1. Part 1.1 by Maya Perez
2. Part 1.2 by Maya Perez
3. Part 2.1 by Maya Perez
4. Part 2.2 by Maya Perez
5. Part 3 by Maya Perez
6. Part 4.1 by Maya Perez
7. Part 4.2 by Maya Perez
"Jun," there followed a moment of breathless hesitation, "put it on my tab, will you?"
A pair of large green eyes turned to stare intently into the ninja team leader's own clear blue ones. Jun's hands curled into light fists and came to rest on her curving hips. "Ken, do you realize the size of your tab now?" She didn't give him a chance to answer. "You haven't deigned to pay for anything in months though half your meals have been on the house!" She leaned towards him menacingly. "I would appreciate seeing even a little bit of cash just every once in a while. I'm trying to run a business here!"
Ken grimaced under Jun's scowl and quickly wondered how in the world he was going to get out of this one. Jun looked to be in the mood to keep this going for a long time. "Well," he stumbled out, "plane parts are expensive and the mail courier business has been slow... A guy has to eat." He tried giving her his best destitute expression.
"Nope, sorry, that one won't work today. You're going to have to come up with something much better than that."
A gargled chuckle escaped from the stool next to Ken's. Joe had unsuccessfully been trying to keep quiet his growing amusement by stuffing his mouth full of bread.
"Don't you dare laugh, Asakura. You're as bad, if not worse, than he is!" Jun pointed a thumb in Ken's direction.
Joe tried to choke.
Ryu, sitting to Joe's left, tried to make himself look as small as possible hoping to be ignored. It didn't work.
"Between you, Ken, and Ryu, it's always a contest to see which one of you can get farthest in debt!" Jun raked all three with a hard stare, none of them stupid enough to dare move from their seats.
Jinpei, standing somewhere behind his sister, softly giggled at their discomfort, but kept his amusement under tightly pressed hands having no intention of getting dragged into this as well.
"I'm of a mind to stop this contest," she said. "As an incentive, I think I might just start taking an interest on what you owe on your tabs and have monthly installments taken out of your paychecks." She swept a stunning, highly smug smile at all three of them. "I'm sure hakase would agree to it. After all, he does own a percentage of the Snak J."
Three sets of jaws dropped in stunned amazement. Jinpei turned away to face the wall, a laughing fit threatening to give his presence away.
"But, Jun, you can't... We - uh - we..." Ken stuttered to a halt.
"If you never see the money, you won't spend it. I doubt you'll even miss it."
Three stricken faces continued staring at her. It was slowly dawning on them that Jun might just be serious after all. A muffled chortle whispered towards them from the back.
"Jun, reconsider this! If you push us too far, we might just have to find us another place to hang out." Joe tried to stare at her threateningly, hoping to get out of the horrid situation as badly as the other two.
Jun's smile turned nasty. "Feel free. But I doubt you'll find one single place that will -" She looked up at she spoke, the tell-tale bell on the door announcing a new customer. Her voice trailed to nothing as her startled eyes locked onto the person who'd come through the door.
Bright gray eyes met hers for a moment, the handsomely carved features beneath them smiling brightly before breaking contact. Jun's widening eyes followed the almost white hared figured as he moved down the aisle towards the booth farthest from the door.
"Neechan, do you want me to take care of him?" Jinpei was at her elbow, his head looking past her as he tried to catch a glimpse of the person her eyes seemed so interested in.
"Hm?" Jun blinked, breaking her stare, and looked down at her brother. "Uh, no, I'll take care of it. You stay here and make sure these three don't reach for any more food."
As if they no longer existed, Jun moved around the corner. Four pairs of eyes followed her as she went towards the booth, all perfectly aware that she'd totally dismissed them from her mind.
"Jinpei, do you know that guy?"
The youngest member of the scientific ninja team shook his head in confusion. "I've never seen him before, aniki. Have any of you guys?"
"No, but from the look on Jun's face, it sure looked like she had," Joe added.
"He is rather good looking..." Ryu was still looking in Jun's general direction. He tapped Ken on the shoulder as he noticed that he too was staring intently off the way she'd gone. "Maybe you've got some competition, Ken. She must have finally gotten tired of waiting for you to get the hint."
Ken threw his best friend a dirty look but said nothing. He resumed eating his dinner and didn't look down Jun's way again.
"Go - good evening, sir. Welcome to the Snak J. Is there something that I could get for you?" As he set down the small menu he'd picked up from the far end of the booth and looked up at her, Jun felt her pulse race at the familiar gray stare. Jun felt her hands grow moist as she caught a closer look at her newest customer.
As far as she could tell, he looked healthy, his cheeks showing more color than when they'd first met. His hair was cut shorter, and looked even lighter in color than before. And there he sat, looking relaxed, wearing a blue-gray silk shirt with the sleeves rolled up almost to the elbows. The first few buttons near the collar had been left open, a thick chain with an eagle shaped pendant over his smooth chest. White slacks slid smoothly down his long legs, white loafers cradling his feet. A light smile softly decorated his well remembered lips, even as Jun waited breathlessly for him to speak.
"I really would appreciate a good, hot cup of coffee."
Jun's mind screamed at her, all doubts that she might have had that she'd been mistaken shattered into nothing. This was Michael Frost! She had thought she'd never see him again and yet here he was, sitting in her own store.
"Miss, are you all right?" he asked.
Jun abruptly remembered to breathe and rapidly shook her head. "No, I'm fine. Sorry. One hot cup of coffee coming right up."
Jun left the table before Frost had a chance to say anything else. She clumsily dried her moist hands on her apron as she made her way quickly back up the aisle.
Four pairs of eyes followed her movements as she made it back to the counter, all noticing her flushed cheeks.
"An old friend of yours, Jun?" Ken studied her quietly even as she rattled a cup and saucer into a skewed tray.
"He asked you if that guy over there is a friend of yours." Joe thumbed his hand back in Frost's direction.
"Him? Oh, no, no, I've never seen him before." Without looking at any of them to see if they'd believed her, Jun quickly filled the cup with coffee, setting a small cup of milk as well as sugar on the tray. She picked the tray up and left.
As soon as she'd gone some way down the aisle, Ken reached out and maliciously kicked Joe in the shin.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"Second in commands should learn to mind their own business." Ken hissed the answer out of the side of his mouth, never deigning to look at Joe's annoyed face.
"Well, you did ask," Joe said rather smugly. "I was just making sure she heard you."
Ken gritted his teeth but let the matter drop.
"I don't think she told us the truth, do you?" Ryu leaned forward after hurriedly glancing down the aisle to make sure they wouldn't be overheard.
"It's none of our business!" Ken turned on Ryu, who just stared back at him in surprise.
"But, aniki -"
"But nothing, Jinpei. Jun is a grown woman, let her be." Ken turned his attention back to his cooled dinner.
Jun couldn't stop her hands from shaking as she moved to bring Frost his coffee. She knew she was being foolish, knew that she should have let Jinpei take care of him and left it at that. But he was here, at the Snak J! Never in her wildest dreams had she thought she'd ever see him again. She'd resigned herself long ago that she'd only have that one unexpected kiss to remember him by. But he was here!
"Your coffee, sir." Jun almost spilled the cup in her hurry to unload the tray.
"Thanks." He gave her a quick smile.
Jun finished unloading the tray and then held it before her like a shield. She bit her lip and started to turn away, but then hesitated. Before she realized what she was doing, she'd started to speak. "Excuse me, but aren't you..."
As Frost's penetrating gaze turned to give her their full attention, Jun's better judgement grabbed hold and silenced the rest of the question.
"Yes?" Frost's eyes held hers, locking Jun in place.
"It - it was nothing really. You just look an awful lot like someone I once knew." She held the tray that much tighter.
"Lucky man, whoever he was." His eyes still held on to hers.
Jun forcibly made herself look away, feeling suddenly dizzy. "I - I have to get back to the counter now. Please excuse me."
Jun almost ran from the booth, feeling like a fool. Her heart thumped within her breast as she was simultaneously hurt and relieved that he'd not seemed to have recognized her.
Again, four pairs of eyes watched her upon her return. They continued to watch her as she said nothing and only made a half hearted attempt at straightening out the counter area.
"Did you guys want anything else?" Jun looked at her friends, biting her lip as it suddenly occurred to her to wonder if they'd noticed anything.
"No thanks, we've had enough," Ken said. "Joe and I have to go anyway."
Ken threw Joe a withering glance.
Joe thrust up his hands into the air and gave up. "Okay, okay, we do."
As the two of them got up to go, Ken quickly reached into his billfold and left behind a twenty dollar bill.
Startled, Jun stared after them wondering what was wrong. "Nambu didn't call, did he?" Jun turned to look at Ryu and Jinpei.
The two only shook their heads no.
"Is something going on?"
Again the two didn't speak but only shook their heads in a negative reply.
Jun's brow furrowed, something about their answers not feeling right. She decided not to press them at the moment however. If it had been something to do with work or something truly worthwhile, she knew that Ryu and her brother wouldn't have allowed Ken and Joe to leave them behind.
As her gaze drifted back towards Frost's booth however, Jun forgot her current train of thought. Ignoring Jinpei and Ryu, she reached for one of the waiting coffee pots and came back around from behind the counter.
Hoping she wasn't being too pushy but unable to stay away, Jun returned to Frost's booth.
"More coffee, sir?" Jun tried to steel herself against the calm, self possessed look she knew would come, but still found butterflies pressing against her stomach when it did.
"No, thank you. I've had enough." He smiled at her. "It was very good coffee."
"Thank you." Jun could feel her cheeks growing warm again.
Frost's smile grew, brightening his face, his eyes already alight. He slid out of the booth to stand beside her. "Thank you very much for your hospitality." He reached down into his pocket and extracted a folded bill. He never took his eyes from her face. "Please accept this in appreciation. Perhaps we will meet again."
Frost slipped the bill into Jun's apron pocket before she could say a word. Flashing her one last and almost blinding smile, he turned from her and headed towards the shop's door.
Jun took an involuntary step after him, the sudden urge sweeping through her not to let him out of her life so easily again. Regrettably, she held herself back, knowing that it was not meant to be. Frost hadn't recognized her as the Swan, and that was how it should be. She couldn't risk her cover, no matter how lamentable that would be.
Slowly going back to the counter, Jun noticed both Ryu and Jinpei both staring out the shop's door in the direction Frost had taken. A small inexplicable chill made its way down her spine. "Jinpei, what are you doing?"
Her two team mates jumped back inside as far away from the door as they could, their guilt written all over their faces. "Oh, neechan, nothing. Really! Ryu and I, we, we were, we were just - uh - looking at some girls!"
Ryu quickly nodded his concurrence on their activities. "Girls. Yeah, that was it. Really!"
Jun didn't believe the lie for a second. If they'd really been looking at girls, she would have been the last person they would have admitted it to. "You do have other, better things you should be doing don't you, Jinpei?" She wasn't sure she liked the sudden relief she saw in his face at hearing the familiar question with its innately interwoven threat.
"Yes, neechan, you're absolutely right! I think I'll go do those things right now." Before Jun could change her mind or add anything more, Jinpei bolted towards the kitchen.
While she watched him, Ryu started sneaking back towards the front door. "I, err, just remembered that there's some stuff I should be doing too. I'll, uh, see you later!"
"Ryu, wait!" Jun found herself calling out to an empty doorway. What the heck was going on?
Thinking seriously about cornering Jinpei and extracting some answers, Jun placed the cooling coffee pot back in its holder. As she did so, she glanced back over her shoulder remembering the half emptied cup and the man that had been drinking from it moments before. Grabbing a tray to go retrieve the dishes, Jun recalled the pocketed payment and tip and reached into her pocket to get it.
She couldn't help but smile as she saw that Frost had left her a five dollar bill for just a cup of coffee. Somehow it seemed like him. As she unfolded the bill to put it in the cash register, Jun watched in surprise as a small folded piece of paper fell from within it to the floor.
With an odd prickling feeling rising on the back of her neck, Jun slowly bent to retrieve the paper. With her pulse racing inside her, she carefully unfolded it to see the note written inside.
I need your help. Please meet me at Weslin Park
at 12:30 tonight. Be careful, I think I'm
P.S. You are still as beautiful as ever
Jun read the note three times then folded it with meticulous care. She held it to her breast, her eyes closed and her breath heavily coming in and out of her parted lips.
He had known. He had known who she'd been all along! He'd recognized her even after all this time, though she knew that she hardly looked now as she had when they'd first met. It was incredible.
Jinpei puttered around in the kitchen for a while, wondering how long it would take his sister to forget about what he and Ryu had been doing. It was kind of exciting and perhaps even a little frightening to think that his sister might just have a boyfriend none of them knew anything about. The guy had looked handsome enough for it. But why didn't she want them to meet him? That was the one thing he couldn't figure out.
Eventually guessing that he'd waited long enough, Jinpei decided to risk it and ventured a cautious look out the kitchen door. Not seeing Jun in his immediate field of view, he slowly extricated himself from the doorway, keeping a careful eye for any sign of her.
Jinpei spotted Jun as his gaze traveled over the length of the shop's counter top towards the boothed area. Jun was standing with a tray at the far table - the one where the pale hared man had been sitting at earlier. And she also wasn't moving. Instead of doing her job and picking up the dirty dishes left there, she was just standing there her gaze flowing unseeing out the shop's large glass window.
Jinpei recognized that look. It was one he'd seen her wear only those few times some months ago over something he could never get her to talk about. Now more than ever, Jinpei wondered who exactly that gray eyed man had been.
Jun slowly turned at Jinpei's call, the last vestiges of her far away look retreating from her green eyes. Sending him a small smile, Jun quickly picked up the dishes in the booth and put them on the tray. With a last glance, she looked out the large window, and then joined her brother at the counter.
