her push away from the plane and step forward. An unconscious smile touched her lips as she spotted Ken, pride in her heart at seeing the fine young man he had become.

“Ken …”

“Who’s that? Who’s there?” he demanded, his voice harsh. At that moment, a cloud scudded out of the way and moonlight brightened the scene. “Oh, it’s you,” he said in an off-hand dismissal, then turned and began to stalk towards his house.

Kaori suppressed a sigh. Obviously, Ken did not intend to make this a happy little chat and he certainly did not seem too inclined to start opening up to her. So much for that. That left only one other option.

“So that’s all you’re going to do? Just walk away?” she tossed out at his back. He stopped, but did not answer her. Good, she thought, she got his attention. She went on, “Is that all that Gatchaman can do? And the Science Ninja Team is nothing but a bunch of quitters?”

“Why don’t you just leave me alone! What do you know anyway? You wouldn’t understand,” Ken retorted, still without bothering to turn around.

“Of course I wouldn’t understand,” she shot back, “I’m not the type of person who would be wasting my time feeling sorry for myself like you.”

“What?” Ken demanded, spinning in place, his body trembling with emotion.

“Ooo,” she mocked, “did I just hurt the little boy’s feelings?” Actually, she was hoping that he would be angered; at least that was an emotion she could work with, instead of being sullenly ignored. Now she just had to make him really angry ...

“You bitch,” Ken seethed, quickly closing the gap between them and grabbing her by the lapels. “If you weren’t a woman, I’d lay you out on your ass.”

“Oh, come on,” she chided. “Don’t let a little thing like that stop you. Here, will this make it easier?”

Without waiting for a reply, Kaori slapped him. She did not put all of her strength behind it, hitting him with enough force that she knew it would sting, he would know he got hit, but not enough to actually hurt him.

Ken staggered back at the blow, his mind reeling at the fact that she actually did strike him. The nerve of this woman! How dare she?

Ken recovered, just in time to feel her deliver another blow to his face, this time harder than the one before. He fell, off-balance and still stunned at the thought that she hit him.

“Come on,” Red Impulse goaded, grabbing Ken and hauling him to his feet. “You’re so eager to show me what you got? Well, then, do it!” And with that, she shoved him away.

Ken staggering, then stumbled and landed hard on his back, his grief over Jun, his frustration over the jigokillers situation, and his own doubts about being on the Science Ninja Team at all, all boiling together and flashing up into a pure, white hot anger. Was he just going to allow her to beat up on him physically, just as he himself had been beating himself up mentally?

He caught the movement of a shadow, this time bracing himself for Red Impulse before she reached him and managed to flip her up and over him. He rose to his feet just as Red Impulse landed lightly onto her feet behind him, but caught himself, still not truly wanting to hit her.

Why, he wondered, why didn’t he just knock her into next week? He wanted to – oh, how he wanted to! -- but something kept him from doing just that. What?

Red Impulse knew he was holding back; of course he was. Nambu had spoken to her of his training; she had seen for herself what he was capable of while fighting Galactor together in the past few months.

But she also remembered the blinding anger she had felt -- and still did -- over Warren’s death.

Though this was not quite the same thing, she argued to herself. She had loved Warren, truly loved him, while this girl and Ken were just teammates … unless …

A sudden flash of insight made her pause for just a moment, caught her so off-guard that it nearly took her breath away. Was that what he meant by his earlier comment that she ‘wouldn’t understand’? Was it possible that all of this was because he was facing the pain of losing his first love?

But if that were the case, she countered mentally, then why was Ken not channeling his own anger and using it to help her? To find her, or at the very least, find out what happened to her. Where was her fighter? Her take-nothing-from-no-one kid? Why was he doing this now, of all times, just when his team needed him to be a leader the most?

“Why don’t you just leave?” Ken snarled, taking advantage of the lull, turning his back momentarily to her.

“Make me,” she challenged, baiting him, channeling into her own anger once more. “Come on, you wanted a shot at me, so what are you waiting for?”

Ken turned and braced himself, but found himself being hit with another open-handed slap, this one hard enough to leave a red imprint of her hand on his cheek.

“So this is it? This is all that great Gatchaman can do?” she taunted. She pushed him backwards again, only this time his back struck the center of his plane’s propeller hard and momentarily knocked the wind out of him.

Kaori watched as her only child crumpled to the ground and stayed there.

She stared at him, almost trying to will him to his feet, to fight her, instead of just letting her do this to him. He was the leader of the Science Ninja Team, their best hope in ever defeating Galactor. For him to give up on himself, on them, on her, someone he might love, now, just when they were getting so close … after all of the sacrifices, at what this war had cost them all …?

“You can’t let losing one team mate bother you so much,” she spat out, venting her own frustration. “You think you’re the first one to ever lose someone you care about? In case you’ve missed the headline, this is a war we are fighting. Sometimes, there just isn’t any other way. I’ve been forced to see many of my ... friends ... and colleagues die. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t fair, but some times that’s the way it has to be.”

She paused, catching her breath. Ken did not move, did not respond, his face held steadfastly away from her. Were it not for the fact that she could see the rise and fall of his rib cage, Kaori would have thought she had gone too far.

“How do you even know she’s dead?” she continued on then. “Do you have any proof? Have you even tried to find her? Have any of you? Or have you been so busy stewing in your own self-pity and blaming others that you couldn’t be bothered?”

Kaori stopped again and heard a rasping breath from Ken. She did not need to see his face to know that he was crying. There was a part of her that wanted to go and comfort him, but she did not.

He needs to learn how to be a leader ... not be someone’s child again ...

Nambu’s words echoed in her mind. She swayed slightly, forcing herself to remain where she was.

“You need to learn not only how to be a leader, but also how to be part of a team. Helping her, or trying to, is what any good team member would be doing now, not this,” she concluded, then turned and rapidly strode away from him. She did not want to say any more to him and she did not want him to see her like this, either.

The first tear slid to the edge of her visor and she felt it work its way along the edge before finally coursing down her cheek. She climbed into her own jet and took a few deep, steadying breaths. She was not proud of what she had just done and said, but sometimes, in war, there was just no other way and there would always be casualties.

At least that was what she had to keep reminding herself.

* * *

The ringing of the phone jolted Kaori out of her thoughts.

“Red Impulse, I need you to move out …”

“Nambu? What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”

“It’s Gatchaman …”

Kaori’s vision swam as she pictured Ken lying on the side of a road, or crushed in pile of twisted metal that used to be his plane, his body broken and bleeding, or so ill that he was now hospitalized, needing surgery …

… and that was all just within the first split second.

“What happened?” she forced herself to say as she shot to her feet, ready to move, to act – to do! – to help her son.

“He and his team went out against orders … they tried to go up against Archaeo …

“Archaeo?”

“… I can’t explain it all now … just get your squad together and make sure that they don’t … that they aren’t …” Nambu paused, his voice breaking. Clearing his throat, he continued, “once you’re airborne, call me and I’ll send over their position to you.”

“Understood,” Kaori confirmed, then began yelling before she had even hung up the phone. “Masaki! Oniishi!”

* * *

Berg Katse felt joy in his heart as he watched the hated Godphoenix finally go down, brought down by his own hands! He could not wait to tell Sosai X.

“Finish them off!” he ordered proudly and watched as Archaeo’s remaining payload of missiles were launched, all aimed at the sitting lame duck Godphoenix. Before any of them hit the intended target, however, they all detonated, leaving the Godphoenix untouched.

“What was that?” Berg Katse demanded, his happiness vanishing like a burst soap bubble. “What happened?”

“Lord Katse, it’s Red Impulse,” one soldier explained, “and we just used up all of our missiles.”

“Plus,” added a second soldier, “we’re almost out of fuel. That last shockwave took most of what we had. What should we do?”

Katse grit his teeth and narrowed his eyes at the three red jets that began firing at them. “There’s nothing we can do. Dammit! And to think we were so close. Withdraw for today. If we took them down once, we can always do it again.”

* * *

“So what exactly was that ugly thing, anyway?” Kaori asked when Nambu returned to his office, where he had asked her wait until he dealt with the Science Ninja Team.

As Nambu sat down, he took out a photo and slid it across the desk to her. “It’s called Archaeo, and its most fearsome weapon is something called a shockwave. If we can figure out how to stop, or get through, the shockwave somehow, we should be able to stop it.”

“I can’t believe he did something so reckless,” she said, studying the photo of the Archaeo. “He should have known better.”

“Don’t be too hard on him,” Nambu admonished. “After all, you were just as reckless when you were his age.”

“I’m not being hard on him,” she said softly, “and, in fact, the more I think on it, the more I can see now that he cannot be blamed entirely for his behavior, considering that he has had neither a mother nor a father to guide him.”