"I've finished all my chores, neechan. Is it okay if I go bug Ryu for a while?" Jinpei trailed closely after her even as she moved to go inspect the kitchen.
"I guess it'd be all right," she said. "It doesn't look like we're going to be all that busy tonight."
"All right! Thanks, neechan. See ya!" He turned to go.
He'd almost made it to the door when he heard the call. Though normally he would have been tempted to ignore it, always judging it best not to stick around too long so as not to give Jun time to come up with more work, he stopped and looked back at her, having noticed a strange subdued tone in her voice. "Yes, neechan?" He watched her with sudden concern as he saw that far away look return to her eyes.
"What do you think I look like?"
His brow furrowed at the strange question. "Like my sister of course. What else would you look like?"
Jun gave her brother a half-hearted dirty look before rephrasing her question. "What I meant was -- do you think I'm attractive? Maybe even beautiful?"
Jinpei stared at his sister, surprised, even as a look of uncertainty crossed her face. "I dunno, neechan. I guess so. I've always liked how you look." He frowned. "Why?"
Jun sighed softly. Jinpei wondered if he'd just gotten into some kind of trouble.
"No reason. I just wanted to know what you thought."
Jinpei continued staring at her as she turned away, still not sure what that had been all about. Would a boyfriend make his sister act like this? He was suddenly not all that sure that he should leave her. But since she'd given him permission, he couldn't come up with a good enough excuse to stay that wouldn't arouse her suspicions. Finally, he turned away, sending one last worried glance in her direction before leaving to go find Ryu.
"I'm telling you, I think there's something wrong with her."
Ryu looked doubtfully at his young friend as they returned with their drinks to Jinpei's buggy. "I think you might be overreacting. Jun would have told us if there was something wrong."
"She would, huh?" Jinpei threw Ryu a dubious glance. "What about the time she and Nambu went off to help that street gang, or the time she took off on her own to help out Loraine?"
"We've all done that," Ryu countered. "Besides, she's, she's the most sensible of us. She wouldn't run off to do something stupid." Ryu tried to give Jinpei a reassuring smile, but it faltered against his friend's worried expression.
"But she's really acting weird. That strange look I told you about before is back. And, and today, she asked me if I thought she was beautiful!"
Now Ryu's own brow obtained furrows of its own. "You think this has something to do with that guy this afternoon?"
Jinpei nodded. "I've never seen him before, but I would swear she knew him."
"Joe could be right though, it could just be a boyfriend."
"No way! I thought about this, I really have. If the guy was just a boyfriend, she would have introduced us wouldn't she, or at least she would have said something about him. But no, Ryu, she lied. We all know it."
Ryu stared at Jinpei's frowning profile and took a deep drought from his fountain drink. "So, what do you think we should do about it?"
Jinpei glanced quickly about the small convenience store's parking lot before looking back at Ryu. "I have a feeling that maybe the two of them will be meeting tonight. I - I wanna be there when they do."
Ryu looked down at his filled hands for a moment. "I, I don't know. If Jun found out somehow..." He let the dreadful thought go unfinished. They both realized the consequences only too well.
"You don't have to go," Jinpei said. "I'll do it on my own if I have to. But I'm telling you I'm positive something is up!"
Ryu broke away from Jinpei's intense stare and took another long draught from his drink. "No, I guess I'll go with you. But what about Ken and Joe, shouldn't we get them to help too?"
Jinpei immediately shook his head. "No, they wouldn't do it. They'd blame it all on my overactive imagination or something. You know how they are."
Ryu sipped at his drink.
"This is something for us more sensitive and experience types to handle."
Ryu nodded slowly. "Yeah."
Both of them took long contented draughts.
Ryu and Jinpei had already spent several hours staring at both the front and rear entries to the Snak J when the night began to pick up a teasing chill.
Jinpei was stretched out, his feet on the buggy's dashboard, his eyes partially closed. From where he lay, he had a clear view of the Snak J's living quarters, the garage, and the shop's back door.
Nothing had changed the entire time he'd been there, the place being very quiet. Between the cool night and the stifling boredom, Jinpei had been fighting a losing battle against sleep.
He snapped up straight, startled as his bracelet let off a loud beep. The bracelet beeped again, making him cringe as it sounded much too loud in the surrounding silence. Sitting up straight in his seat, he wiped away the sleep from his eyes and brought the bracelet towards his lips. "Jinpei here."
"Jinpei, I'm tired, I'm cold, and I'm hungry," Ryu whined. "I don't think anything is going to happen, can't I go home?"
Jinpei rolled his eyes in exasperation. "It's not that late yet, Ryu. And I've already promised to buy you dinner tomorrow if you'd stay till one. You don't have that much more to go."
There was a momentary pause on the other end. "All right. But for you sake, I hope you have a lot of money, ‘cause I have a feeling I'm going to be real hungry tomorrow."
Jinpei groaned, wondering if this was actually worthwhile. He was just about to tell Ryu to go ahead and go home when he heard the rev of his sister's motorcycle.
"Ryu, Ryu, this is it! Neechan's getting ready to go somewhere! Come around the building and I'll pick you up on the way out."
Not waiting for a reply, Jinpei quickly started up his buggy making sure to keep all the lights off. He backed up farther into the alley facing the one running behind the Snak J and waited tensely for Jun to appear. She wasn't going to keep him out of this one, no sir! He was going to find out what she was up to whether she liked it or not.
After Jun finally roared past, Jinpei waited several heartbeats and then took off after her. Hoping her less shielded engine would cover the noise from his, Jinpei kept her in sight as she rounded the main alley way and got off onto the street. As she turned right and moved on, Jinpei braked at the end of the alley glancing impatiently in the darkness for some sign of Ryu. "Come on you slowpoke, we're gonna lose her!"
Ryu darted out from a deep shadow off to the side and leapt gracelessly into the passenger side. The wheels squealed as Jinpei shifted to first and took off after his sister. Ryu tried to get comfortable in the cramped space even as Jinpei accelerated.
Traffic was sparse and Jinpei forced himself to ease off a bit as he finally got Jun in clear view. For a moment, he thought there was something different about her, but wasn't close enough to figure out what it was.
In what seemed like a short period of time, Jinpei felt an abrupt attack of panic as it became clear that Jun had reached her destination. She had slowed dramatically and pulled her bike into a darkened area of a parking lot beside a large park.
Not wanting to take the chance that she might spot them if they drove past, Jinpei turned sharply down the nearest street he could find and got them out of sight. As soon as they'd made the corner, Jinpei brought the buggy to a squealing stop and shut it down. Ryu, still reeling form the screeching turn, was thrust forward to slam his bulk unwillingly against the front dashboard.
"Jinpei, are you nuts? Are you trying to kill me?" he squealed.
"Shshshshshsh!" Jinpei turned on him. "What are you trying to do, get us caught?"
Ryu looked suddenly guilty.
"Come on, let's get going before we lose her out there!" Jinpei leapt out of the buggy leaving Ryu to follow on his own.
Cursing, Ryu worked hard to extricate himself from the buggy's small confines and go after his friend. As he banged his knees in his hurry to get out, Ryu mentally added a few more items to the meal he'd be having at Jinpei's expense tomorrow.
Rushing out from behind a telephone pole to conceal himself behind a large, corner mailbox, Jinpei glanced cautiously around trying to catch a glimpse of his wayward sister. Spotting a white blur move from the parking lot, Jinpei realized for the first time that Jun had at some point changed into uniform. Here was the proof that Jun was indeed trying to put one over on them. Tensing up, Jinpei got ready to dart across the street as soon as his sister was totally enveloped by the abundant trees in the park.
Glancing back to make sure Ryu was following, Jinpei took a deep breath and dashed across.
Jun felt more secure in her uniform, dropping into the comfortable persona of the science ninja as easily as she had changed her clothes. Ready now to deal with the tinge of danger implied in Frost's note, Jun moved into the park to search for him.
If someone was watching, she wanted to be as ready as possible while at the same time keeping her identity secret. It was obvious to her that Frost had already gone to considerable trouble to help her preserve it as well. If someone had been keeping an eye on his movements, they'd have little cause to suspect that he'd gone into the Snak J to contact a member of the Science Ninja Team.
Keeping her feather like cloak wrapped tightly about her, Jun moved swiftly towards the nearest clump of trees. With long practiced ease, she smoothly slipped her deadly yo-yo into her gloved hand while hiding her actions beneath the cloak.
Searching, she studied her surroundings trying to catch a clue as to Frost's whereabouts. Not finding anything obvious, she clung to the ample shadows and kept looking.
So far, her senses hadn't picked up signs of anyone, though she was only too aware that that didn't necessarily mean that no one was there. Making herself as small a target as possible, Jun rushed across the park's more open areas to enter the large pavilion at the center of the grounds.
The bright moon, which lit the night with soft incandescence, made the darkness of the interior of the pavilion seem almost like a solid mass of black as she approached. Though visibility throughout the park was poor even with the small amount of light, this was the best vantage point she'd been able to spot so far.
Merging with the pavilion's darkness, Jun stopped upon entering and swiftly moved to the side and down so she wouldn't make an easy target while her eyes adjusted. Jun glanced around, noting the empty picnic tables set about almost at random in the wide, open room. It didn't comfort her at all to realize that it would be only too easy for any number of people to be hiding in the deeper, blacker shadows.
Still not spotting a sign of anyone, she decided to take a risk as she carefully made her way deeper into the room. "Frost?"
A quiet sound landed behind her and Jun whirled around her yo-yo poised to attack whatever was there. At the last instant, she was able to stop herself from striking out, as she recognized the glinting smile she could faintly see coming from the shadow cloaked figure before her. "I could have killed you just now! Why didn't you warn me you were there?" The harsh whisper bolted from her before she could think to stop it.
All the figure did in response to her shocked anger was lift his cloaked shoulders in a shrug. "You didn't and that's what counts," Frost answered. "At the time, I wasn't all that certain of who you were... By the way, I love the uniform."
Jun momentarily glanced down at her open cloak and blushed even as she tried to glare at him. Though she'd never thought of it before, her uniform's skirt was a bit short. It was perfect for combat, but not so good for meeting handsome men in the dark.
Oh, why did he always do this to her? She saw Frost's easy smile grow wider and realized to her chagrin that he was only too aware of the effects his words were having on her. Trying to control her rising conflicting emotions, Jun turned away from him and regathered her cloak about herself. Her uniform had never seemed too short before, not in front of the others, not even in front of Ken. Why did his few words make it bother her so much all of a sudden?
Stiffening in surprise, Jun stood very still as Frost's hand tenderly caressed her shoulder before giving it a light squeeze.
"Thank you for coming. You don't know how much it means to me."
Jun suddenly felt herself growing warm all over. Hearing him say those words meant more to her than she would have ever thought they could. Turning slowly around, her eyes brown when seen through the visor, Jun's gaze locked with his and they stood looking into one another's eyes for sometime.
Slowly working herself up to it, Jun finally looked away. She felt light headed and dizzy, and a little afraid that he could make her feel that way. "How, how did you find me?" She glanced at him, avoiding his direct gaze.
Frost's pleasantly shaped mouth sparked into a smile. "It was quite easy really, since I knew what to look for."
Jun raised a brow in disbelief, but said nothing.
"Your beautiful face is much too distinct for me not to recognize it, regardless of the style of your clothes or the color of your hair. Though I must admit, I think I like the green better than the blond."
Jun could feel herself blushing and was only too glad for the partial concealment of the covering darkness. "If you knew all this time, why didn't you contact me sooner?"
"It wasn't possible, the danger too great," he said. "The threat that had forced me to leave you in the first place was still there."
Jun stared at him, confusion in her eyes. "Then why contact me now?"
His gray eyes locked again with her own. "Because... I need your help."
Jun noticed the slight hesitation in his answer but didn't know what to make of it. This time, Frost was the first to break eye contact and distractedly moved to sit at one of the tables, staring off to the side.
"After I left you that day, I maintained a very low profile and kept track of Dr. Rathbone and his daughter to make sure that Katse had forgotten about them in the midst of his latest defeat to you." He shrugged lightly, rearranging his cloak about his shoulders. "It was during that time that I spotted you waltzing into the hospital. I was rather pleasantly surprised..." He still made no move to look at her.
"After the second time you came, I was unable to resist the urge and followed you home."
Jun was taken aback by the fact that it had been so easy - that she'd given away her secret identity with barely any amount of effort on his part.
"After I became relatively certain that they would remain safe, I smuggled myself out of the country and started for home." Frost glanced at her for a moment and then looked away again. "I had a lot less trouble getting there than I'd expected. But then, no one suspected that I would be going there since Katse thought me buried back at the mountain base." He paused. "I'd been so looking forward to meeting with my father again, to let him know that I was free so there was no longer any reason for him to kowtow to Galactor's every whim."
His eyes flickered briefly towards her. "I guess that in our rushed and rather unorthodox introduction I never did get a chance to explain why I was a prisoner."
Jun said nothing, breathlessly awaiting for him to continue, ravenously curious and interested in spite of herself.
"I was a pawn of Galactor's, a political prisoner of sorts, a tool to keep my father and his fortune within easy reach of the organization's greed." Frost turned around and faced her fully. "You see, the Galactor organization and its faceless leaders have actually been around for much longer than you or your sponsors probably realize. My father's lands are rich, productive, and very isolated, a perfect staging place for one of their numerous long range projects." His eyes grew dark.
"When they first came to us, they introduced themselves as well meaning business men interested in making profits for themselves as well as for my father. As things progressed towards what was thought to be legitimate negotiations, the Galactor agents took me hostage and invaded our lands. Would you believe that they have used me as a hold over my father for almost half my lifetime?"
Jun's eyes were wide with shocked surprise though Frost's account had been delivered in a tone that belied the severity of his statement. Jun studied him, deeply feeling for him, but she couldn't read him, the darkness doing for his features now what his mask had done for him in the past.
It was a lot easier to understand after this how his freedom had made him so reluctant to take the risk that the ISO might take it from him again.
"I'd been allowed to talk to my father on occasion, though never in person or from anywhere he could have possibly arrange to have me retrieved. Each time I saw him, it was only too painfully clear how the strain of doing Galactor's bidding was eating away at him. I was a prisoner, and I never forgot it, for they never tired of reminding me. But my father... He, he was at home, where he had spent all of his life, still surrounded by all the things that he had ever loved, yet he was more bound by Galactor chains that I have ever been." His soft voice whispered at her from the dark twilight, his tone laced with deep, quiet hidden sorrow.
"Like I said, no one was expecting me, so though the place was guarded, I was still surprised by the ease with which I was able to get back home. I should have suspected something then, I suppose, but I didn't. I was just too filled with joy at finally being back!"
His gray eyes locked with hers, a flush of color staining his cheeks. "I wish I could truly convey to you what that felt like to me... For without you, it would have never been mine. But I can't." He smiled. "Trust me though, it was quite overpowering."
Jun tried to imagine what it might have been like for him. What it would feel like to return home after having been kept away all those years. How she would feel if she found her own parents alive and well. Jun tried to imagine the excited tinge in Frost's voice magnified a thousand times.
He didn't continue speaking though Jun had expected him to. He turned his face completely away from her, his dark enshrouded form hunched over the picnic table. After several moments of continued silence, Jun found her curiosity gaining the upper hand over her patience. "What happened then? Didn't you find your father?"
Jun heard Frost sigh deeply before he replied. "Yes, I finally found him, though not where I'd expected. His rooms had been changed and I found a stranger sleeping there. That in itself didn't surprise me, really, father's room was the best one in the place and Galactor leaders have never been known to live below the best possible means available.
"I searched the rest of our home, looking for him in all the old rooms I could remember. I even found my own room, left as it had been since I'd been taken. The only change I found inside was the addition of a large cot in the far corner.
"After a while though, I began to fear that perhaps Katse hadn't been fooled after all. That just maybe, he had anticipated my return and had taken steps to still keep my father and I apart."
Frost's voice lowered slowly until Jun was forced to come closer or miss what he would say. "Since I couldn't find him, I risked awakening my father's most trusted vassal, and a friend from my youth. At the time I wasn't sure he'd recognize me, but I shouldn't have worried on that account."
Jun could imagine the small grin she was sure had just flickered like a candle across Frost's face.
"He did however, tell me more than I had ever wanted to know..." Frost paused again, a premonition of doom clouding the air about him.
Jun found herself feeling an urge to suddenly reach out to him, but restrained herself as he began to speak again.
"Colten was quite shocked when he saw me. I think he almost had a heart attack on my account. I know my back still aches from that bear hug of his. I'm pretty sure he was happy to see me."
Despite the light tone, Jun noticed how Frost took an almost agonized breath before continuing.
"I asked him almost immediately to divulge the location of my father. After a hurried minute to get himself dressed, Colten showed me where he was.
"They hadn't even had the decency of marking his grave. If Colten hadn't pointed out the place to me, I would have never known it from the rest of the yard."
Jun stared at Frost's stiff back in shocked sorrow. Her eyes watered in pained sympathy, pushed on by the total lack of emotion in his voice.
"My father had been dead for over a year. The Galactor propaganda at home had declared that he'd died peacefully of old age during his sleep. Colten and some of the others had very concrete reasons for believing otherwise. You see, it seems that my father had finally had enough. He'd no longer been cooperating to the satisfaction of those in charge, and they merely decided he wasn't worth the trouble anymore.
"He'd died, been killed, and to that day I had never even suspected it. I would have never learned of it if those bastards could have helped it!"
Frost abruptly pushed himself away from the table and turned to glance sharply back at her. "I would have gone into a berserking rage if it hadn't been for Colten. Never had I wanted to take another's life until that day."
Staring at her intensely a moment longer, he suddenly smiled. The small angry lines that had been growing on his face smoothed themselves away. "I digress from why I asked you here. Please forgive me."
Jun found herself coming close, her hand landing lightly on his arm. Her heart skipped a beat as she couldn't help but notice how his eyes were glued to hers even before she spoke. "There's nothing to forgive. I - I'm glad that you feel you can tell me these things."
Jun hesitated for a moment as Frost stared even more intently at her. "What - what did you do then?"
"Well, I stuck around. Colten and some of the others did their best to keep me out of trouble and out of sight." He shrugged lightly and finally looked away. "Now that I'd finally returned, we started implementation of a plan Colten had been working on for some time for my father.
"In the end, it was all very easy. Galactor had assumed that without my father, my people's spirit was gone. So, since we knew exactly who were and were not Galactor sympathizers, we gathered those that weren't and used them to replace Galactors at the castle. Before anyone had become the wiser, the place had once more become ours." Frost shrugged.
"Since that time, we've spent our efforts feeding defective ammunition to the enemy, while making them think that things remain as they have always been. I'm sure it's caused them some trouble here and there." Frost grinned wickedly, his eyes sparkling. He removed Jun's hand from his arm and placed it gently between his own.
"But unfortunately, that won't last forever. Sooner or later they'll figure out what's going on and try to put a stop to it. Before that happens, however, I'd like to strike a blow to them, one that will do some good as well as help avenge my father for the years spent under their heel."
His eyes locked with hers again and stayed there. "And I've finally been able to find something that would do both."
Jun waited for him to go on.
"You see, I know that my family and I aren't the only ones that have been abused in this particular way. There are others. Too many have joined Galactor for one reason or another only to come to learn the hard way that once you join you can never leave, sometimes not even in death."
Frost's gray gaze moved from her eyes down to her white gloved hand. After a moment, he began to message her fingers. Not sure why he was doing such a thing, Jun tried to gently pull her hand away but he wouldn't let her go.
"Have you ever thought of what happens to the torn families left behind after the death and destruction following one of your raids?"
Jun stiffened, not happy with what she thought he might mean. Again she tried removing her hand from his grasp, this time pulling harder. Again, Frost wouldn't let her go.
"Please don't misunderstand me, I'm not trying to judge what you do. But truly, do you have any idea of what happens to them?"
Jun met his questioning gaze, not understanding why he was asking her this, and not at all sure she really wanted to know. "No, I don't."
"I didn't think so." Frost released her hand and deftly moved to sit on top of the table behind him.
Startled by his reply, all Jun could do was stare after him.
"No one ever leaves Galactor - be it their cannon fodder or their cannon fodder's family. If one member of a family joins, they all join. And then they're all relocated to a far off site where only Galactor holds sway. It's practical, if nothing else, for it wouldn't do to have your mecha stomping on the very city where some of their underlings' families live, would it?" His hardened eyes belied the seeming mirth covering his voice.
"Not all members of Galactor have families. If they did, their present stategies would tax all their resources to nothing," he said. "A large percentage is single and have no ties to worry about. Most of the support-staff though, the technicians, scientists, and the highly skilled labor all do have people tied to them. And every last one got dragged along with them when they joined.
"Having their families included in the contracts and relocate them serves other purposes than just assuring their safety, however. By pitching in the families in the deal, Galactor is able to insure two very valuable things. First, it makes sure that your employee will never leave you. Second, if something were to happen to the employee, his family wouldn't be able to go about and spread what they know. Better still they can now be called upon to fill in their loved one's gap in some way, since now they would be solely dependent on Galactor for their continued existence. Some use would be found for them so they could repay the organization."
A small chill made its way slowly down Jun's spine, for she was sure that the people's forced dependency made life for those involved a lot worse than Frost had so far intoned.
"What I'd like to do, what I need your help to do, is to give a chance to some of these families to be free of Galactor. I want to give them the chance to break the chains with the organization. I want to give them a chance to be free again." His eyes met Jun's as he finished, waiting to see what she would say.
"Do you know where these places are?" Jun was surprised at the emotion in her own voice.
Frost smiled lightly. "The location of these places is highly restricted information. But, due to some negligence some time ago, I do have an idea of where one of them might be. I was hoping that through you, I'd be able to narrow the field a little."
"Yes! I'm sure I could! Nambu Hakase has access to all of the ISO's information networks, and I'm sure once he hears about all this that he'd be happy to help. I know we'd all want to help on this." Jun found herself incredibly excited by the idea. To somehow strike a blow to Galactor in a way that would save lives without having to wait for the organization to have started taking them. To actually take the initiative for once and do something on their own rather than just respond to Galactor's newest threat.
The half whisper brought her up short. "What?"
"Swan, I'm taking a great risk just by being here. I'm sure that our munitions plant is already under suspicion and I'm pretty certain that I have been followed since I left there. I can't take the risk of revealing myself to the ISO. There are leaks everywhere and this is just too important for me to risk it needlessly." He stood up, his gaze never leaving hers. "Not only is there the chance that Galactor might inadvertently learn too early of my plan, but once indebted to the ISO, they wouldn't let me go."
Jun shook her head. "The ISO knows nothing about you. I kept you as vague as possible in my debriefings and Hakase didn't press the point. No one would have any idea that you were once the commander of a Galactor base."
"Wouldn't they?" Frost looked at her with disbelief. "If you were a resource concerned executive in the ISO, wouldn't you start questioning who the upstart was who was using up so many of the organizations' resources? Why it was all being done on his say so? Where and how did he come up with the information if it was true? Could he be a Galactor traitor or something else? What other useful information might he have gained that could be used? He could be a spy - this project a trap. He should be held until his trustworthiness is verified. No G-3, it's you or nothing." He stepped closer, his face open. "Will you help me?"
Jun turned away, trying to hide her indecision in the darkness about them.
Should she help him? Her options had seemed so clear just a moment before. But to help him, she'd have to keep secrets from her friends, her family, even possibly sneak sensitive information out of headquarters. Could she live with that? Were the benefits of what he proposed worth it?
"All right, I'll do it." She sensed him move to her side.
"Thank you. I know it's not easy for you, and I appreciate it." Frost placed his hand gently beneath Jun's chin and softly lifted it until he could stare clearly into her eyes. "Though if you truly feel that uncomfortable about doing it, don't. There are others ways I could get what I need."
Jun turned away, pulling her chin from his grasp, not quite sure if she was pleased or not that he was willing to let her go in this way. Not understanding his reasons, displeasure won. "I said I would help you and I meant it! Are you going to tell me what you need or not?"
Jun heard Frost softly chuckle behind her.
"Okay, okay. You win!"
Jun glanced back at him sharply, only to find Frost with a smile on his face and his hands in the air. She frowned at this, which only made his smile grow wider.
Abruptly he turned serious again. "If you can, please see if you can get some detailed photographs around these coordinates." Frost pulled out a piece of paper and handed it over to her. "Somewhere in that area is hidden one of Galactor's compounds. I'm hoping some satellite photographs will help me pin it down."
"I'll do what I can."
Frost moved closer nodding and put his hands lightly on Jun's shoulders. His eyes stared into her visored face. "I'm really glad I've gotten the chance to see you again."
With him so close, his eyes peering deeply into hers, Jun abruptly forgot about her displeasure and everything else. "I... I'm glad too."
"Has anyone ever told you what a vision you truly are?"
Jun forced her eyes to look away as a hot flush rose to her cheeks. She became only too aware of the two warm hands resting so easily on her shoulders. A light tingle of rising goose pimples coursed through her from there. "I - I really should be going... Jinpei will be coming home soon and will worry if I'm not there."
Jun tried to draw away a little and Frost let her. She pressed her lips together, hard, as the sudden burning memory of their first kiss rose unbidden to tease her in the darkness. Her shoulders felt cold where his hands had been, and she felt the sudden need to put them back again. Jun held herself back.
Frost placed his arms within the folds of his cloak, almost as if he had the same desire and was fighting against the temptation.
Jun shook her head, knowing it was only her imagination. "How should, how should I contact you once I've gotten the information?" She kept her eyes anywhere but looking directly at him.
"I will call you and let you know where to meet me. It's much too dangerous any other way." His eyes were veiled. "It might be a day or two, four at the most. I have no intention of endangering your cover or your life."
He turned away to go and suddenly Jun found herself wishing for him not to. "Is there really that much danger?"
Frost turned back to face her, and even though he hadn't gone far, he stood almost entirely enshrouded by darkness. "I've been followed ever since I left the vicinity of my lands." He shrugged. "Though I doubt they know me for who I really am, it has made obvious the fact that suspicions on our operations are higher than we'd hoped. I hadn't really tried to lose them until this evening. I believe I succeeded, but I don't want to underestimate them. Some of them are really very good."
For a moment, it occurred to Jun to wonder if perhaps Frost might be understating his situation for her benefit. "Please, be careful."
"Always, Beautiful One, always." He turned away and was swallowed by the night.
A mixture of unseparable feelings running chaotically through her, Jun waited in the tense silence for several minutes before making her own departure from the pavilion.
Reaching her cycle after painstakingly making sure that she was not being watched or followed, she checked it for any tampering and then got on. Chiding herself at the sudden bout of paranoia, she glanced about one last time and then started up the cycle to head on a roundabout way for home.
Ryu and Jinpei had spent some time prowling through the park trying to find where their errant team member had gone. Jinpei was fuming inside, knowing that if he didn't find his sister soon, he would be too late to get into whatever she was up to.