Nambu said nothing, letting the comments pass. After all, she could not know how hard he had tried to fill that gap for Ken ... to become more than just his guardian and mentor ...

Kaori stared at the photo a moment longer, then thought back to what they had witnessed in the moments before they began firing on the mecha.

“Nambu …” she began tentatively.

He raised his head. “Yes?”

“You said not long ago that you wished that there was some way of my helping Ken to perfect his skill as a pilot.”

“And?”

“I think there might be a way to do that now. I’ll even extend the offer to the whole team, if it would make you feel better.”

Nambu’s lips thinned as he turned this over in his mind. “I don’t know …”

“All I would need is just a week, maybe two … at most.”

Nambu stared at her. “Do you have something in mind?”

“Sort of,” Kaori admitted, “but they would need to be ready, and for them to get to that point, some additional training would be necessary.”

Nambu studied Kaori a moment. To place the entire team in her hands …

“Fine,” he said in a slow, deliberate tone. “In fact, this just might a good lesson for all of them. If nothing else, it would probably be a good thing for you and your son to fly together instead of always being at odds with each other.” He rose to his feet. “Let’s go tell them.”

* * *

The moment Kaori returned to the island, she headed for the long, low single story barracks building on the other side of their private air strip. It did not take Masaki and Oniishi long to wonder what their captain was up to and investigate.

“You want us to do what?” Masaki asked in surprise, a stunned Oniishi behind him, as she outlined what was to be done.

Kaori handed him a stack of linens, which he automatically took from her. “We need to provide a bit of … refining … to the skills of the Science Ninja Team. I will be working exclusively with Gatchaman, so I will expect you two to take over training for the other four.”

“And what are we to do with them?” Masaki asked, watching her give Oniishi an equally large stack of linens.

“I don’t know, Masaki,” Kaori breathed out in a sigh. “Use your imagination.” She eyed the stacks of folded sheets and towels they held. “That should do it. I suppose we’ll put the guys in the north end and the girl in the south.”

“So why does she get the nice view? Just because she's a girl?” Masaki asked, half-joking.

“Precisely. A girl would appreciate the scenery a little more, and she’s probably not quite as messy as four boys could be.”

“That’s a little discriminatory, wouldn’t you say?”

“Maybe,” Kaori agreed, “but it’s also the truth.”

“Aren’t you a little, ah, concerned about the boys and the girl being in the same building without supervision?”

Kaori gave Masaki a steady look. “No, because first of all, I expect you and Oniishi to work them so hard during the day that they won’t have any energy to do anything after hours, and secondly, they will not be without supervision.”

“They won’t?” Oniishi sighed awkwardly around the towels he held.

“No, they won’t,” Kaori said with a smile, “because they will have us. I will stay with the girl and you two will be with the guys, so unless neither of you wishes to sleep for the entire time that they are here, I would advise you to make certain that they are completely exhausted by the end of the day.”

* * *

“Another three laps around the island,” Masaki declared, “and don’t think for a second that you can take any unscheduled breaks, understand?”

The four teens before him audibly groaned, with Ryu doing the most complaining.

“Oh, jeez, not again,” he moaned under his breath. “It’s already been a week. Can’t you just give us a rest ...”

“What?” Masaki demanded, stepping closer to Ryu, his fisted hands on his hips. “If you’re not happy with this, you can always stay behind and we can give you something else to do. The latrines are in need of a good cleaning, if I remember correctly ...”

“No, that’s okay,” Ryu said quickly. “I’m sorry.” The look on his face registered an emotion that reflected anything but sincere sorrow.

“Hmph,” Masaki snorted, ignoring the look, “in that case, get going.”

At Masaki’s word, the team began to run, at first in a light jog, then gaining speed as they covered more ground.

“Why do we have to do this and Ken gets out of it?” Ryu complained as they ran.

But none of the others answered him. They were too busy keeping their eyes open, on the lookout for Oniishi, who, they noticed, had silently disappeared during the exchange between Ryu and Masaki. That meant something was going to come up ... and fast.

Masaki watched the teens as they left. Of course, he did not blame them for the resentment. For them, this past week had been a combination of boot camp, advanced military training and summer camp, all rolled into one.

At the beginning, three laps sounded easy, until they realized that Masaki and Oniishi were lying in wait for them, and either did things to impede their progress – like the sticky net trap that it took them an hour and a half to get Jinpei out of – or else they would find “stations” in which they would have to complete a certain task in order to get food, drink or a rest break.

And though the Science Ninja Team complained, for Masaki and Oniishi, this past week proved to be a lot more entertaining than they thought it would be, and they were enjoying themselves immensely in coming up with different things to challenge the team.

Masaki watched as Ryu was the last to disappear from his view. He could relate to this member of the Science Ninja Team. He, too, had always been described as “stocky” and “husky,” but he had never let body type hinder him as a soldier. Instead, he made it work to his advantage.

Perhaps, he thought, as he took a short cut to the mud pit that was to figure largely in today’s exercises, when they returned back to the gym, while the others were with Oniishi practicing their tae kwon do exercises, he would let Ryu go into the free weight room and let the boy burn off some of his frustration.

* * *

So far, so good. After going through their usual flight paces, Kaori flew slightly ahead of Ken, deciding now would be the time to put all of the parts that they had spent the last week working on all together.

Although the overland route would have been the quickest way to get to where she had in mind, Kaori instead took the more scenic coastal way. Once the outcropping of rock came into view, however, pleasure flying took a back seat and she banked out wide, lining her jet up in a straight line with the rock.

It looked as though it were a simple maneuver, really. Just go in down and at angle, then pull up, go vertical, and once clear of the rock, straighten out. And, like all things that look simple when done by someone who knows how to do it, there was a lot more attention to detail involved than met the eye. The correct angle, for example, or timing the pull up just right so that the jet did not bottom out against the rock.

But they had worked on doing just those things all week, whether Ken knew it or not, as Kaori had him following her all that time.

As she approached, she told him, “Just watch first.”

Sending her jet into a dive, she watched the rock approach at a dizzying pace, then pulled up on the jet’s controls just at the right time so that it smoothly went vertical and straightened up the moment it cleared the top of the rock.

“Don’t worry,” he growled back. “I can do anything you can. Just watch me.”

Kaori circled wide, keeping an eye on Ken the entire time. She watched his plane go in, then pull up and past the rock.

Not bad, she thought, evaluating the movements she had just seen. But he seemed to have some hesitancy in judging the exact distance between his jet and the rock.

“Let’s go through that again.”

“How many damn times are you going to make me do the same thing?” Ken complained.

“Until it’s done right,” Kaori shot back. “So stop whining and just do it.”

Once more, she went back and repeated the maneuver, with Ken directly behind her.

Again, she watched him, saw that same wobble, and then heard him cry out.

“I can’t see!”

“Ken!” Kaori yelled out, watching in horror as the G-1 began to tilt. “Pull up, Ken! Just pull up on the controls! Ken! Ken!”

She could see him struggling, the jet almost, but not quite, out of its spin when the right side glanced off the rock face, crumpling the jet just at the landing wheel. Never had she felt so helpless in her entire life as she did watching the G-1 from her own jet.

“KEN!”

Kaori paced the length of the maintenance shed and back, her hands over her mouth as she fought back the tears. The second Oniishi walked in, she spun around to face him.

“How is he? Is he okay?”

“He’s fine.”

“Maybe we should call for a medi-evac. We should really have him looked at by a doctor. Maybe a specialist. They could do an MRI, or a CAT scan. Suppose he has a concussion ... or internal bleeding ...”

Oniishi lifted a brow and Masaki looked up from his work on the G-1.

“He’s fine,” Oniishi emphasized in sign to her. “He’s resting now, which is probably a good thing. Maybe just give him the rest of the evening. He’s bound to be pretty shaken up.”

“But we’ll need to get him back in the air as soon as possible,” Masaki noted.

Kaori reluctantly agreed with him. “He needs to do this and if he’s lost his nerve, Nambu will never forgive me. I’ll never forgive me.”

Masaki dropped the wrench back into the toolbox and stood up, stretching out his back. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, captain. Better that this should happen now than in an actual combat situation.”

“I know, but still …”

Masaki nodded his head in sympathy. “Doesn’t make it any easier to watch, doesn’t it?”

“Not really.”

Masaki waved Oniishi over and, together, they muscled the final replacement part into place and secured it. Oniishi ran a hand over the repaired section.

“Good as new,” he signed to Masaki.

“You know what? Maybe I’ll just look in on him. Just for a moment. You know, in case he needs anything,” Kaori announced, unable to keep away any longer. She had to see him for herself, to make certain that he truly was not injured.

As she walked away, Oniishi ducked his head and Masaki bit back a smile as he looked at his watch and the money exchanged hands.

“I told you she wouldn’t last for more than a couple of hours,” Masaki said with laugh, tucking away the folded bills into his pocket.

* * *

Never before had her small cabin seemed so ominous. Kaori approached the door quietly, not wanting to disturb him if he were still sleeping, but her desire to see him made her want to go in. She slowly opened the door, leaned over the threshold, and was surprised to see that he was sitting.

“Oh, you’re up,” Kaori commented as she straightened and took a step into the cabin. Ken turned his head to her and blinked, then looked around.

“What happened?” Ken demanded as his eyes focused and Red Impulse came into sharp focus.

“You blacked out,” she explained.

“Blacked out?”

Kaori nodded. “It can happen when you climb up or go down too fast. Your field of vision suddenly narrows.” She swallowed and bit at her bottom lip. “I must have pushed you too hard. I’m so sorry.”

Ken stared at her for a moment, then looked beyond her, out the door. “What about the G-1? What happened to it?”

“It suffered mostly minor damage, and we were able to repair it while you’ve been sleep.”

Ken pushed back the blanket and surged to his feet. “So I’m good to go again? Come on, there’s still daylight left, we can still fly. I’m not going to be second best to you …”

Kaori’s heart skipped a beat at seeing Ken’s face suddenly pale as he grimaced in pain and put his hands to his head.

“Ken, are you okay?” she asked, alarmed, instinctively reaching out to him. “You should really just rest for a bit, and not try to push yourself so hard …”

He knocked her hands away. “Stop telling me what to do! Who do you think you are, my mother?”

Kaori’s back straightened as she stepped back, her mouth snapping shut, as she drew in and held a breath. “Very well, then,” she said in a tight, controlled voice as she turned to leave, “I will expect you to join the others in the barracks dining room in half an hour.”

* * *

It was not a call she especially wanted to make, but she had to tell Nambu of what happened.

“ ... and I take full responsibility,” she ended, with her head down and her heart aching.

“I have no doubt of that,” Nambu said, “but there doesn’t seem to be any lasting harm done. And if he’s still eager to best you, I wouldn’t worry to much about him having lost his confidence.”

“I can only hope,” Kaori sighed.

“He can’t afford it now. We can’t afford it. Galactor has just issued another challenge to the Science Ninja Team.”

Kaori lifted her head up. “What? When?”

“Apparently this time, they have declared to attack the United Nations headquarters.”

“Yes, well, it would take an act of bravery to attack a building that stands for peace,” Kaori remarked bitterly.

“Commander, we want to accept this challenge,” a voice said from behind her.

Kaori turned to see Ken standing in the doorway, his teammates flanking him on either side.

“I’ve figured it out,” he continued. “So long as we can get the angle right, we can break through the shockwave.”

Kaori blinked. “Are you sure about that?”

Ken nodded, a slight grin on his face. “I should be. We’ve done it enough times.”

“True,” Kaori acknowledged. “Well, if you’re sure, then I say go ahead. Go for it.”

“Commander!” Nambu called out from the monitor.

“They can do, Nambu,” Kaori assured him, turning to face the monitor once more. “There’s no reason why they can’t. They have my full support, and, of course, we’ll be there to offer assistance. Let them do it.”

Nambu paused, but it was only for effect. “Very well, and I will pray for your success.”

* * *

The mission was over almost as fast it had begun. While the Red Impulse squad dispatched the smaller jets that Archaeo sent out, the Godphoenix was then left free to execute Ken’s plan.

Kaori watched with a heart full of pride as her son and his teammates conquered the mecha that seemed unbeatable.

“Well done, Gatchaman,” she praised as the Red Impulse squad headed back to their base. “It was a brilliant victory and one that you well deserve! Please give my regards to Nambu Hakase, and hopefully, we will meet again soon!”
Chapter 4--Found and lost by RIgirl
She paced the floor as Masaki and Oniishi, both seated at the small wooden table, watched her.

“Nambu also said that he is sending the Science Ninja Team here,” she informed, then gave a short laugh as she paused in front of them. “Guess he thinks we need might need the back up this time around.”

Masaki frowned as he studied the map on the table. “He might be right about that.” Oniishi cut a questioning look to him. Masaki pinpointed two places on the map, marking each with a finger. “We need to keep an eye on the President and we need to watch Boritz. We also need to locate the exact position of this missile. Even divided between the three of us, it’s a lot of ground to cover.”

“It would be easier if we could just obtain the proof we need to present to the President that his Defense Minister has turned traitor,” Kaori said bitterly. “That would eliminate two of the problems at once.”

Oniishi tilted his head and carefully signed his question to her. “But to do that, you will put yourself in jeopardy.”

Kaori shrugged. “So what? I got in before, I can do it again. I have to finish what I started, don’t you understand that?” For myself. For Ken. For Warren …

Masaki frowned at the action and her seemingly careless words. “Perhaps you are past caring what happens, captain, but may I remind you that there is still quite a bit of work to be done, work that requires all of us?”

“So then what do you propose we do, Masaki?” Kaori shot back at him. “Sit back and wait for them to come after us? We’re here to do the job that I told Nambu we would do.”

Kaori returned to her pacing, the clock on the wall sweeping seconds into minutes, time that they could not spare.

Slowly, Kaori’s mind worked out a plan. “For now, I think we should leave the President with his own guards, unless we see that Galactor is headed that way. The first order of business is to find where the missile is to be launched. With that disabled, we can take our time with the rest of it.”

“Agreed,” Masaki said and Oniishi nodded.

“Meanwhile, I’ll shadow Boritz and find what I need against him …”

“Are we back to that again?” Masaki snapped.

Kaori gave him a hard stare. “I never left it, Masaki. I refuse to let that bastard Boritz get away with what he has done.”

“But there’s a warrant out for your arrest,” Masaki protested. “The second you show your face …”

Oniishi tapped him lightly on the arm, interrupting him. “Let her, if she wants to do it.” He looked directly at Kaori. “If you want my help, you have it.”

“It goes without saying,” Masaki grumbled, “that you have mine as well. If you are so determined to do this, then you will probably need all of the help you can get.”

“Thanks for that wonderful vote of confidence,” Kaori said dryly.

“So what do you have in mind?”

Kaori did not answer right away, but once they began, within a few hours, they quickly hammered out a plan of action and put it into motion.

* * *

This was the first time since that awful day she lost Warren that she had returned to capital city of Hontworl. If Nambu’s information was correct, the missile was about to be put into motion. They had to find out where it was and stop it, plus protect the President and the higher ranking members of government.

All while she had a price on her head. The fact that the Secret Police had found her so soon after they arrived was a clear indication that Boritz had not forgotten about her; on the contrary, it seemed as though they had been waiting for her.

She managed to slip by them, going deep under cover once more, and now she kept moving, hoping to keep them busy while Masaki and Oniishi freely roamed in the city in search of the answers they needed. After all, if the Secret Police were busy trying to find her, they would not have any interest in them. Or so they hoped.

In all of their planning, they had also discussed several escape options, which Masaki and Oniishi arranged to have waiting for her – a car strategically placed in the center of the city and at the outskirts on the land-locked side, their own jets each at a different air strip and concealed as best they could make them, and a way to get across the lake, should the need arise. They selected the dock by the Hotel Diamant for its central location, figuring that she could easily reach it from several different points if she had to do so fast.

However, what they had not planned on was that it would also be the precise spot that Ken would choose to sit. Nambu had told her that they would be there, should the need for their help arise, but still ... she did not think that their paths would cross, though she had secretly hoped …

Kaori chewed at her lip. Why wasn’t he with his friends? Did they already suspect something, even though Nambu had told them this was merely to be a pleasure trip for them?

Then again, she reconsidered, was she disguised enough that she wouldn’t be recognized by him, or anyone else?

So far, she had seen no indication that she had been spotted yet today. And, given how populated it was here, even if the Secret Police found her, the chances that they would do something disruptive, like arrest and kill her, seemed slim. Maybe if she just walked up to Ken, struck up a conversation … two tourists chatting … no one would notice … and, in the process, maybe drop a hint or two to Ken, just to feel him out, about how much he knew or suspected ...

As she advanced, Kaori stared at his back, then at the lake beyond and paused for a moment to adjust the sunglasses and kerchief she wore around her head, covering her hair. As she did so, she remembered the last time they had been here together was the year she taught him how to swim and dive.

She pursed her lips at the memory, at his fuss of getting his face wet. When he finally did swim over to her, she had quickly ducked his head under. Not hard, not long, but just enough for him to have the experience of having something unexpected happen, something not wanted and undesired, to learn how to get through it, to adjust, adapt, and overcome. Get beyond the discomfort to fight back.

To learn that in life, as in the lake, it was sometimes sink or swim; that when something bigger and stronger than you tries to hold you down, that you had to keep trying, against whatever odds, to do what it took to survive … or else you would be held down all of your life until you drowned.