Already, he had glanced at and dismissed the far off pavilion in the center of the park. The location was too obvious and so it had gone to the bottom of his quickly thinning list. The clumped up areas of trees were his main concern, but there were so blasted many of them! To get through them faster, he would have split them between himself and Ryu, but he no longer trusted his somewhat unwilling partner to stick to business if left on his own.
Jinpei rushed on to the next set of shadow enshrouded trees, leaving Ryu to catch up at his own pace. He spotted a possible sign of movement along the area's edge. A sense of gratified victory filled his veins as he rushed to narrow in on what he'd seen. Soon his sister would have no choice but to let him in on her scheme. He ran faster as he could almost taste his reward.
"Ha! Gotcha!" He burst in from behind. "Let me in on this neechan or - uh - er..." Jinpei stuttered to a stop as he saw the shadowed figure before him snap around to face him. It wasn't his sister at all.
"Oh man, I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you. I -" Jinpei froze as his eyes noted the moonlight glint off a large gun that was now pointed directly at his chest. For the first time, Jinpei noticed that the person he'd surprised was dressed in a dark coat, his face shadowed by a wide, dark brimmed hat.
With a rising eyebrow, Jinpei wondered at just what he had stumbled into and for the merest fraction of a moment, regretted having followed his sister out here. But wait, couldn't this guy be part of the reason his sister had come here in the first place?
"Okay, kid, what are you doing out here?"
"Gee, I'm sorry, mister. Me and my sister are playing hide-n-seek," He gave the man his best innocent voice. "I thought you were her." Jinpei couldn't tell if he was falling for it or not. He also hoped the guy wouldn't be smart enough to ask him why in the world he and his sister would be playing hide-n-seek at this time of night. "Hey, have you seen her around?" Jinpei took a seemingly innocent step forward. "Gee, is that a real gun?"
The man took a step back not letting him get close. "Get your hands up where I can see them."
Jinpei grimaced, realizing the guy knew what he was about. He was just wondering what ploy to try next when the decision was taken from him.
A loud sound built up in their direction just before large form burst out at them from the trees. The gunman turned away from Jinpei to meet the new threat head on.
"Oops!" Ryu came to a startled and abrupt stop finding a gun pointed towards his face.
"Yeah!" Jinpei took the offered opportunity and leapt up and kicked the distracted gunman in the face.
Both the man and his gun fell like wet sacks of grain to the ground.
"Thanks, Ryu, that was great! Just what I needed."
"What's going on? Who is this guy?" Ryu stared at his younger partner obviously confused.
Jinpei shrugged. "I don't know. But it'll be fun finding out, right?"
Moving the high caliber gun out of the gunman's reach, Jinpei knelt down and took the belt from the oversized coat and used it to tie the gunman's hands behind his back. Undoing the buttons on the coat, he opened it wide. Within, the gunman was dressed as darkly as without. Something red flashed momentarily in the moonlight from his chest as Jinpei rocked him to get at his back pockets. Jinpei looked over to see what it was, and found a familiar pin on the man's tie. He gasped in shocked surprise. "This guy's Galactor! Look at his tie pin! I told you neechan was trying to pull one over on us, didn't I?" There was a note of triumph to his voice.
Ryu frowned, for the first time worried, even as Jinpei went back to searching their captive. About five feet away, Ryu spotted a tripod unobtrusively sitting between a couple of low bushes at the tree line. Moving towards it, he never heard the low moan that escaped the Galactor's lips.
Jinpei stiffened, hearing the man groan beneath him. Glancing up at his face and seeing that his eyes were still closed, he decided to ignore it and keep on with what he was doing.
Jinpei looked up again, startled by the almost incoherent murmur.
Jinpei waited wide eyed, listening for more, the two normally unrelated words circling around in his head.
"Jin - Jinpei, I found her!"
The two words still on his mind, Jinpei left their captive and rushed to his friend's side.
He found Ryu leaning forward looking through a scope mounted on a tripod. Glancing at it, Jinpei whistled softly in appreciation as he realized it was a top of the line light intensifying scope. It was pointed directly at the pavilion he'd so far had decided to ignore. "There? She actually went there?"
Ryu moved aside to let him take a look through the scope. It made the view into the pavilion as clear as it would have been in full daylight.
"Ryu, there's somebody there with her!" Gatchaman... Defector... The two words still spun dizzily in his head as Jinpei moved the scope ever so slightly to get a better look. Ryu tapped him on the shoulder wanting to take a look at the stranger, but Jinpei didn't seem to get the hint.
"Ryu, see, I was right. She did come to meet that guy from the Snack J! But she's in her uniform. Why would she come to see him in that? Hey! Why is he holding her that way!"
"What? Let me see!"
Jinpei moved unthinkingly out of the way, too stunned by what he'd seen. The vision and the words merged into the spinning as he stared towards the far off pavilion. His face wrinkled with growing confusion even as Ryu hunkered down for a look.
"You're right, it is him! Wait a - darn, he's moved." Ryu's hand rose to mess with the scope. "I can't find him again. Jinpei, I think he's gone."
"Is neechan still there?" He was still staring off into the distance.
"Uh, yeah. She's not doing anything though. She's just standing there."
A subtle snap behind them made the two of them turn around. It took them both a moment to realize that the supposedly unconscious Galactor was gone.
"I thought you made sure he was out," Ryu said.
"I did make sure, okay? Is it my fault that nobody's acting like they're supposed to today?"
Ryu stared in open mouthed amazement at the unexpected vehemence in his young friend's voice even as Jinpei stomped off into the trees.
Jun awoke, sunlight flooding over her. A slight smile played on her lips as Frost's handsome image was the first thing that came to her groggy mind. She got up and glanced out the widow and suddenly frowned. What time was it? Her eyes darted to the clock by her bed side - it read 9:08am. She was late!
A flurry of motion, Jun rushed to get dressed.
Everything had worked out all right after her meeting with Frost last night. When she'd gotten home, Jinpei hadn't gotten back yet so she'd been saved the necessity of having to lie to him about where she'd been.
Jun rushed into the bathroom to brush her teeth wondering how many customers she'd missed out on that morning. Since Jinpei hadn't come in until after she'd returned, she knew he would sleep late into the morning - especially since it wasn't his turn to open up.
Stumbling down the hall as she tried to put on her shoes and run at the same time, Jun hurried down the stairs hoping to salvage what little was left of the morning.
As she dashed out of the stairwell towards the front door of the shop, Jun stopped in stunned surprise as she spotted several people sitting at the counter and a few others in nearby booths. All the shop's shutters were raised high, the morning sunshine pouring in to warm the place. The open sign had been flipped over on the front door.
Dumbfounded, Jun turned back around slowly and automatically returned the few greetings that were thrown her way by some of the regular customers at the counter. Not sure what was going on, she pushed open the door to the kitchen almost afraid of what she might find there.
Jun stopped halfway through the doorway and blinked not believing what she saw there. She watched in wonder as he brother scurried back and forth expertly keeping an eye on someone's cooking breakfast even as he loaded on more toast on the way to wash more dishes. Jun's brow furrowed slowly, as Jinpei finally came to notice her standing there and instantly stopped all he'd been doing to give her a very odd stare.
"Good morning, nee-san." His eyes didn't meet hers and he turned away to continue with all he'd been doing before.
Neesan? He never called her that. "Good morning, Jinpei... I'm sorry I overslept. I forgot to set my alarm."
"No problem." He didn't even glance at her, but continued with his work as if she weren't there.
Jun's frown grew. "Jinpei?"
"Hakase called this morning. He wants a meeting in his office around two."
Jun moved towards him but he moved away, breaking a couple of eggs over the grill.
"If you'll hold the fort for another couple of minutes, I'll call Kathy and see if she'll come in this afternoon."
"I already have. She'll be in before one."
"Oh." Jun stood absolutely still, her entire concentration focused on her brother. Though she wasn't sure, she couldn't stab away the feeling that Jinpei was somehow furious with her. "Are you mad at me? Did I forget something else, or are you just sore for having had to open up for me this morning?"
Jinpei said nothing.
"You could have just left it. Left me to learn my own lesson the hard way. I would have deserved it." Jun bit her lip. "It wasn't my intention to put you out."
"You didn't. All right?"
Jun could only stare as Jinpei screamed at her, something she'd never experience from him before. He was so angry. "Jinpei..." She could find no words to say as he abruptly dropped what he'd been doing and stormed out the door.
Jun stared the way he'd gone and was about to go rushing after him when the hiss and smell of burning eggs grabbed for her attention.
Taking care of the food as quickly as possible, Jun carried out the orders hoping that Jinpei was there. He wasn't.
Unable to get away since she was the only one there, Jun was forced to put the incident aside until Kathy arrived in the afternoon.
Less than ten minutes after Kathy had arrived, Jun excused herself and headed upstairs. With uncertainty knotting her stomach, her worry stirred by the fact she couldn't put together what had made her brother so upset, she moved to their living quarters.
Jun first checked Jinpei's room but he wasn't there. Room by room she searched the rest of the living area, though a part of her already knew she wouldn't find him.
He'd have to go to the meeting -- Hakase would have his hide if he didn't. She would catch up to him there. The decision made, Jun headed back downstairs to the garage. Her vehicle was the only one there. At some point, Jinpei must have sneaked past her to make his getaway. Wondering more than ever why he had done all that, Jun started up her cycle and headed off towards the ISO building.
Parking in the underground garage once she'd arrived, Jun rushed up the stairs to the lobby the time being close to two. Her worry for her brother had only increased and she felt a burning need to see him.
Opening the door to Nambu's office, Jun instantly noticed that the rest of the team was already there. She hesitated though, as she got the feeling that everything wasn't all right.
Nambu sat at his desk as expected, riffling busily through his endless mountain of paperwork as he waited for them all to arrive. Joe had taken his usual place against the wall, Ken sitting not too far from him leaning back in one of the comfortable chairs.
The anomaly didn't lay with any of them, but with the remaining two members of the team. Uncharacteristically, Ryu and Jinpei were sitting as far apart from one another as the room would allow. Ryu looked overtly subdued and seemed engrossed in a new hobby - staring intently at the carpeted floor. Jinpei looked as bubbly as normal, happily keeping a conversation going between him and Ken, but his eyes, as they'd momentarily moved to look at her as she'd come in, had been devoid of anything.
His stare had sent an inexplicable chill down Jun's spine. Never had she seen him look like that. Never had he behaved in this manner before. Something was terribly, terribly wrong and she had no idea what it was!
Jun felt several pairs of eyes turn to her as she inadvertently continued standing in the open doorway. Her eyes drifted towards Ken, as she forced herself to move, wondering if he might have any idea what this was all about.
"Thank you all for making it here." Nambu stood up from the desk and came around to talk to them. "I realize that this meeting was set up with rather short notice and may have proved inconvenient for some of you. Unfortunately, it was something that couldn't wait."
Joe humphed quietly from where he leaned against the wall; clearly giving his opinion on Nambu's statement. Everyone else ignored it. Jun was glad that at least one thing seemed to be going on about normal for the day.
"I've called you in because there have been reports of Galactor activity here in Utoland."
Jun noted with curiosity that Nambu's eyes had strayed momentarily in Jinpei's direction as he spoke.
"Things have been quiet for some time with no major offensives having been launched in several weeks. That Galactor operatives have been spotted here, at this time, may mean that they are getting ready to strike, possible at the city itself." Nambu pushed his rimless glasses further up the bridge of his nose. "I want all of you to keep your eyes open and remain on call. If we're to thwart whatever it is that they're up to before they go too far, the sooner we find out about it the better."
Ken piped up, voicing the question that had come up to most of their minds. "Any idea at all what they might be up to now?"
"No - at least, nothing truly conclusive so far. We do know they are here, but not what they're after. All available agents have been alerted and are even now looking for clues of what their present agenda might be. As soon as anything solid is confirmed you'll all be immediately informed." Nambu moved to return to his chair.
"This is all you called us in here for? Geez, what a waste!" Joe pushed himself away from the wall in disgust.
Nambu's stern gaze turned in his direction. "I realize this is somewhat unusual, but there is cause. Though we have nothing on which to substantiate the assumption, several people are of the belief that Galactor's present activities may revolve around you five. It's thought that the organization may be making a full fledged effort to try and figure out the civilian identities of the Gatchaman team. Once they have that information, it would be quite simple to get each of you alone and dispose of you."
Nambu now had the full attention of everyone in the room.
Ken stood up. "But Hakase, if they are looking for us, wouldn't it have been a mistake to have us come here for this meeting?"
"Normally that would be the case, except part of the reason for this meeting was to ascertain if any of you were already being followed." Nambu sat down. "Agents were sent to each of your locations and monitored you from remote stations to ascertain whether there was anyone following you or not. So far this doesn't seem to be the case." He leaned back in his chair, his gaze scanning their faces, his eyes cold.
"It's much easier to be alert and ready for a fight in a scenario that has already been established for you. It's quite another matter when someone decides to take a shot at you crossing the street on your way home from the market.
"Now that you've been alerted, you can keep your eyes open and enable us to either mislead their attempts to uncover your identities or possibly capture them while they're at it. Already a number of measures have been put into play to help with this." Nambu paused a moment.
"Anything that looks out of the ordinary is not to be ignored or acted upon by any of you independently. Continue your normal routines and check on each other. If something does show up, notify me immediately." Nambu straightened up in his chair and dismissed them all with a nod.
"But, hakase, who's seen Galactor? Why do they believe that this is what's going on?" Ken stared at Nambu, his bafflement plain for all to see.
"I'm sorry, but that is all I can say on the subject. Please leave, I have a lot of work to do." Nambu's gaze never left his papers as he lifted a pen and made notations on them.
Ken and Joe exchanged confused glances before deciding to head for the door.