Did he remember those long-ago lessons now, she wondered, of fighting back and remaining strong? She hoped so, for both their sakes …

She stepped up next to his chair just as he kicked a small stone down the edge of the lake and into the water with the toe of his shoe.

“It’s a beautiful country, isn’t it?” she remarked, following his gaze across the lake. Ken turned slightly in his chair to look at her. “But it is surprising at how looks can be deceiving. Are you and your friends here for work or for fun?”

“We just came for some time away,” Ken hedged, staring at the woman in the white suit, a scarf wrapped carefully around her head, covering her hair, while sunglasses hid her eyes, “and this seemed like a nice, quiet place to recharge.”

In the reflection of her sunglasses, Kaori caught several movements behind her and readied herself for what was coming. “But there are those who will not have it so. They mean to ruin it, and leaving it bleeding …”

“Who?”

“You’ll see,” she replied as she watched them approach. “Watch.”

The picture of discretion they were not, and Kaori mentally winced as she watched them barge into the patio area, kicking and breaking planters and overturning tables as they came through. Somewhere, a woman screamed, which was followed by cries of outrage at such disruption.

Kaori remained still, waiting to see exactly what they were planning to do. The eleven members of the Secret Police surrounded them in short order. A large blond man in a cheap, ill-fitting blue suit, whom Kaori recognized as being the Captain’s second in command, stepped forward.

“There is no escape,” he said loudly, then pointed an accusing finger at her, “so don’t make any more trouble than you already have.”

At that point, a man in dark green suit rushed at her, but she caught his beginning movements and anticipated him, sending him sprawling to the ground. He was followed by several men in brown, nondescript suits, all of which Kaori managed to either dodge, evade, or bring down with a well-aimed kick.

She stepped back and found herself in a modified headlock as the man in the dark green came at her again, leading with his fist. Reaching up, she laced her hands behind the neck of the man who had grabbed her and flung him up and over her back, pitching him into the man in front. They both went down in a heap, crashing into the table near Ken, causing him to jump back or else be caught in flying bodies and lawn furniture.

Masaki would be so proud, Kaori thought, eyeing her work, though that did not last for long.

Now, however, Ken joined in, lashing out and sending men to the ground. Before long, though, Kaori and Ken found themselves back to back, still surrounded, though a few of the men now looked a little the worse for wear.

“Quick,” Ken said whispered to her, “get away when you can!”

Kaori nodded gratefully to him, and at his first offensive against the men who came towards them again, she ran towards the lake, scanning the water’s edge for the jet ski that Masaki had promised would be waiting.

As she jumped onto it and gunned the engine to put as much distance between her and the Secret Police as possible, she glanced over her shoulder, regretting that she had to leave Ken behind.

But it would be better this way, she thought, turning her concentration back to what was in front of her. Without her there to make things worse, Ken was merely a foreign bystander, a tourist coming to the aid of a woman, and no one would fault him for that, however misguided they make think the action. Plus, he had his friends to vouch for him. Kaori could only hope that that would be enough.

* * *

The next day, just as Kaori returned to the airport, Oniishi turned in his seat and informed her that a small plane, matching the description of Ken’s, was reported to have taken off from a small airport nearby.”

“It can only mean that the Science Ninja Team are probably doing their own investigations, now,” he surmised by sign, “and it’s only a matter of time before they find Galactor. Or vice versa.”

“Damn it,” she swore, putting a fisted hand to her forehead. She turned to see Masaki enter the small control room. “Are any the jets ready to be taken out?”

“One is ...”

“One is all I need,” she answered as she headed out.

It was bad enough that the Secret Police had seen her with Ken, had seen him with his teammates. That she was the one who brought them to their attention was something for which she could not forgive herself.

She had to correct the mistake she made.

“Red Impulse,” Masaki’s voice called to her over the line. “Just a few minutes ago, Oniishi received word from the tower’s radar that several jets from a nearby military base have taken off and they appear to be headed in the same direction as the small plane.”

“You have the coordinates?”

“They’ve all just crossed into what they now considered a ‘military no-fly zone,’ which, not incidentally, also happens to be in the vicinity of Boritz castle.”

Kaori pushed her own jet in an effort to get there as fast as possible, but in its current camouflaged state, it was not as aerodynamic as it typically was.

Still, she managed to find them and took out those the posed the most threat to Ken’s unarmed plane, then flew past him and took out the remainder. When she scanned the skies for Ken’s prop plane, she blinked, then realized that he had changed over to the G-1.

He followed her, an odd echo of the time with the Blue Hawk. They both landed, this time with Ken getting out first. A steady wind blew down from the north and Ken’s wings were swept to one side.

Kaori remained seated, waiting to see what Ken would do. She heard him yell out, his voice rising over the constant wind.

“You saved my life and for that I thank you.”

Making her decision of whether or not she should face him, Kaori opened the hatch to her place and jumped down, landing on a small outcropping of rock as she did so.

“You!” Ken gasped, seeing the same woman in the white suit.

“You got a little carried away there, didn’t you, Gatchaman?” she called out.

“You’re Galactor!” He leapt up and Kaori saw his hand, anticipated his next movement as the boomerang left his hand.

“Don’t even try it,” she warned, and then ducked just in time, with the weapon snagging in her scarf, ripping the fabric in half. The boomerang glanced off the body of her jet and Kaori snatched it out of the air on the rebound.

Ken landed nearby on the ground, gasping when he realized that she now held it.

“Weren’t you supposed to have kept your identity a secret?” she charged. Heaving it end-over-end, Kaori threw the boomerang so that it was returned to its holster at Ken’s side. At that moment, she decided to take Ken into her confidence. After all, he had already broken his undercover status now ....

Without a word, Kaori jumped back into her jet and disengaged the camouflaging, and removed the white suit. When she next appeared to Ken, he knew her.

“Red Impulse!”

She jumped down, landing near him. “It was not very polite of you to attack someone who just saved your life, you know. However, since you save mine the other day, it would seem that we are even now.”

“So, then,” Ken said, his mind turning over recent events, “who were those guys just now?”

“Part of the Defense Minister’s militia.”

“And those men from yesterday? They were Galactor too?”

“Yes,” Kaori confirmed. “This whole country is about to be taken over.”

Ken’s eyes widened. “So that is why Nambu Hakase sent us here. We suspected as much ... ”

“Yes,” she said with a nod, “ and when I found out, I had asked him to allow me to return to Hontworl on this mission.”

Ken gave her a suspicious look. “So you were posing as a Galactor to find them?”

Kaori gave him a small smile and a shrug. “Sometimes, in order to fool your enemies, you have to fool your friends, too.”

“Jeez,” Ken said, crossing his arms over his chest, his head angled down, shaking it slightly in disbelief, “that wasn’t very nice of Nambu Hakase to tell us this trip was for leisure, though.”

“Be that as it may, Galactor has a very real presence here.” Kaori glanced around at the barren field, a feeling of uneasiness tingling down her spine, as though she were being watched. “Why don’t we continue this conversation somewhere a little more secluded?”

* * *

Sliding the key in the lock, Kaori opened to the door to Warren’s cabin and the musty smell of disuse met her. All was as she remembered it being the last time she was here. Her heart contracted at the thought of that day.

It was a hasty decision, but she had nowhere else to bring him. She had to tell Ken just what, exactly, what been going on, what she had found. They were closing in on her and now it was just a matter of time before the trap was sprung. Not sure if she would be able to escape again, she needed Ken and his team to know everything. Just in case.

A single flip of the nearest switch told her that the electricity had been turned off, but it did not matter. Within minutes, a cheery fire blazed in the fireplace. Water was heated over the open flame, and though they had no dinner, at least there was still some hot cocoa. It tasted stale, but it was something.

Ken hunched over his knees, elbows braced on his thighs as he leaned to take a sip of the cocoa from the cup that he held. “But if we know Galactor is trying to take over, then why doesn’t the President do something?”

Kaori sighed and sat back in the chair opposite Ken. She stared at her own cup, then took a sip before placing the cup back onto it saucer, which rested on the low table between them. “Because there is no proof.”

Ken blinked. “But surely, by now …”

Kaori rose to her feet and walked over to the fire. “No, there is none,” she said softly, watching the flames dance. “I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to find something to implicate the Defense Minister, but so far, all of my efforts have been in vain.”

Ken put the cup onto the saucer he held. “But you mean to try again?” he guessed, judging by her tone and attitude.

“I can’t let him get away with it,” she said, forcefully slamming a fist down on the dusty mantle. The sudden movement made the fire snap and rise up, before settling down again. “I left my son … I lost my life … because of this and I refuse to let them win now!”

“You have a son?” Ken blurted out, stunned by the thought that this woman, who always seemed so cold and distant, could actually be a mother. Was his own mother like her, then?