Jun stood up, looking at Jinpei, only to have him shy away from her. She thought hard of trying to intercept him, when she again noticed Ryu's subdued attitude. Remembering that the two of them had been out together last night, Jun hung back and decided to try to speak with him instead.
"Ryu?" Jun bit her lip as he stopped at her querry but didn't look up at her. "Are you okay?" Her concern for him escalated as she noticed the dark lines hanging beneath his eyes.
Ryu made as if to go, but Jun stopped him by gently taking hold of his arm.
"Ryu, what's going on? This isn't like you. Did you and Jinpei have problems last night?" It momentarily occurred to her to wonder if possibly they'd been the ones who'd spotted the Galactors. If they had though, what would it have to do with the way they were acting?
"We, we had a falling out yesterday. A disagreement."
"You two have disagreements all the time. But you're acting as if you two were no longer friends." Even as she said it, Jun felt Ryu cringe under her touch. With a cold feeling in her heart, she knew she was on the right track. "Maybe I can help. Tell me what happened."
Jun saw his gaze rise but not to look at her. Following his line of sight, Jun noticed Jinpei staring back at them from down the hall, his young, angular face stern. Noticing her scrutiny, he instantly disappeared around the bend.
"It, it wasn't anything, Jun," Ryu said. "He and I just have a - a difference of opinion, that's all. It's, it's nothing to worry about."
Every part of her screamed that all that he'd said was not entirely true. Thinking of Jinpei's actions that morning, Jun decided to gamble on a hunch. "Ryu, does this argument have anything to do with me?"
Jun watched, fascinated despite herself, as feelings of guilt, horror, and surprise all filtered through Ryu's wide, expressive features.
"I - I gotta go. My, my thing is burning and I need to shut it off and I can't wait please I'll see you later bye!" His words ran together even as he pulled away.
Jun stared at him as he almost ran in his eagerness to get away from her question. She stared down the hallway for almost a minute after he'd gone, not really any closer to finding out what was going on other than it somehow had to do something with her. For a moment, she considered going back into Nambu's office and asking him what he knew about it. She dropped the idea almost as soon as it came to her, recalling the doctor's odd mood today and his hurry to get them all out. If Jinpei was somehow the cause for this impromptu meeting, Nambu hadn't said so and he wouldn't only if he had cause. But what on earth would Galactor have to do with her and Jinpei's problems with Ryu? Was she just making out more of this than was there?
The silent hallway revealed no answers to her. Jun knew only too well that there was only one person who could shed light on what was going on, and he obviously wasn't willing.
Sighing deeply and hoping that Jinpei would go home so she could try to find out anyway, Jun started off towards the far off elevator. She'd gone only a short distance when she remembered the promise of information that she'd made Frost last night.
Frost... Something else to worry about. Could the Galactor sightings then be connected with him?
Shaking her head, Jun changed her originally planned route and took the elevator to sub-level two rather than the lobby. Passing through several security stations, Jun came into a room filled with row after row of computer memory banks.
The whole purpose of this area before the conflict with Galactor began was for the processing and analyzing of continuous weather satellite information. After the first attack by the organization, the satellites and their data had been used for many more purposes than just the prediction of weather patterns.
All the information from the satellites, once it was analyzed and converted into its different categories were left in memory for a day and then condensed into various forms and stored in computer tapes and microfiche.
Though requesting the data from the computers would be easier, Jun regrettably continued on past the terminals available at the end of the room, knowing only too well that all access would be well documented.
Leaving the room, and its loud but barely noticed halon gas warning sign, Jun moved out into the hallway beyond the heavy metal door to the almost hidden microfiche library.
Never before having had a need to come here, Jun moved slowly down the aisles of filled shelves looking for a current set of microfiche. Finally finding the box she was looking for, Jun then searched for the set marked with the range containing the coordinates Frost had given her. She took them over to the reader by the door.
Scrolling through the pictures inside, Jun quickly found the area Frost was interested in. From the quick look she took of what they showed, there didn't seem to be much in the large forlorn area. Putting the machine on highest magnification, Jun had the reader make her hard copies of the grid. Just in case, she made copies of the area immediately surrounding Frost's coordinates as well.
Jun returned the microfiche to their proper box, and then she rolled the copies of the microfiche up and stuck them into one of the secret pockets in her pants.
As Jun signed out through the last guard station, she felt a strange sensation prickling at the back of her neck. Turning around, she caught the barest glimpse of a short, brown hared figure. "Jinpei?"
Jun ran after him, suddenly nervous at seeing him there. Had he been following her? But why would he do that? And if he had seen her looking at the microfiche, what had he made of it?
The figure she'd seen proved to be too elusive. Though she'd not gotten a really good look, her heart insisted it ‘d been her brother. Jun tried to raise him through the wrist communicator but Jinpei didn't return her call. It only made her feel even more uneasy than she had before.
There had to be something she could do about all this weirdness. It was just going too far! Dead certain she had to do something, yet still not entirely sure how she'd explain it all, Jun used her communicator again.
"Ken, it's Jun. I - I have a favor to ask of you."
"Sure, what do you need?"
Jun found herself hesitating, suddenly unsure if she should proceed with her half backed scheme. "I need for you to call everyone and have them meet for dinner at the Snack J - a small meeting, to discuss what Nambu spoke to us about this afternoon."
There was a long pause before Ken responded. "That's... not a bad idea... but I take it you've actually got some other agenda in mind?"
"Uh - yeah - um - Jinpei and Ryu have had some sort of falling out and I was hoping that if I could bring them together maybe I could get them to work things out." Come on Ken, believe it, believe it!
"Now that you mention it, I did notice that the two of the seemed out of sorts today. So, sure, I'll arrange a meeting. Besides, I don't think getting together and talking about this afternoon's meeting would hurt either."
"Thanks, I really appreciate this. Shall we meet around six?"
"No problem. I'll call the others right away. See you."
At least one thing seemed to be going her way. If she was lucky, she might be able to get to the root of Jinpei's problem before she was contacted by Frost.With a lighter step, Jun headed towards the building's garage.
The rest of the afternoon moved by quickly as Jun helped Kathy prepare for the evening rush at the Snack J. As time went by, Jun occasionally glanced out the kitchen door hoping to catch a glimpse of Jinpei. Though she desperately wanted to see him, she saw no sign of him.
Around five thirty, Jun rushed upstairs and set up the common area for dinner for five. Feeling the tension inside her growing stronger as the time drew near, she brought the food up at five minutes to six and fidgeted around as she waited for them to arrive.
When she heard footsteps on the stairs, Jun jumped to her feet and rushed forward to meet whoever was there. Taking a deep breath, she tried to still her quivering nerves as she leaned out to take a peek down the stairwell.
Right away, Jun spotted Ryu's broad form slowly moving up the stairs. Behind him, talking quietly, was Ken. As soon as the two of them spotted her, Ryu stared woodenly at the steps and slowed his pace even further. Ken sent her a broad smile.
Continuing to prod his teammate gently from behind, Ken was eventually able to get Ryu to the top of the stairs.
"Good evening, Ryu, Ken." Jun moved out of the way. "I have dinner for us. Won't you sit?"
Ken enthusiastically returned Jun's greeting while Ryu barely murmured his while staring only at the floor. Jun looked up questioningly at Ken and the latter shrugged. After a moment, Ken steadily led Ryu towards a place at the food laden table in the common room.
Sighing lightly, wondering now that it had started how she was going to make this work, Jun moved to offer the two of them tea.
"Are Jinpei and Joe not coming," she asked.
"They should be here any minute. The two of them were coming over together."
There was something about the way he said it and the fact that he himself had come escorting Ryu that screamed of conspiracy. Ken must have had more resistance to this meeting that Jun thought he would.
A loud thump from the bottom of the stairwell made them all look towards its opening even as the sound was repeated again. Hearing a subdued curse, the three of them continued to wait silently until ultimately Jinpei stumbled from it into the room.
Seeing them looking at him, Jinpei's face turned into a deep scowl and he abruptly turned to go back the way he'd come. He stepped back, however, as Joe moved to fill the top of the stairs. His arm snaked out attaching itself to the teenager's shoulder and roughly turned him around. Joe's face was also scowling and looked angry. He glared out at the rest of them before forcing Jinpei farther into the room.
Under Joe's continued and insistent guidance, Jinpei sat down at the table. Jun got up and moved quickly to serve them tea, noticing with some chagrin that the scowls weren't leaving their faces. She was trying to figure out if she should start serving dinner or if she should delay it when Joe spoke.
"Something funny happened to me on the way to this nice little meeting. Jinpei here decided to try and use me as his own personal punching bag." Joe's harsh tone belied his words even as he turned a hard glare on the boy.
Even Ryu managed to come out of his subdued state enough to stare at Jinpei in shock as the magnitude of Joe's words sunk in.
"Jinpei?" Jun frowned wondering what in the world could have driven her brother to do such a thing.
At the sound of her voice, Jinpei started to rise to his feet. Before he'd even gotten half way, however, Joe's hand had darted out, clamped on to his arm, and yanked him forcibly back onto the floor.
Jinpei glared death at him. "Let me go! You've no right to try and keep me here. It's a free country!"
Joe's flame angered eyes turned to stare into Jinpei's own and said not a word. The rest of them sat still as the battle of wills ensued before them. Jinpei finally broke eye contact and looked away not able to quite reach Joe's level of intensity. Joe never once eased his hold on the other's arm.
Jun couldn't breathe as she watched the silent struggle happening before her. Never had she seen such animosity in her brother before. It sent a tendril of fear running through her.
"All right, Jinpei, we need only one malcontent in this group and I don't think Joe's quite yet willing to give up the honor." Ken leaned forward. "Why don't you just tell us what's eating you?" He moved over as he spoke, closing in on Jinpei's unguarded side. "Whatever it is, I'm sure we can all help work it out. We're a team, and team members always help one another. Won't you let us help you now?"
Jinpei didn't say a word, his face angry and his eyes riveted in his lap. His back was stiff and he kept his left arm limp, where Joe's painful hold still held.
Jun stared at him, her heart crying out, sure that if she said anything he'd only try to bolt again. That he was acting this way, and that it was somehow connected to her in some mysterious way, hurt her more deeply than she dared show.
"Whatever has happened between you and Ryu isn't terminal and can be worked out if you try. Whatever it is, it couldn't be so serious that you'd have to shun the rest of us to the point where you'd even attack us as well." Ken's tone turned serious. "Your actions are not indicative of someone we want on this team."
Jinpei's hands bunched into fists on his lap but he still said nothing.
"I - I'll tell you what's wrong." Ryu's whisper cut across the table.
Jinpei's eyes snapped up to stare in horror at him. "NO! You promised me!"
Ryu's tear filled eyes stared back at him and didn't back down.
"No! I won't let you!" Jinpei tried to lunge forward while simultaneously trying to disengage Joe from his arm. Jinpei was whipped backward as Joe's hold didn't loosen and Ken grabbed his other arm.
Jun gasped as Ken slapped her brother's face hard even as the latter had continued to struggle in their grip. The sound of the blow resounded across the room.
"Don't you realize what you're doing?" Ken asked him.
Misting brown eyes turned to stare at him even as the sting from the blow turned Jinpei's cheek red. "Why are you asking me? Why doesn't anyone ask her if she knows what she's doing? Why aren't you slapping the traitor instead of me?"
Everyone but Ryu stared at Jinpei as if he'd suddenly gone insane. Jun's stared at him wide eyed even as her numbed mind tried to make some sense out of what he'd just said.
"Are you totally out of your mind?" Joe's previous anger splintered and fell.
"Ask her! I dare you! Ask her about the man that we saw at the shop and the meeting she had with him last night. Ask her why she acted like she didn't know him and then went off later to meet him as the Swan! Ask her."
Jun only had eyes for her brother as Joe and Ken sent their puzzled stares in her direction. Slow comprehension slowly trickled inside her as she met his burning gaze.
She couldn't believe it. Her own brother actually thought her to be a traitor to the ISO, a traitor to him, a traitor to all they stood for! Unable to stop herself, tears gathered in her eyes and quickly overflowed. She didn't feel them fall as her vision blurred, her throat constricting as she whispered a reply to Jinpei's accusing stare. "It's not, it's not what you think."
Jinpei looked away, something breaking through his glare that she couldn't immediately identify.
"We saw her, aniki," he said accusingly. "Ryu and I. It was the same man and he knew her secret identity!"
Jun continued to stare at her brother though he no longer returned her gaze.
Ken turned to look at Ryu. "Is what he says true?"
"Y - yes... But I don't think she's a traitor! Just because we found a Galactor agent watching them, and just because he said some stupid words..." Ryu's own torturted eyes ventured a glimpse in Jun's direction begging her to prove Jinpei wrong.
Jun wasn't listening. All there was for her was the fact that the closest person in her life was actually capable of believing her a traitor. It wasn't a gag, it wasn't a mistake; he firmly believed her to be guilty of something she had never done.
"Jun... Jun... Please make sense of this for us. Jun." Ken reached across the table and shook her lightly when she didn't respond.
Jun blinked several times, coming out from within herself, her face turning hard as she realized what it was they were asking for. "I'm not a traitor, Ken!"
"I believe you." His clear blue eyes met her own. "But Jinpei obviously doesn't and even Ryu seems to have his doubts."
Jun tried not to cringe as the words stabbed her in the heart.
Ken squeezed her hand. "I'm not accusing you. I just want to try and make things clearer, to take away the - the negative assumptions that may have been made."
Roughly, trying to quickly gain control, Jun wiped away the warm tears still on her face. "I don't have to explain anything. Obviously it won't make any difference. My brother has already judged, tried, and convicted me. What difference would it make?" Jun glanced at Jinpei, her eyes trying to betray her again with more tears.