He blinked and, in the two seconds it took for him to process the information, he considered and rejected the notion once more that Red Impulse could actually be his mother.

After all, several months back, Nambu had all but told him in no uncertain terms that Red Impulse was not his mother. And, too, there was the time difference to take into account. His mother, as he was painfully aware, had been gone for the last 14 years, whereas Red Impulse had just said that she had started her mission only ten years ago. It was just an odd coincidence, that they should find common ground like this … wasn’t it?

Ken’s simple question wrenched Kaori back to the situation at hand. She bit her lip. She should not have said anything, but it could not be helped now.

“I … did,” she answered conservatively, cautiously.

“Don’t you know where he is now?” Ken asked, obviously eager to help solve such a problem. Kaori turned her head and looked over at Ken, her heart constricting.

How easy it would be, she thought longingly, to just say the words, he’s sitting right in front of me. To tell him the truth. But to say those words to him now would be cruel. They would still need to remain apart, their lives and their duties necessitating it, and it would force him into becoming an accomplice in this mire, not to mention adding the pressure of keeping secrets that were not his to keep.

A sort of nervous laughter took hold of her as she turned and walked back to the chair, simply for the sake of something to do.

“How did we get onto such a depressing topic?” she said, continuing her walk to the window. She stared out into the nightscape, Warren’s beloved mountains dark in the distant. All of his work and dedication, his pride in his country, his love of it and for it …

“This is such a beautiful country,” Kaori said, echoing Warren’s own words to her when he first brought her here, “and I want to keep it that away, and out of Galactor’s hands.”

Ken’s reflection appeared beside hers in the window. “I think I understand how you feel. Ever since I got here, I’ve kept getting the feeling that I’ve been here before. That I’m somehow connected to it.”

He threw Kaori off-balance with that comment, and once again the burning desire to simply blurt out everything rose up. Instead, she forced herself to laugh … and to quickly change the subject yet again.

“It’s funny, though, that you thought me to be a part of Galactor. Well, it’s getting late,” Kaori noted, as she pulled the curtain closed, “and we should at least rest before heading back to the city.”

Ken nodded and turned to the stairs on his left, placing one foot on the bottom step. “The bedrooms are this way?”

“They … are,” she said, hesitating as the memories of past nights spent there flickered through the back of her mind, “but I really think we should just stay down here. We’ll only be resting for a little bit, so there’s no sense having to go through and clean up two rooms now.”

Crossing the room, she opened a small chest and removed the top two blankets within. Handing Ken one, he shook it and stretched out on one side of the L-shaped couch, while Kaori laid down on the other that formed the shorter part. Within minutes, she could hear Ken’s even, regular breathing indicating that he had already fallen asleep.

She glanced down at him to see that he slept on his side, facing her, and had his head cradled on his arms as a shaft of moonlight filtered in through the skylight.

How was it, she wondered, that all children, even grown, looked angelic when sleeping?

She smiled faintly, remembering those first months after he was born, when he was just a little bundle of cry in a onesie, then as a mischievous toddler ... and now, here he was on the knife-edge of manhood, ready to take his place in the world. She dropped her gaze ... and that was when she saw it.

A shaft of moonlight, catching the small glint of metal by her boot. And ... it had not been there before. At first, she thought it to just an insect of some sort, and then Kaori’s heart seized as she realized what it actually was.

Kaori looked at every object in the room as though it were poison, her mind casting around as to when it could have been planted. The attack at the lake side ... it had to be. It must have been attached from the back, or maybe to her jacket collar. In all the commotion, who would have been paying attention? And then there was the air fight, their exchange in the field, and then ... here, now ... earlier this evening ...

Everything that she and Ken had spoken about ... they knew! They had been listening and knew what they knew now.

She scooped it up and placed in flat against the stone hearth, then proceeded to grind the listening device into pieces under her boot heel.

Her next thought pushed her into motion.

“Ken, get up,” she said, shaking Ken’s shoulder. He mumbled incoherently. “Come on, Ken, wake up!”

Ken opened one eye, then turned over to his other side. “Didn’t we just lie down? Gimme five more minutes ...”

“I’ll give you nothing,” Kaori answered, ripping the blanket off of him. “Get up now. We have to leave. I have to finish this. Now. Tonight.”

Ken blinked awake, his eyes focusing on Red Impulse as she stood there. He stretched out his arms and back. “Right now? I was just getting comfortable ...”

“Please, Ken, we have to get going. You need to come with me. I need your help with this. It can’t wait any longer. We can’t stay here any longer ...

Ken paused a moment before rising to his feet. “Okay, all right. It’s kind of weird to see you asking for my help, though.”

“Can we please just leave?” Kaori glanced out the window, almost expecting to see Galactor agents arriving. Waiting.

“And here I was just in the middle of a dream about my mother,” Ken commented as he walked by her.

Kaori paused a moment. “You remember her that well?”

“Not really,” Ken admitted, “but I remember some things about her. At least, I think it was her.”

“I suppose that’s not surprising,” Kaori said softly, unable to keep the disappointment from her voice. “You were very young when your mother left you.”

“I don’t hold it against her, though,” Ken went on, reflectively. “I mean, I’m sure she had good reason, just like you have yours. Otherwise, no mother would just leave her son, right?” He ran to the door, now fully awake and pulled it open. “C’mon, let’s go! What are we waiting for?”

* * *

Though Ken was ahead of her on his motorcycle, she kept his taillights in the wash of her car’s headlights, nearly pushing him at times. They needed to be as far away from the cabin as possible.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, she upbraided herself. Had she really been out of it for so long that she could have made such a ridiculous error? To allow herself to be bugged … to have had them heard their entire conversations of the evening? Even now, they knew where they were and what they were planning.

Kaori slammed her open palm against the steering wheel. Then hit it again. “Son of a bitch!” she screamed out of pure frustration.

That was when she saw it in her rearview mirror. It started as a thin smudge of gray against the blue-black of the night sky. When she looked again, the gray was heavier, blotting out the stars. Kaori choked back a sob. Warren’s cabin, the only thing she had left of him, was now gone, forever lost to the flames that Galactor had set. Of that, she had no doubt.

It also meant that they were not far behind them. Kaori signaled to Ken and they both pulled over.

“We need to split up. You go straight,” she ordered, “and I’ll go a different way. We’ll meet at the spot just beyond the second bluff, you know which one?”

“Yes, I remember that,” Ken confirmed. As he looked back, shock registering in his face at the billowing smoke behind them. “The cabin …”

“Yes, I know, and they’re probably right behind us,” Kaori said quickly. “I’ll meet you at the bluff then.”

* * *

When Kaori found Ken, he was staring at the back of the castle.

“What have you been able to find out so far?” Kaori asked as she stepped next to him.

“Patrols of two men each, every fifteen minutes.”

Kaori pressed her lips together in thought. “They’ve stepped it up, then, from the last time I was here. Well, we’ll just have to work around it since they’re obviously waiting for us.” Kaori glanced over at Ken, who had not taken his eyes off of the castle.

“So what exactly is it that we’re looking for?”

“Actually, we’re not going to be doing any of the looking,” Kaori said, walking to the back of her car. “At first, I always believed it would be behind the vault door, and there is still probably truth to that. Unfortunately, the door itself cannot be opened by means of a simple combination. From what I could ascertain, it uses a sophisticated system of fingerprint recognition and eye scan. And while I would love to kill Boritz and be able to use him to open the door, such a plan isn’t really feasible. So we will simply let Boritz do the work himself.”

“And we do that how?”

“Easy. Whenever something happens, it is human nature to automatically check to see that the most important thing to us is still safe. We set off a harmless charge, Boritz will come running and the first thing he will do is either make sure everything in the vault is still secure, or he will check for it, wherever it is.”

In the dim light, Kaori could see a faint smile on Ken’s lips. “Very good. Either way, we’ll get what we want. By the way, exactly what is this ‘it’ we’re talking about?” Ken asked, his attention still focused on their primary target.

“An external computer hard drive,” Kaori explained as she wiggled her way into the wet suit she pulled out of her car’s trunk. “He didn’t trust computers, said they were too easy to hack into, especially when they were connected to large servers, such as the ones on which all of the government systems files are typically stored. All of his work was saved to an external hard drive. He had one at the government building, which he used to take with him at night. When he moved his office here, he kept it with him. Made secretarial work hell, I can tell you that. Anyway, he would have kept everything close to him and on that hard drive. And somewhere in that drive, there has to be files of documents or communications linking him to Galactor. Something has to exist in writing and if it’s anywhere, it’ll be there.”

“What makes you think it would be in that room and not his office?”

“Because I know for a fact that he would remove it from his office at night. Which means that he would want it in a secure place.”

“And where better than a room with a vault in it?”

“Exactly. It’s his safe room and he would put anything of importance in there.”