Jinpei wouldn't look at her, going out of his way to make sure their eyes wouldn't connect.
"Dammit, Jun, it makes a difference to the rest of us!" Joe pounded a heavy fist on the table. "Ken and I have come into this blind and are confused as hell. I for one would like some of this stuff explained!"
When she said nothing, Joe abruptly stood up and headed for the stairs. Reaching it's opening, he turned back around and leaned against the wall there crossing his arms in the process. His burning stare raked across them all daring them to try and leave without giving him what he wanted.
Jun sighed for a long moment, riveting her gaze to her hands. "The man I was with is an old friend of mine. He wanted to meet with me, so I did."
"Is Jinpei right," Ken asked softly. "Was it the same man at the J?"
Jun sighed again. "Yes, it was him, though I hadn't been entirely sure at the time. I didn't ask him because I wasn't sure and he didn't seem to recognize me. He left a note for me though, and then I knew. But by then, he'd already gone." Jun fingered Frost's note where she still held it in her pocket.
"Then why did you go meet him in uniform?" Jinpei leaned up against the table. "Why did you take papers from the ISO files? Why was there a Galactor watching your meeting and talking about Gatchaman defectors?"
Jun stared in surprise at Jinpei's livid face, her mind reeling from his last remark. "We were being watched?"
Even as the dark meaning of this revelation meandered through her mind, the phone rang startling them all.
For a moment, Jun didn't even consider answering it. Her confusion and slowly rising despair were trying to crowd in close. As the phone rang again though, she got up, suddenly seeing the mundane role as a temporary means of escape.
None of the others moved to stop her as she reached for it.
"Hello?" Jun's muddled brain slowly focused one the phone as no one answered on the other end. "Hello?"
"Beautiful One -"
Jun gasped lightly as she recognized the soft masculine voice. Without thinking about it, she turned her back on her teammates.
"I can't talk for long... Something's gone wrong. I'm not going to be able to stay as I'd planned." Frost sounded fatigued. Jun could faintly hear the sounds of traffic in the background. "I think they've figured out who I am. I need to return home and warn the others that our cover is blown." He paused for a moment. "I regret to say that you will probably not hear from me again for sometime and would like to ask a favor of you, if I could."
"Yes? What is it?" Jun found her heart beating loudly in her ears.
"Please, if you can, convince your superiors to try a rescue attempt on the Galactor camp. Those people truly need help and I can think of no one better for the job. I'd be forever grateful."
He was leaving? No, he couldn't.
"I have to go."
She heard him laugh lightly over the phone. "Don't worry, I'll contact you again when I can. I'm not about to let you out of my life so easily again. I - Damn! -"
Jun thought she heard the sound of glass breaking before the line suddenly went dead. "Frost? Frost!"
Panicking, Jun hit the disconnect button several times in succession hoping to somehow restore the line. Still getting nothing, she dropped the receiver back on the hook.
Biting her lip, Jun turned away from the phone, and made as if to rush out of the room.
Ken moved away from the table and reached out to stop her. "Jun, wait!"
"What?" Jun turned around and stared at Ken having totally forgotten that he was even there.
"What's going on?"
"I - I have to go. Frost's in trouble." As if that explained everything, Jun turned away and headed once more towards the stairs. Joe pushed off the wall to block her path even as Ken followed after her.
"Where do you think you're going," Joe asked.
Jun stopped before him, the answer not at all clear in her mind. "I - I don't know, but I've got to try and find him." Panic rose inside her. "Galactor is after him. They're trying to kill him, and I just can't let it happen. I owe him my life!"
Ken signaled Joe to move out of her way and he complied. Jun instantly shot through the opening and ran down the stairs. Joe moved to follow.
"Come on you two!" Ken waved for Jinpei and Ryu to come and then also plunged down the stairs.
Ryu shot Jinpei an odd glance before rapidly moving as well.
Jinpei hesitated, his face contorting with clashing emotions. He finally drove his fist into the side of his leg and now able to move ran after the others.
Jun tore away from the garage and roared down the alley in her motorcycle onto the street. She had no idea where Frost was or even if he was still alive. But it wasn't going to stop her - she had to find him!
Hoping that he might be staying somewhere close to where they'd had their meeting, Jun headed off in that direction. With any luck, she could circle from there and possibly spot the broken phone booth he had called from.
The fact that he was most likely already dead continued nagging her no matter how hard she tried not to think about it. Careening down the road, her heart seemed to hammer inside her at the same pace as the white lines passing on the road.
As she came close to the park, a thundering noise accompanied by smoke and a shudder through the street, forced her to slow down. Jun turned in the direction of the smoke just as a large, colorful, multi-pronged ship hovered up over the buildings into view.
As one, all four prongs jettisoned from the central hub of the ship and sprang long metallic wings as engines roared behind them. All four of the small crafts pulled away from the mother ship and dived behind buildings several blocks away.
Jun's wrist communicator beeped, but she ignored it as her heart soared with the proof of Frost's possible continued existence. The ship above them was a Devil Star's ship, Galactor's female assassins. Jun pushed her cycle back up to speed as she raised her right wrist above her head and brought it down. "Bird go!"
As her form and that of her motorcycle shimmered in the coming darkness, Jun switched from her civilian guise to her uniform.
A number of loud explosions rocked the street beneath her even as the four yellow ships dipped back up into view. Screams of terror poured towards her soon followed by a sea of terrified people trying to escape the barraged area. Jun had no choice but to slow down, even as with practiced movements she brought up her cycle's weapon system on line. She kept her gaze facing straight ahead looking for Frost and the enemy, trying hard to ignore the panicked eyes that moved past her and the smell of their fear.
As Jun wove into the outskirts of the stricken area, it grew harder to see. She quickly raised her hand to her mouth, trying not to breathe the thick smoke and dust that permeated the air.
Jun half glimpsed the rubble around her, most of her attention still fixed on the sky. A few people still streamed past her, some wounded, some not, but Jun didn't really see or hear them, her mind at the moment only capable of dealing with the greater problem hiding somewhere above.
A high pitched sound drew her eyes to the north as she noted with detached horror that the four needle like ships had decided on another run. Bracing her motorcycle in the middle of the street, Jun submerged her worry and troubled feeling for Frost and became solely the Swan. She fired her gun even as her enemies own weapons came to life.
A loud sound rebounded behind her as more firepower was added to her own. Looking back while still crouched behind the protective shield of her cycle, Jun's eyes widened momentarily as she spotted the Condor Machine propped up not too far behind her busily discharging ammo from its Vulcan machine gun.
All four of the Galactor ships, swerved upwards under the onslaught, but not before one of them had begun to sway badly even as two others spewed thin trails of smoke.
Abruptly, Jun gunned her motorcycle to full speed and turned down the nearest street even as Joe stomped his car into reverse. The mother ship blocked the sky above them as it dropped a barrage of beautiful, blood red roses towards the street below. Explosions racked the street and the already partially damaged buildings around them as the delicate blossoms touched ground.
Under the cover of the ensuing explosions, three of the four small vessels reattached themselves to the mother ship. The fourth swerved off uncontrollably to the right and quickly disappeared from view. Fighters appeared over head from Utolands' defense force and gave chase.
As Jun made her way carefully back to the main thoroughfare, Joe continued his mad dash backwards as he screamed loudly for the pedestrians to get out of his way as he caught up to the running mob. Once he'd found a relatively debris and refugee free area, he whipped the car about one hundred and eighty degrees. Gunning the car, he headed off in the direction of the falling ship and its trailing mother.
Ryu and Ken, both in uniform, pressed through the sidewalks where Joe had dropped them off before transforming his sedan into the Condor Machine. Jun saw Ken bring his wrist communicator to his lips, as he watched after the departing car, but never actually activated it. After a moment, he followed Ryu and joined her in the street.
"I've put in a call to Nambu. Emergency vehicles are on their way," Ken said.
Jun nodded quickly, her eyes scanning the area.
Ken continued. "As things stand, we wouldn't have a prayer of getting to the God Phoenix before Galactor has made good their escape, so we're to help here."
Jun glanced at him quickly. "I can help best by going further in and looking for survivors."
She started to move away, Ken's set his hand on her arm stopping her. Jun looked back at him in surprise. She found that she couldn't read his veiled expression.
"Look, I know your friend is in there. And I know you want to go find him. But we can't help if you don't verify for us what he looks like."
Jun felt her heart swell with gratitude. "It's the man you saw at the J yesterday." The one Jinpei insists I've turned into a traitor for... Jun felt bitterness rise in her throat. She thrust the thought aside. Quickly she described Frost's likeness to them in detail. She felt a pang inside as she realized that she'd yet to see any sign of her brother.
"Okay, I'll pass the description on. If he's found, I'll contact you immediately."
"Thank you." Jun gave him a half smile. "I really appreciate this."
Ken nodded his expression still unreadable. "The call in schedule is every half hour."
Jun was about to get underway as Ken turned to go, when she found Ryu barring her way. His expression was troubled, but he said nothing until Ken had moved out of earshot.
"J - Jun, I, I wanted you to know how, how sorry I am about, about not having come to you about all this and asked before it got so far. I told Jinpei over and over that he just had to be wrong, but I still couldn't..." His voice shook drowing out the words.
Jun propped her cycle on its kickstand and got off, though every cell in her body screamed for her to hurry. "Ryu, it's all right."
Tear stained eyes lifted momentarily to stare shyly into her face. "I know it was wrong. Can you ever forgive me?" He choked for a moment. "I'll understand if you say no." He looked away, his shoulders bent as if under a heavy burden.
"Ryu..." Jun felt tears rise in her own eyes. Everything was happening so fast, one thing on top of another. "There's nothing to forgive. I... understand. Just please come to me if anything like this ever happens again, all right?" She gave him a hard hug.
Her friend almost collapsed into her as he gently began to cry. Jun tried hard to keep from joining him, her heart aching to see Ryu like this, while at the same time that sense of urgency kept pounding against her.
After a long moment, Ryu disengaged himself from her arms and tried hard to smile even as silent tears continued to course down his wide face. "I'll try my best to find him for you, Jun. I really will!"
Jun found it hard to speak. "I know you will. And I really appreciate it. Be careful, all right?"
Quickly nodding, Ryu left her to begin his search.
Feeling tired though her search had yet to begin, Jun climbed back on her cycle and tried not to think about the stress this horrible misunderstanding had already placed on them all. Turning on her large headlight, Jun drove forward towards where the Galactor attack had first fallen.
The cries of pain and misery that softly assailed her here and there at the fringes of the attack area slowly lessened until there were no more. Pieces of buildings littered the street in ever thicker and larger clumps, which at times forced Jun to dismount and push her bike over or around them. The smoke here had mostly dissipated, but the coming of night had become even more of a hindrance than before. Jun's headlight cut through it, giving an eerie look to the broken buildings and shattered windows. The unmistakable stench of spilled blood drifted in and out of the air.
As she found bodies on the street, Jun checked them, but all she found were dead. With shaking hands but grim determination, she looked at each one and set them out gently, trying hard to detach herself from the carnage. She expected it to only get worse the further she went on. She dared not think about the number of passes the Galactor ship had made before they'd gotten there and stopped them.
Jun's lip bled slightly as she unconsciously kept biting on it, finding the kind of death spread here different from what she'd seen before. In their fight against Galactor, the deaths they dealt were mostly clean, quick, and in combat. The damage normally caused by their own explosives so extensive that nothing normally remained - or so she'd always thought. Was this what the ISO clean up crews found in the bases they destroyed when they came in after them? Jun felt herself shudder.
The scent of blood grew heavier as the stench of burned and torn flesh also invaded her nostrils, making her stomach tighten in revulsion. Every sweep of her light swept over more and more spots darkened on the ground by spilled blood. The sights ate at her soul.
Even as she cried inside with barely restrained horror, Jun continued on in the interminably, deathly silence, checking every mangled corpse she came across for even the barest trace of life.
Jun called in periodically as she was supposed to, though time seemed meaningless and unchanging. She never did later quite remember what she said in those calls, her mind erased as she stared at the strewn body parts across what had once been vibrant streets with thriving hotels, shops, and restaurants. Small fires dotted the area here and there, burning on what little fuel they could still find. The stench of burning plastic, hair, and flesh, multiplied, making Jun's stomach curl in upon itself until she thought it might stay that way forever.
But through all she'd seen, she'd still found no clue as to Frost's whereabouts. She continued to check everyone she came across, though the next mangled form she looked upon could lead her to face the inevitable. The farther she went, the less hope kindled inside her that he had somehow managed to survive this glaringly overdone assassination attempt. How could anyone doubt the need for the team's ruthlessness when it helped to thwart atrocities like these?
Jun stopped for a moment to rest, pointing the cycle's light towards what might at one time, been a souvenir shop. Suddenly she froze in place, a chill coursing through her, positive that she'd just heard a moaning cry.
Forcing herself to move, Jun quickly left the cycle and followed the beam of light to the partially collapsed building.
Even as her heart dared flare with hope, she arrived at the broken doorway and looked inside. She turned away almost immediately, vile rising in her throat. Within, a decapitated head stared solidly at her, it's mouth open in a silenced scream. Drying blood covered the floor, dribbling from beneath the pillar that had buried the body beneath it.
A sudden gust of wind, which whistled through the building almost like a human sound, curled the stench of death from inside around her as if trying to invite her in. Jun's stomach heaved. She staggered hastily away.
Tripping and almost falling down on the ever present rubble, Jun gasped for fresher air, trying without much success to dispel the grim image she'd just witnessed. She hung onto her cycle for support as her stomach cramped hard, a small moan escaping her lips.
After a few minutes, Jun was able to stand again though her hands still shook badly. Slowly she gazed wearily at the devastation around her no longer sure if she'd be able to go on. And Frost was more than likely long dead...
Tears stinging her eyes, Jun pushed her motorcycle forward to find a place to turn it around that was relatively debris free. She suddenly slowed, as her eyes fixed themselves on what she'd at first thought was an irregular piece of broken concrete about thirty feet from her. She stared at the rubble intently, her mind insisting that she'd just seen it move. The tempo of her pulse beat loudly inside her head as she waited to see if it would move again. A bead of sweat made its way unhindered down the side of her face, feeling very warm to her cold skin.
With unsteady hands, Jun gingerly moved the light to aim in the direction of the block. Taking small, faltering steps, her brow knit together as she realized that what was before her might actually be a cloaked figure. With little relish, she approached the unmoving form, the back of her mind screaming at her that this body might be an even more grisly spectacle than the last.
The closer she came, the more distinct the figure appeared. What she was sure now was a cloak, looked to have been a soft gray color at one time. Now, grime and drying goo covered almost every inch of it, flaring here and there with drying blood and gore.
Jun stopped, her breath catching in her throat, unable for the moment to take another step towards the stooped figure but also not able to take her eyes away from it. A shiver moved through her, her already terrified imagination horrifying her with images of what might be laying in wait for her underneath the grisly sight.
She jumped back abruptly, her yo-yo appearing unthinkingly into her hand, as the stooped figure before her suddenly straightened and moved to stand.
Her breath almost painful as it rasped violently in and out of her mouth, Jun staggered back, unreasoning fear filling her soul as the cloaked figure swayed where it stood with it's back to her.
Her yo-yo clasped much too tightly in her hand, Jun forced herself to move as the shambling being stepped forward away from her and the light out into the greedy darkness.
One miraculously untouched street lamp flicked on even as the cloaked figure fell to one knee. A pair of covered legs escaped the cloak and dangled out to the side.
Realizing with a jolt that the person before her was carrying another, Jun pushed forward even as the cloaked figure shakily rose once more to its feet and started again towards the lone street lamp.
Jun had almost reached them by the time the figure stumbled into the circle of the lamp's light. The figure looked up as if noticing the light for the first time. The head rose above the grim covered collar, the bright light reflecting momentarily from the upturned face.
Jun faltered with shocked recognition as she realized that she'd somehow found the very person she'd been trying to find. "Frost!"
She went after him even as he carefully stepped up over the curve and gently set his burden down. He had yet to respond to Jun's frantic call as he got back up on his feet.
Exposed to the light, Jun for the first time got a good look at who he'd been carrying. It was a man. Part of one arm was gone, a crude tourniquet stopping the blood from flowing out the rough, jagged end of flesh and bone. The man's clothes were torn and partially singed, blood drying on it from a number of smaller wounds. With a sad sense of relief, Jun noticed that the man's chest was actually rising and falling.
With some trepidation, Jun looked away from the wounded man to study the actual object of her search. Frost's face was pale and had a number of minor scrapes here and there. His eyes stared at the wounded man below him, his gaze unfocused, a torrent of silent tears coursing down his dirt streaked face. A small cut prominently decorated the left side of his forehead, a trickle of blood from it moving past his eyebrow to mix with the falling tears.
Like his cloak, Frost was covered in dirt, grime, and gore. If he had serious injuries, Jun couldn't tell. She was strangely relieved, however, at the realization that there was too much blood on him for it all to be his own. "Frost?"
Glazed, gray eyes turned slowly to look up at her as if for the first time becoming aware that she was there. Frost stared at her for several long moments, a small frown creasing his forehead.
"Frost, are you all right?"
Tears continued falling from his eyes, even as his gaze started to focus. "Beautiful One...?"
"Frost!" Jun lunged forward to grab him as he suddenly swayed to the side and started to fall.
"Will you never call me Michael?"
Jun held on to him, startled at the odd question, even as he gave her a fragile smile. A part of her was relieved, knowing that if he could do this to her here after all that had happened that maybe he might just be all right.
Frost's smile abruptly disappeared. "You... shouldn't be here. It isn't safe." His brow creased with concern. "They'll, they'll be coming back to look for me soon."
Jun shook her head. "No they won't. We drove them away. There's nothing for you to worry about anymore."
He smiled at her again, but this time it was entirely devoid of humor. "They won't give up. They know who I am or they wouldn't have gone to such lengths to get me. I know too much..." His gaze moved from her to the wounded stranger on the ground. "I should have never come here. And you shouldn't be here seeing what I've done."
"This isn't you fault!" Jun couldn't stop her voice from shaking. "How were you to know they'd do this? You were just trying to help people."
He slowly shook his head. "No, you're wrong..." His eyes looked haunted. It tore at her heart. "Do you realize this man is the first living thing I've found since..." He swallowed hard. "They killed their own agents in their hurry to get at me. Are you so blind you can't see the deaths I've caused, when I didn't really have to come here but just wished to?" He looked up at her his eyes full of pain.
It was all Jun could do not to cry. "Frost - stop this! You're in shock. None of this is your fault."
He tried to pull away from her as he looked away in denial but Jun held on to him, wanting to find some way to make him accept what she was saying. Frost face abruptly blanched with pain. Not sure if she'd caused it, Jun let go but then was forced to reach for him again as his legs failed him.
As gently as she could, Jun helped him to the ground and set him to sit with his back against the light pole. She stared at him with rising concern, as he sat with his eyes closed his face grimaced with pain.
Gingerly, she pushed back his cloak and found his arm bandaged beneath. She tried to inspect the hastily bandaged mess as his labored breathing rang in her ears. From the amount of blood she could see soaked into the bindings, she guessed it was probably pretty serious. It surprised her that if it gave him this much pain, that he'd been able to carry the wounded man at all.
Jun brought her bracelet to her lips. "G-1, please answer. It's Jun."
Frost's eyes abruptly snapped open, his pain filled gray gaze moving to look at her.
Jun glanced at his silent stare and then forced her eyes away trying to think. "Ken, I've found my friend and one other survivor. I need transportation to get them out of here, they're in pretty bad shape." She turned to look around here. "We're at - uh - the corner of Principal and Fifth I think. The street light is on. It's the only one working in the entire block."
"Roger. I'll get someone out to you in just a few minutes." She heard Ken hesitate. "Are you holding up all right?" The worry in his tone was unmistakable.
The question pleased her in an odd sort of way. "Yes, I'm all right. Thanks."
A small grunt beside her made Jun look up in surprise. Frost was standing, hanging on to the lamp post for support.
"What are you doing?"
He stared down at her. "I'm - leaving. It's no longer safe for me to remain here." Frost swayed before her looking as if the mildest touch of breeze would knock him over where he stood.
"Help is on the way. There's no reason to go anywhere!"
He shook his head lightly. "I can't afford to get involved with the ISO. You know that. I can't take the risk."
Jun rose quickly to her feet as he pushed away from the pole and turned away from her. "They don't know who you are, only that you're my friend and that you're in trouble." Anger, frustration, and worry battled inside her. "Dammit, Frost, why can't you trust me? And how can you expect me to just watch you leave so you can go crawl off somewhere and die?"
Frost stopped, swaying a little, but didn't turn back. "I have no intention of dying, Beautiful One. But I can't stay here." He started walking away again.
Jun rushed past him and blocked his way. "Forget it! You're not going anywhere. You're always leaving me when you feel like it, but not this time." She glared at him angry that he was being so unreasonable. "I'm not going to let you go, so you might as well stop being so stubborn about this!"
He smiled softly in the midst of her anger as if it were a thing of joy. "Is that what it is about me that you find most appealing?"
"Frost!" Jun tensed inside. He was trying to distract her, a new ploy to still get his way. She knew he was stubborn. No one went through the things he had and survived without being that way. Well, he'd soon find that he'd met his match. "Please be reasonable. Think about what you're doing. Whether you like it or not I'm going to help you."
He stared at her for a long time, his eyes gazing directly into her own. Jun stared back, not willing to back down and wanting to make sure he knew it. If she had to fight him to keep him from going she would.
"All right. I'll stay," he said.
Relied washed through her at his words, glad that she wouldn't have to overpower him after all. A small smile touched her lips at her victory, but at the same time she made sure not to get to close in case this was only a ruse to put her off guard.
Turning back to look at her, a sudden smile flared with mischief on Frost's pale face as if he'd guessed her thoughts. Moving gingerly back to where the wounded man lay, Frost removed his cloak and placed it over him. Cradling his arm, he sat down and pushed back until he was once more resting against the lamp post.
Without thinking about it, Jun removed her own cloak and placed it about Frost's shoulders before he could protest.
"There was a time when you wouldn't have been this nice to me," he said.
Jun's eyes returned to him, breaking off her inspection of the surrounding streets. "That was a long time ago. I've had time to figure some things out since then."
His eyes closed, Frost now wore a strange little grin. "Hm, I wonder what you would make of me given more time?"
Not sure what he'd exactly meant by that, Jun was distracted as a thundering sound accompanied by a bright light glided towards them from down the street. She stared at the vehicle with a little surprise as she recognized the craft as her brother's.
The small orange colored craft settled on the street, it's front hatch opening like a large mouth. Jinpei slid out the opening a few moments later and stood in the street never looking directly at her. "Ken said you needed somebody out of here fast. None of the ambulances could make it over all the rubble." His nervousness stood out like a banner.
"I'm glad you came, Jinpei. Thanks."
He didn't respond to her words. He only stood there and looked at everything but her.
Jun tried not to let that bother her. "Can you move your ship closer? It would make it easier to get them on board."
Only a slight nod met her suggestion before Jinpei swept back into the interior of his craft. Within seconds, the wide tracks in front of the vehicle carried it over the debris littered terrain to the edge of the curve. As the large engines once more became silent, Jinpei hesitantly made his way outside again.
"Have they found many survivors so far?" she asked him.
Jinpei nodded yes once.
"Has Joe come back yet?"
Her brother shrugged his shoulders even as his gaze stared at Frost's silent form. Seeing his blank expression as he did so, pained her, bringing back only too vividly the accusations he'd made earlier that day. It also made her angry and reminded her that she shouldn't be the one trying to make up with him. "Give me a hand, Jinpei."
Jun moved to the unconscious man on the sidewalk, not waiting to see if her brother would follow. Silently, he helped her lift him over into the mouth-like opening in his ship. Placing him inside as gently as possible, they pushed him towards the back to leave room for another.
Ignoring her brother, Jun moved to Frost's side who'd yet to say a word since Jinpei had arrived. "Frost?"
A stab of fear flowing through her, Jun knelt down before him. "Frost?"
Still getting no response, she reached for his neck to feel for a pulse. Reassured by the strong flow beneath her fingertips, Jun moved behind him and grabbed him beneath his arms. Glancing up expectantly, she noticed that her brother had yet to take a step towards them to help. "Jinpei! I need you now!"
Surprised eyes met her own momentarily at the sound of her annoyed command. Immediately breaking the unintended eye contact, Jinpei moved forward to take his place at Frost's legs. Between the two of them, they lifted him to the ship and settled him inside beside the other man.
"I - I guess I'll be leaving now." He still wouldn't look at her.
Jun took a step towards her brother, but he quickly moved away. He clambered up onto the hatch, deftly avoiding stepping on either of the two men there and disappeared inside.
Jun hastily stepped back as the ship's twin engines roared to life, sending out a blast of hot air. The ship gently rose from the ground and then swiveled away from her and went off back the way it had come.
With a sigh and a wave of sadness she didn't really want to face, Jun stared after the departing ship. Once it had gone completely out of view, Jun turned towards her cycle to continue her search for other survivors.
Jun snapped open her eyes even as she realized that she'd inadvertently fallen asleep again. Gingerly, she straightened out her slouching body in the uncomfortable chair but stopped as she noticed a pair of gray eyes studying her from across the room with a wide smile.
She finished stretching, horribly conscious of Frost's intent gaze lingering on her from the nearby bed. Jun felt her cheeks grow hot under the continued silent scrutiny.
Mercifully, Frost finally released her from his stare and looked about the room instead. Jun watched silently as he used his good arm to prop himself up a little higher on the pillow, leaving his bandaged arm quietly where it lay.
"I take it this isn't a hospital?" His gray gaze traveled back towards her, but this time without the previous single minded intensity.
Jun still felt herself blush. "No, you're in my home," she answered. "The doctors said you were well enough to leave if I'd make sure you took it easy and got plenty of rest." She met his gaze momentarily. "I thought you'd find it more comfortable here." She left it unsaid that it would also make it a little harder for his pursuers to trace him.
"I appreciate that. Certainly the view when I woke couldn't have been better."
Before she could stop herself, Jun blushed deeply. She quickly got to her feet and turned away in an attempt to keep Frost from seeing it. She moved to the set of windows on the west wall and opened up the shutters to allow in the warm, afternoon sun.
"So, what do you intend to do with me?"
Jun turned back around her brows drawn slightly together. "Do with you?"
"Of course," he said. "I'm now totally at your mercy, am I not?"
Jun could only stare at him, not able to read his expression to tell how serious he was being, and worst of all not sure if she shouldn't be mad if he was. "Well, I could feed you some of my cooking and see if you'd die of food poisoning." She put her fists on her hips, sounding as serious as he had a moment before. "But other than that, I hadn't really made any plans yet."
Frost stared at her, his eyes wide with surprise, in silence for a few moments. Suddenly, he doubled over in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
For several minutes, Jun stood there facing him wondering if he was hurting himself. Whenever she thought he was growing calm, he'd glance up at her and lose control again. "It wasn't that funny."