Ken’s eyes narrowed. “The guards are starting their rounds again. We have about fifteen minutes before they come back.”

“Ready to do this then?”

“Just say the word,” Ken replied, turning to face her for the first time since she joined them. Quickly, wordlessly, Ken put on his wet suit and they took the rest of the diving gear out of the truck.

It was awkward walking to the edge of the lake, but once in the water, they moved fast and arrived at the castle as silent as fish. Swimming under what appeared to be a decorative archway, they stopped and surfaced just beyond it. At this angle, the guards on the lower level above could not see them, as the arch itself blocked them from view.

They also knew that the guards on the second level had their backs turned towards the southern end of the lake, still in the process of making their quarter hourly rounds.

Using a three-pronged grappling hook and gun, Kaori took aim and fired it up to the third story parapet. When she was certain it caught, and she tested it, making certain that it would hold their weight, they scaled up the side of the castle. Kaori was the first to the top, pausing only long enough to make sure that the guard closest to them had not heard her.

Her slight hesitancy, however, caused Ken to pull back, accidentally tapping the oxygen canister against the stone. The guard immediately turned, drawing his rifle at the ready, and ran towards them, meeting Kaori’s tank as she swung it at him. The force of the blow sent him sprawling backwards, knocked out cold.

Losing no more time, they quickly stripped off the cumbersome wet suits and gear and headed down the stone stairs to the second floor. Everything was as she remembered it – the arched ceiling with the ugly round chandeliers, the rows of columns and shiny marble floor. They ducked behind the columns, making their way towards the door of the one room that mattered. Two armed guards now flanked either side of the six-paneled double doors. Obviously, Boritz was taking no chances.

Kaori glanced over at Ken, who nodded and removed his boomerang. With a flick of his hand, he tossed it out into the middle of the hallway. The clatter brought the guards running.

“What was that?”

“Who’s there?”

As they approached the boomerang, Kaori took out the guard nearest her as Ken knocked out the one closest to him. Picking up his boomerang, he aimed it at the only doorknob and threw it. The boomerang’s wings cleanly sliced off the knob and Ken caught the weapon as he ran.

Kaori reached the door first and shouldered it open. All was just as she remembered it. As Ken walked up to it, Kaori spoke.

“In all of the times that I was able to get this far,” she said, reaching out a hand to touch the door, “I was never able to get in and get what I needed.”

“Tonight will be different,” Ken affirmed, “and if we should die …”

“ … we’ll be doing it together,” Kaori finished softly and she moved her hand from the door to his shoulder. Ken nodded and they got to work.

* * *

The blast shook the castle and brought several guards running. Just as they reached the door, Boritz, dressed only in his yellow pajamas and matching robe, lumbered in, pushing them aside to see for himself.

“Sir, we have intruders,” one of the guards said, stating the obvious.

“So they’ve finally done it, eh?” Boritz muttered. “Well, no worry. That vault door won’t be so easily opened by such paltry explosives.”

He strolled over to the pile of rubble that lately was the decorative furnishings that surrounded the vault door and rummaged through the debris for a moment.

“Ah, here it is,” he said with no small amount of satisfaction, holding up the small humidor. He blew the dust off of it. “I knew that they would try something like this. I can’t believe that they would really be so stupid as to think I wouldn’t know. Behold, gentlemen.” He lifted up the lid to show them a tray of cigars. Laughing lightly, he removed the tray to assure himself that the piece of equipment, no bigger than a deck of cards, was still safe, protected by the humidor, which had the job of also keeping his cigars at a constant temperature. “One precious commodity protecting another.”

“And we thank you for keeping such good care of it for us,” Kaori said aloud. As Boritz and the guards looked up at the sound of her voice, Kaori leaped out of the chandelier she had been hiding in, the heel of her foot aimed directly at Boritz. She caught him on the side of the face with a satisfying crunch and landed on him with all of her weight behind it. He crumpled to the ground, dropping both humidor and hard drive.

Kaori snatched it up as the guards shouldered their rifles. Before they had a chance to fire, Ken came down from his hiding place on the ceiling, his boomerang taking care of the guns as Ken worked his way through the guards – a punch to the face, a kick to the solar plexus, a spin and kick to a jaw. On its way around, the boomerang also severed the wires and anchors holding the chandelier, which crashed onto the heads of the four guards below it.

“Here,” Kaori ordered, holding out the hard drive to Ken, “please, take this and make sure that the President sees it. Considering that there’s still a warrant out for my arrest, I’d probably be shot on sight before anyone has a chance to see what’s on it.”

Ken nodded and took the drive from her, carefully tucking it into a safe place on his utility belt.

At the sound of running footsteps slapping against the marble flooring, Kaori removed and set a grenade, throwing it just as the guards reached the door.

“Get down!” she ordered as she pulled Ken to the floor with her, one arm still held protectively over his shoulders. Once the smoke cleared, they bounded down the hallway, towards the only window at the end. More guards poured in from the third floor, their weapons held at the ready. Kaori threw another grenade and she and Ken barely paused as they ran through the bodies. They reached the small, waist-high window at the same time.

“We should be able to just jump from here,” Kaori assessed. “Do you want to go first or shall I?”

Ken hesitated a moment, and at the sound of voices, they both turned around. Boritz, the captain of the Secret Police, and several guards were struggled out of the room.

“After them! Don’t let them get away!”

Kaori looked at Ken. “Fine, I’ll go first,” she decided and pushed off and out, diving in a single, smooth movement into the dark water below.

Ken likewise ran to the window and just as he paused at the ledge, his dream came back to him. His mother … waist deep in the lake, waving to him … as Red Impulse was now …

Was it possible, he thought in wild disbelief. Despite everything that he had been told – and knew – could Red Impulse really be his mother?

“Come on,” she yelled out, “jump! What are you waiting for?”

Taking time only to knock out a guard who came up behind him, Ken pushed himself through the window and plunged into the lake.

“We may not meet again,” Red Impulse said, nodding at him as he rose to the surface next to her. “But I hope we do. Go, join your teammates. Quickly!”

With that, powerful search lights placed large spots of light on the water, fire from semi-automatic rifles punctuating its surface as Kaori swam in one direction and Ken in the other.

* * *

In the span of a single week, the Hontworl government was in pieces. Though the President now knew of Boritz’s deception, he discovered that he had little sway over his own military forces. They found out too late that Galactor had infiltrated many branches of the country’s armed forces, by way of the Defense Minister, and many remained loyal to Boritz and Galactor.

It was a tense week during which the capital city itself was under a lock-down, and, with the Presidential Mansion in pieces from the Cata-Roller attack, the President and the remaining members of his Directors were moved to his summer compound to wait things out.

As Kaori entered the small room within the building at the edge of the Pondieux airstrip that they had been using as their base of operations, Oniishi removed the headset he had been wearing and waved her over.

By tapping into phone lines and finding the right frequencies via other means, Oniishi had been monitoring all communications between the Boritz castle and the Secret Police.

Handing her the headset, he indicated that she was to listen. As she raised it to her ears, he started the recording.

“ … some doing, but in going through records, both military and civilian, along with those that you yourself provided to us, and matching dates, we can say with some certainty that the woman spy we are seeking is Kaori Washio,” a male voice explained.

“You are certain of it?” Boritz’s voice assaulted her ear. “I need this information to be absolutely correct. I want no mistakes on this point.”

“Yes, sir. We have even found one who positively identified her in two photographs … one from her previous life and one that had been taken from your own security cameras. She is one and the same.”

“And this person … who is he to know?”

“A friend of her son’s,” here the man gave a grim laugh, “and I found him to be most …compliant …and willing to help, once I presented him with the right incentives.”

Oniishi watched as Kaori’s head dropped, eyes closed and mouth pursed. “Bastard,” she cursed lightly.

He could not hear what she heard, but he knew. She shook her head as she listened to the rest of the conversation.

“ … then. I shall expect you to bring her in to me.”

“Do you wish her to be alive?”

There was a long pause, then, “Bring her to me whatever way you can. If I have to take my revenge out on a corpse, then so be it, but I want her, however it works out.”

“Very good, sir. I will put our plan into action immediately …”

Kaori removed the headset with a frown. “What plan?” she asked.

Oniishi lifted his shoulders and signed back, “Don’t know. They never said.”

“I don’t like the sound of this,” she said with a sigh, leaning up against the edge of the desk, her arms crossed over her chest. She tilted her head up and stared at the ceiling tiles. “On the plus side, Masaki and I found the V2 missile.” Oniishi lifted a brow in question. “Or,” Kaori continued, “at least, we think we did. He’s sending over the aerial photos to Nambu now for analysis.”

Oniishi nodded. Kaori stood there a moment longer, thinking back over that phone conversation, then pushed off of the desk and walked to the door.

“It seems it’s always one step forward, two steps back, doesn’t it?”

* * *

A few days later, she got his message, just as he knew she would.

“Kaori Washio,” it read, “We have your son. If you value his life at all, you will appear promptly at 3 pm at the Coventry Hostel at 439 Brigham Street. If you do not appear, you may consider yourself without a son.”

“So this was their plan?” she said in disgust, throwing the note to the table. “Using some weak kid to rat out his friend. How pathetic.”

“Pathetic, yes,” Masaki agreed, sitting back in his chair, “but what are we going to do about it?”

Kaori shook her head. “I can’t believe that Ken allowed himself to be put into such a position.”

“He thought he was going to meet you,” Masaki defended. “You can’t blame the boy.”

Kaori spun around, her hands fisted in anger. “It shouldn’t mean so much to him! I shouldn’t mean that much to him! That he would be so trusting and naīve, even now, after all this …” She shook her head, trying to hold down her temper. “He can’t afford to be that way. Not now. Not any more.”

“Then look at this as a lesson learned,” Oniishi signed in suggestion.

“The bigger problem,” Kaori said slowly, thoughtfully, regaining control of her own strong emotion, “is what to do now. I have an idea, but …” she glanced at the clock, “would there even be enough time? And we still need to get to the V2 missile before …”

Masaki shrugged and rose to his feet. “We’ll make the time. What’s the plan?”

* * *

She knew him from the grainy photo that they were able to find. The bastard who took her baby boy’s trust and friendship and used it against him. As she waited for Oniishi and Masaki to send her the signal that they were in place, Kaori watched this young man, Sabu by name, leave the hostel, tucking a sizable sum of money into his pocket.

Blood money, she thought, her hands clenching into fists. Money in exchange for bringing her son to Galactor.

As he walked away, she called out to him. “Wait!”

He paused and turned, and, upon seeing nothing more than a middle-aged woman approaching him, instantly dismissed her. His next mistake was turning his back to her.

“So you think it’s that easy to just betray a friend and walk away, just like that?” she said, venom in her voice, as she put a hand on his arm. He turned again, this time startled by her words, and as he did so, he caught the blow of a well-aimed left hook. He went down hard and fast. Just as she finished securing his hands behind him, Kaori’s cell beeped once and stopped, then it beeped twice and stopped. She yanked Sabu to his feet and half-dragged him into the building with her. There would be time enough to deal with this piece of trash later.

* * *

She went in first, her steps slow and measured, echoing down the hallway like heartbeats.

“Don’t!” she heard Ken’s voice yell out. “Don’t come any closer! It’s a trap!”

She stopped then, and could hear the captain yelling for him to shut up, followed by the sharp sound of whip against flesh. Kaori’s lips thinned in anger and waited just two seconds before she continued her walk towards the room.

Kaori went to the door, but remained just short of stepping out into the slice of light that spilled out of the room into the darkened hallway. The sight of a half-circle of armed Galactor guards did not surprise her. That the captain of the Secret Police stood on a metal stairway leading to a platform of some kind did not surprise her, either. But the sight of Ken, shackled and chained, his hands bound above his head, made her want to cry. Instead, she strengthened her resolve, straightened her back and waited.

“What’s wrong, Kaori Washio? Don’t you want to see your precious son?” the Captain called out as he walked down several steps of the staircase in front of the platform to which he had Ken chained.

Only the echo of footsteps answered him, though the woman in white had not moved.

The Captain moved down several more stairs.

“She’s over there, too!” a guard called out, just as a third tattoo of footsteps could be heard.

“And over here!” another guard said.

The Captain’s hand tightened on his whip. “Watch out! She’s up to something!”

Just as the guards tensed, ready to open fire, Kaori, Masaki, and Oniishi fell back, and removed the white suits to reveal their own uniforms. She was the first to have her weapon in hand and it was the first thing those in the room saw next.

On a silent count of three, all three members of the Red Impulse squad opened fire on the Galactor soldiers, remaining in motion as they efficiently dispatched the twenty odd soldiers facing them, until the only one who remained was the captain himself.

Oniishi raised his gun and fired once, hitting the man in the chest. As he bent forward, Oniishi fired again, making sure that it would be a dead body that hit the ground. Kaori took aim at the shackles at Ken’s wrists and fired, while Oniishi took out the ones at his ankles.

As they turned to leave, Ken called out.

“Red Impulse, wait! Please!”

“Go on ahead,” Kaori said to the other two, “I’ll be right with you.”

Kaori turned back to see Ken, still standing high on the platform, rubbing at his left shoulder.

“My mother … where is she?”

At that instant, Kaori wanted to scream. Why was he failing to see the larger picture here?

“There’s no time for that now,” she briskly admonished him. “If we don’t hurry, if we don’t stop them, Galactor will launch the V2 missile.”

“But … my mother …”

“Ken, listen to me! There is a time and place for everything and now is not the time for that. We’ve got to go.”

She took three steps out into the hallway before she saw him. Sabu, still on the floor, still trembling and trussed as she had left him. Grabbing him by the rope that bound his hands, she pulled him to his feet and pushed him forward.

“Here,” she said, whipping the rope off of Sabu’s hands hard and fast, giving him a rough shove as she did so, causing him to fall into the room and onto the floor. “I forgot about him. Do with him what you will.”

With those parting words, Kaori took off, not waiting to hang around to see what Ken would do.

* * *

Too long. Everything was taking too long and, in the end, they ran out of time. The Red Impulse jets landed on the bluff near the launch site, and the three of them could only stand there, staring in disbelief as they watched the path of the missile leave a vapor trail like a white scar across the blue sky.

“So, that’s it,” Kaori sighed, “we’re too late.”

There was nothing more to be said or done, really. Except …

* * *

Kaori adjusted the Galactor’s hat she now wore and hoped that it would be enough to conceal the fact that she was a woman. Between her own uniform, which she wore beneath, and the Galactor uniform itself, it seemed as though the bulk of clothing would hide her gender well enough. If she just kept her head down, and limited how much she spoke, she figured that she might be able to get away with this after all.

As she worked at spot-welding sheets of metal to the frame of the second missile, Kaori was reminded of her days back at the factory. It seemed as though everything had now looped back onto itself. Life, the ultimate Mobius strip …

As the hours wore on, she also wondered if Masaki and Oniishi were able to achieve their objective.

They should have by now, she thought, as she turned to adjust the gauges on her portable welding machine. Once they realized that they were too late to stop the V2 missile from launched, the Red Impulse squad immediately shifted to Plan B.

“If we’re going there,” Masaki had asked, “what about you?”

“I’m returning to Boritz’s castle.”

“Will you drop that already,” Masaki growled, his anger, rarely seen, rising.

“This isn’t about that anymore, don’t you see?” Kaori argued back. “I don’t know if Ken saw it that night, but I did. The layout of the castle, of that vault door, and that outlet at the bottom of the lake, they’re all connected. They have to be. So I’m going back there to get to the bottom of things and find out, one way or the other.”

“And what about us?”

Kaori’s lips thinned in thought, then she gently said, “I want you both to remain with the President and the remainder of the government officials. Just in case Galactor finds them again.”

“I don’t think that they would be able to find our safe house.”

“Maybe, but stay with them, just to be sure,” Kaori agreed, then turned to leave. As she reached the doorway, she glanced back at them and softly said, “Keep safe. I’m counting on you both.”

It had only been a day and a half since she last saw them, but it felt like weeks.

Then a cry, a yell, and Berg Katse’s demanding voice made everyone stop what they were doing for just a split second, before everyone quickly went back to work. Except Kaori.

Quickly assessing the situation, she went over to the young Galactor soldier, who was now shaking, his hand still tightly gripping the nozzle of the machine that went over the edge of the missile, along with the man who had slipped and was just shot down by Berg Katse. She could see that he was angry.

And in that instant, she also knew it was Ken. She placed a staying hand on his arm before he could say anything resulting in his own death.

“Come on,” she said, lowering her voice, “you can help me, okay?”

Ken turned and stared at her a moment and she ducked her head, bending over the machine, as though eager to get back to work, but really trying to conceal her identity.

“That’s right,” Berg Katse gloated in this minor victory. “Get back to work, all of you!”

As the two of them prepared the machine, Kaori whispered some words of advice. “You don’t belong here with them, among Galactor, if you cannot harden your heart as they have done.”

Ken glanced up at her, but whether he knew it was her or not, she could not tell and there was no way to find out. Instead, they worked steadily, side by side, during the final hours before the missile’s completion.

* * *

From where she sat on the floor, Kaori had nearly drifted off when she heard footsteps and the voices of Berg Katse and Boritz. She opened her eyes and, without moving her head, watched as they walked along, the scene calling up the image of another walk she had seen Boritz taking in a factory, only those times were with a blonde woman ... a woman that Kaori had never been able to identify, though Boritz had met with her throughout the years ... and once, she even saw them together, here, at the castle ...

But then, where was she now, Kaori wondered. How was it that she could have been so involved in the beginning and yet was nowhere to found now? Especially now ...

Kaori stared at the pair, rising her head up ever so slightly. The woman was about the same height as Katse, had the same rise-and-fall tonal pattern in his speech ... but no. That was crazy, wasn’t it? That Katse could somehow be related to the blonde woman?

“What are you doing?” Berg Katse demanded, stopping in front of one soldier. “Why are you not sleeping like the others?”

Kaori was fully pulled out of her thoughts when she realized that the one he now addressed was Ken. Taking advantage of the fact that Katse’s yelling had also roused several others, Kaori got to her feet and crept closer, tensely watching the exchange. She nearly lunged at Katse when he raised a handgun and fired several times, but caught herself as she watched Ken fly up to a balcony, the uniform he was wearing falling, bullet-riddled, to the floor.

At Ken’s laugh, Kaori forced herself to move into action, one eye on what Ken was doing, while she made her own plans to step in at any point, should Ken need it.

That moment came when the fighting stopped and only a firing squad of a dozen or so soldiers remained, half standing, half kneeling, all of them with their guns trained on Ken, who stood with his head down, but his eyes remaining focused and steady on Katse as he began to approach.

“What are you waiting for?” Katse demanded. “Shoot!”

But the soldiers held back, seeing what Katse did not, until the barrel of Kaori’s gun was a whisper away from the side of his head.

“Stop!,” Katse cried out, trying to edge away. “Do you mean to turn traitor now? Were you that impressed by that paltry display?”

“It would seem, Berg Katse,” Kaori said in a measured tone, “that you are not the one who can successfully use disguises to your benefit.”

Katse’s eyes narrowed. “That voice …”

“Do you finally recognize me now?” Kaori asked, one hand holding the gun steady as she stripped away her own Galactor uniform. She glared at Boritz briefly, recalling his earlier words to Katse. “My men have already moved the President into a safe house, far from the likes of you and your henchmen,” she said to him, then shifted her attention back to Katse as she pulled off the Galactor hat.

At this close distance, Kaori could see that Katse’s chin and mouth matched those of the woman from the factory, that his lips even wore the same pink coral blush lipstick. But that blonde woman had obviously been female, and he was obviously male ... then what was the connection? She had to find out. “So now that you know me, why don’t we see who you really are?”

Katse turned slightly, his lips pursed and he chuckled. “Do you really want to know who I am that much?” He raised up his hand as though making a move to pull the mask off, but instead, palmed a small capsule that he spit into his hand. Out of the corner of her eye, Kaori could see Ken reacting to … something …

“Just watch!” Katse yelled, throwing his hand down. Within an instant, the area was filled with the swirling blue mist. Kaori ducked, covering her nose and mouth. As the blue mist dissipated, she saw that Ken had done the same thing.

Blinking as she searched the room for Katse, she saw them on an elevated platform, heading back towards the open door on the second floor.

“Gatchaman, I will give you that missile as a gift. Just remember, though, you can’t launch it without someone being at the controls. So I leave it between the two of you to decide who wants to do the honors. Unless, of course, you would both prefer to see the Earth destroyed …” He ended with a laugh that abruptly changed to a gasp of horror as the building shuddered and the wall buckled in as the nose of the Phoenix punched through, pushing the elevated platform off its rail as it did so.

Thrown off balance, Berg Katse leapt towards the wall, grabbing at a safety bar, while Boritz, not nearly as nimble, nor as close, fell unimpeded and hit the floor with a sickening thud. Kaori watched Ken grimace and turn his head away, but she stared at the body, not sorry in the least.

After everything he had done, and put her through, the way Kaori saw it, Boritz got what he deserved.

As the other members of Science Ninja Team appeared on top of the Phoenix, Katse was already pushing off from the wall, landing squarely on another suspended platform.

“Damn you, Science Ninja Team!” he swore under his breath, then yelled out, “We will not be defeated! We will not lose! This is just a temporary set back. We will return and when we do, we will claim the Earth as our own! We will be back! We will be back to crush you, no matter what!” At the end of his speech, the platform came to a rest at the wall and a panel slid open.

Before anyone could react, Katse stepped back, then turned and bolted out, at which point the panel silently slid closed once more, leaving the Science Ninja Team and Red Impulse alone with the only thing that could save the Earth from totally annihilation.

Without waiting, Kaori sprinted up the metal steps and was within two steps of entering the body of the missile when Ken took two bounding leaps and landed beside her.

“What are you doing? Where are you going?” he demanded hotly.

Kaori sighed. “You heard what Berg Katse said. Someone has to fly this missile ...”

“ ... then it should be me,” he declared with the brashness of youth.

“Ken, please,” Kaori said, “Just let me go. I’m older than you, and this is my mission ...”

“So what? I can do this just as well as you ...”

“That’s not the point!” Kaori snapped. “Go and join your team members!” She turned to enter the missile and again Ken stopped her, this time grabbing her by the lapels of her flight jacket.

“That is the point,” Ken insisted. “I should be the one to do this. Don’t make me hurt you ...”

“Ken, stop! That woman is your mother!” Jun’s voice floated up to them, echoing against the metal plated walls. Ken gasped and pulled back, his eyes widening.

“Is that true?” Ken repeated, his eyes locking on to Kaori’s face.

Kaori gave the thought of denying it all of it a split second’s consideration. But the damage was done and there was nothing else she could do. She raised her protective visor to see her son clearly.

“Nambu Hakase told us. About how that woman, Red Impulse, is your mother,” Jun continued.

“You’re really my mother?”

Kaori’s vision blurred as she studied his face, wanting to burn every detail onto her soul so that she would never forget him. Ever.

“She’s right, Ken, I am,” she admitted softly. “I thought it best to just leave without telling you, but now ...”

“But why? Why didn’t you tell me ... before?” he demanded, even as the tears spilled down his cheeks. “All that time and you never said a word ...”

“Because I thought it best if I didn’t,” Kaori said vehemently, tears glistening in her eyes as she looked away from him. “I know I was not the mother I should have been to you. And now, it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“But ... you’re my mother ...”

Kaori studied her only child for a moment, her heart brimming with love for him as her own tears streaked down her face. She wanted to say the words, but they stuck in her throat and she could not. She ached to take him into her arms, but dared not, knowing that if she did, she would not be strong enough to let him go and do what needed to be done. There was simply no other alternative, no other choice. That this should all come now, at the end, too late ...

Better that he continue to hate her, she decided, than collapse under the weight of grief, of what might have been. She knew that heartache all too well. Gently, she removed his hands from her jacket and then raised up a hand, to caress his cheek, wiping away his tears with her thumb.

“Please know that I do this for you only as mother would do for her child, Ken ...”

And with those words, she put both hands on his chest and, with all of her strength, pushed him backwards, pitching him off the side of the stairs.

“All I can give you now is your life, Ken. Stay healthy and be strong. I’m counting on you all to take care of things from here!”

She turned then, running up the remaining two steps, and hit the button to close the door before he could regain his footing upon landing. Through the thin sliver as the door closed, she could see that he was now kneeling.

“Mama! Don’t go!”

The last she saw of him as the door closed was him still on his knees, a hand outstretched to her.

“Mama!”

She raised a hand to wave goodbye.

“MAMA!”

* * *

After the door shut, Kaori moved into the pilot’s seat. Snapping herself into the harness, she locked in her final coordinates and started the launch sequence.

She tried not to think, to block everything out, but as she felt the missile turn and lift off, as she held it steady to the coordinates, all she could see in her mind’s eye was her son. As an infant, newly born ... a toddling little boy, forever running after and following her ... and as the young man he had become. So much lost between them ...

In her final moments, and with her last breath, Kaori did the only thing that a mother could do. She answered her only child with her mind and her heart.

“KEN!”

* * *

Nambu ended the call and heard a voice -- was it really his? -- telling President Anderson and the ISO members repeating what he had just heard Jun tell him. The Earth was safe, the threat over, at the cost of a dear friend’s life. He swallowed with difficulty when he finished, trying to focus his eyes on the phone he still held in his hand.

A thumb swipe and he saw his contact list ... could see the designation ‘RI’ and ... just for a wild moment, wanted to hit it, sure he would hear her voice again, answering him with a laugh that of course she got out, it wasn’t true ...

It couldn’t be true ...

As he stood there, the door locks popped open and Nambu ran out, not wanting to face anyone. Unwilling and unable. He could hear -- someone -- call out his name, but he did not stop. Could not stop. She was gone ...

“How can I ever apologize to you or Ken?” he thought, as the threatened tears now spilled over.

She was gone and only her absence was left to him now. To both of them.
This story archived at http://www.gatchfanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=1366