Frost laid back, still laughing, grabbing at his sides and tried to breathe even as tears gathered in his eyes.
"It really wasn't..." Jun gave up and sat back down on her chair to wait it out, a half-pleased smile tugging at her lips.
When he finally stopped, his laughter still shinning in his eyes, Frost propped himself up further and swept his fine white blond hair away from his eyes.
"You really don't have anything to worry about. I mean that." Jun sought his eyes so that he would see her sincerity. "All anyone knows about you is that you're my friend and that you're in some kind of trouble with Galactor. I would never willingly betray your confidence."
Frost gave Jun a soft smile. "I know that. It's just not that easy to place your fate meekly into someone else's hands. Not when you have so much to lose." His gaze suddenly turned hard and pined her where she sat. "What was the death count?"
Jun looked away caught totally off guard by the question. "It, it really isn't all that important. What difference would it make?" The words sounded lame to her own ears, but she knew she had to try. She didn't want to put that kind of burden on him.
"If you won't tell me, there are others ways I can use to find out. I would just rather hear it from you."
The sincerity in his voice touched Jun deeply, but she still wished it didn't have to be that way. She didn't look at him, not wanting to see the pain she would inadvertently be inflicting upon him. "Thankfully the original strike was somewhat localized. A great number of people were alerted by the commotion and tried to immediately leave the area. It was also early enough in the evening that there weren't as many there as would have been later."
"How many?" His voice whispered towards her like a chilling breeze.
"The largest number of casualties were in the center of the attack area - close to one hundred dead," Jun forceed herself to continue. "The injured numbered in at over two hundred, and most of these were in the outer edges of the attack zone and not all were caused by Galactor at all." She took a deep breath as he said nothing. "The man you found... you saved his life."
Getting no response, Jun finally braved herself to look at him. Frost's expression was unreadable, only his profile facing her as he stared at the far wall.
"It wasn't your fault."
Frost still said nothing, sending a shaft of worry through Jun's mind. Wanting desperately to help him but not sure how, Jun stood up and walked over to the bed. She raised her hand to touch his arm, but hesitated and finally let it fall back to her side.
"I'll need to leave as soon as possible." There was no emotion in his voice. "I need to get back home."
Jun's brow furrowed as he spoke, and noticed that his eyes didn't move to meet her own. "You're hurt, you're in no condition to go anywhere."
"After, after what's happened, I can't afford to stay. Even if they believe I'm dead, Galactor will now go after my home. They can't afford to lose that munitions factory and I just can't afford to let them have it back." He turned to face her, his eyes hard. "None of this has turned out at all as I'd intended. I'm very sorry for that."
Jun was trapped by his intent gaze and found herself unwilling to even try to get away. Her throat grew tight as she realized that he had every intention of leaving despite anything she might say and somewhere deep down she suspected that it would be forever. "Frost, you don't have to leave alone. You came her to get my help and I'm still willing to give it to you. You don't have to go at this by yourself."
Jun saw his eyes brighten for a moment before he suddenly turned away an odd, sad smile on his lips. "We can talk about that later. Right now, what I really need is my clothes." He looked back up at her, his eyes shinning. "I'm rather surprised that they've allowed you to spend all this time unsupervised in the company of an unknown and rather unclothed man."
Hearing him say it, made Jun realize that it was true. Frost's lit eyes stared mischievously at her even as she glanced involuntarily at his smooth and well formed chest and continued downwards to where the crisp sheets hid him from view. Jun felt a rush of heat course through her as she forced her gaze away. She turned away to cut out the temptation to look at him again, even as her cheeks darkened in embarrassment. Jun swore she could feel Frost's amusement following behind her.
"I'll, I'll need to get your sizes to get you some new clothes. The hospital got rid of yours and I wouldn't want to get you something too tight." Jun bit her lip hard as the words left her lips and she realized what she'd actually said and how he'd probably take it.
Though Frost didn't laugh at her outright, his tone was sprinkled with amusement as he quickly told her what she needed to know.
"Would it also be too much trouble to ask for something to eat? I'm willing to try whatever you like, even with the risk of food poisoning."
Jun felt her cheeks burn though until that moment she hadn't thought she could be any more embarrassed than she already was. Only trusting herself to nod in answer, she walked out of the room trying to hold back on the impulse to run instead.
Closing the door behind her, Jun leaned back against it trying to deal with the odd set of feelings moving within her. Taking a deep breath, she tried to put everything aside for the moment, and went on down the hall. She stopped abruptly when she noticed Ken and Joe waiting for her in the common room. Frost's teasing words rose up to haunt her, abruptly making her feel guilty over a lack of supervision that had never mattered before.
Maybe she could try to avoid them? But before the thought had fully formed, Ken had already spotted her. His blue eyes locked on her, Jun walked slowly out into the common room. Joe was laying on the couch his eyes closed.
"Ken, Joe... I'm surprised to see you here." She saw an odd flicker flash in Ken's face but had absolutely no clue as to what it meant.
"The hospital said that they'd had a volunteer take one of the unidentified victims to their home early this morning."
Though Ken hadn't put it like a question, Jun realized that it was one. She tried to read his neutral tone, but couldn't.
"Yes, that's right. The hospital was having a bed shortage and since his condition wasn't critical, I brought my friend home." Jun tried to harden herself, feeling defensive and not knowing what to do about it. "There was no where else he could go, and I thought it'd be safer for him here." Maybe they were here to check up on her, didn't they trust her anymore? "You could have saved yourself the trip and just called me on the phone." Though she tried, Jun couldn't keep a slight tinge of bitterness from creeping into her voice.
Ken didn't say anything immediately, but instead turned away and collapsed into a nearby chair. "We've all had a long busy night, Jun, you know that. Do we really have to have a reason to come here?"
Ken wouldn't look at her, he stubbornly wouldn't look at her. What were they really up to? Were they here to chaperone her? What did they believe she had done now? "Don't you dare! Don't you dare treat me like this! Just say what you really want or get out. I've had too much done behind my back recently for it to sit well with me anymore!"
Joe momentarily opened one dark blue eye to glance in their direction and seemingly seeing all he wanted to see, closed it back again.
"Jun, there's too many unanswered questions still hanging about all this," Ken said. "Is it too much to ask for a little explanation of what's going on?" His eyes did what his words couldn't, they implored her, begged her to explain.
In that one moment, Jun saw his growing doubt at her persistent evasiveness - his worry that something truly was going on. With a sigh, Jun suddenly felt exhausted. With her eyes thinking of betraying her, she turned towards one of the other chairs in the room and sat down. "I'll... tell you what I can. What do you want to know?"
Ken sounded relieved as he took her on her offer. "Who is this guy?"
Jun sighed again. "His name is Michael Frost. I don't think it's his real name, but it's what I know him by." She took a deep breath and went on without being prompted. "His homeland had been at one point overrun by Galactor but now the people have taken it back. Frost is trying to hold on to what is his while at the same time wanting to strike a blow to help others who are under the organization's heel. He came to me in secret so that I could quietly get some information for him to carry out his plan." Jun kept her eyes centered on her hands as they sat on her lap.
"How did he learn you were part of the Ninja Team?"
Jun sighed a third time. "He figured it out on his own. He'd only met me previously as the Swan."
"All right." Ken's tone was low. "The attack yesterday, did that directly have something to do with him?"
"Yes. Galactor had thought he was dead, which was one of the reasons he'd been able to retake his home from them." Jun felt numb inside. "Up to now, they'd been able to keep the fact that they'd taken it back a secret. Frost risked that secrecy when he decided to come here."
Jun could feel the weight of Ken's gaze on her but couldn't bring herself to look at him. He shouldn't be doing this to her. "It seems that he was followed and I'm assuming that the moment he was seen in a meeting with a member of the Ninja Team they immediately labeled him for termination." She looked up at him. "It's very possible that they'll soon be doing this to his home."
Jun hoped and prayed he'd ask no more questions.
"So, what's this plan of his that was worth all this risk?" Joe spoke, his eyes still closed, his arms crossed over his chest.
Jun glanced at Ken who nodded, also wanting to know the answer.
"From information Frost and some others were able to gather, he learned of the whereabouts of a camp where Galactor is housing the families of their operatives. It was his hope that by going there, he could free as many of them as possible and thus give a chance to the operatives who may have been coerced into the organization to leave."
Joe's eyes slowly opened. "It'd never work. No one just ups and leaves Galactor. They don't allow it. They'd hunt all those families down one by one and butcher them all." His voice grew low. "And if somehow there were Galactors who were being held by tricks and threats, the organization would rather kill them than take the chance that they might somehow escape."
"That's all very true, but only if you do half a job."
Joe snapped up as the new voice filled the room. All three of them turned to look back towards the hallway to stare at the figure standing there, draped only in a light blue sheet.
His gray eyes stared steadily at them. "Free the people, yes, and then hold them together, give them a place to defend themselves, a place to call their own.
"Galactor won't tell their operatives that their families have been liberated, that would be bad PR. But though the organization wouldn't tell them, the information still could be leaked to those who need to know. There are ways to get away, you only need find them."
"Do you realized the kind of long term commitment that would be demanded to do such a thing?"
Frost's gaze locked with Ken's own.
"Yes, I'm very well aware of what it would demand from me, yet I'm willing to make that commitment. I have the means to make a difference and I intend to do just that."
The two men stared silently at one another. Almost as if they were sizing each other. Ken finally nodded once, admitting to the willingness he saw in the other.
Frost nodded back and then smoothly picked up the trailing end of his sheet and headed for the couch. Ignoring Joe's blatant distrusting looks, he dropped into the seat next to him.
"Beautiful One, aren't you going to introduce us?"
Jun instantly blushed as Frost used his nickname for her in front of the others. Her cheeks burned as she noticed the sudden amusement in Joe's eyes and the open shock on Ken's face. She had to look away before she could become composed enough to speak. "Yes - um, I'm sorry." She pointed to her guest. "Ken, Joe, this is Michael Frost." She then pointed to her friends in turn. "That's Ken and that's Joe, two of my team mates."
Frost leaned back in the couch sending both an acknowledging nod before tucking his legs up amidst the loose coils of the sheet. He didn't seem at all self conscious at his obvious lack of proper attire. "I'm very pleased to meet you. I must admit though, I hadn't expected the pleasure."
"Where about are you from?" Joe folded one leg up on the couch so that he could turn enough to face their new acquaintance.
"It's an obscure little country in Asia." Frost's eyes danced. "A doubt you've ever heard of it. It's called Linthinium."
Joe's face was expectantly blank.
"Linthinium!" Ken almost jumped from his seat. "The suspected Galactor munitions factory?"
Frost turned towards Ken an amused smile on his face. "I see you've heard of it."
"Are the reports true? Is that country a supplier of munitions for the organization?" Ken's gaze was rapt.
"It was at one time, but is no longer."
"What, all thanks to you?" Joe's voice dripped with sarcasm.
Jun sat quietly in her seat absorbing everything that was being said and done.
"No, not all thanks to me, but to her people." Frost humored him with an askew smile. "I was only a small encouraging factor behind the overdue affair."
Joe humphed. "I bet."
Frost's smile grew for a moment and then turned serious. "None of it really matters anyway, as I won't be remaining in your lovely country much longer. Before long, you'll forget that I was ever here."
Jun tensed as Frost abruptly stood and headed back towards his room. He stopped before he had gone too far and looked at Jun. "If you could get those clothes for me? I don't want to be a bother to you any longer than I have to." He started to turn away again.
"Wait!" Jun got out of her chair and started towards as he stopped again. "I was going to mention it to you later but... I, I want you to let us all go back with you. If Galactor is going to try something in your homeland, we're the best equipped to handle them. We might even be able to go on and help you carry out your original plan." She spoke faster sure that at any moment he would turn away. "We would be a great help to you, and striking blows to Galactor, no matter what kind, is what the Science Ninja Team is all about."
Frost stared at her in surprise. Indecision clouded his eyes even as her own begged him to accept her offer.
"You haven't asked them if they're willing, have you?"
For once, Jun was prepared for his evasion. She wasn't about to let him out of this that easily. "No, I haven't had a chance to, but I know they will be. There's too much at stake here for them to turn this down. Even the ISO won't be able to deny that we may never get another opportunity like this. Please, take us with you."
His gaze broke away from her own to look at the men behind her.
"Jun's right," Ken said. "Just the fact that you're trying to tear Galactor away from one of its major munitions factories is more than enough cause for us to lend you direct aid."
"Yeah," Joe added. "Besides, we'll do anything to get to kick some extra Galactor butt." He stretched back out on the couch a smug look on his face.
Frost was silent, and Jun looked up into his face. His expression was blank as he continued to stare at the others. "If that is your wish, I would appreciate any help you deign to give me."
With that said, he turned away from them and moved off down the hall. Jun stared after him until he'd gone into his room. She then turned to study her team mates. "Thank you. I really appreciate this."
Ken shrugged, his eyes not meeting hers. "I meant what I said. And it would be stupid to pass this up. I'll go talk to hakase and get it all set up. I doubt he'll have any problems with it." His gaze locked with her own. "The sooner we can set out the better. I'll inform the others on the way."
With a last look down the hallway Jun's guest had taken, Ken headed for the stairs.
"Joe, I have to go out and get a few things. Would you mind waiting here till I got back?"
Eyes closed again, he gave her a small nod. His breath was already deepening as she left the room.
Jun rushed downstairs trying to remember all she'd need to get for Frost. She stopped as her mind wondered if there was anything she should pick up for Jinpei as well. With guilty clarity, Jun realized that until that moment, she'd totally pushed her young brother from her thoughts.
She brought her communicator to her lips to call him but then changed her mind. She'd not seen him all night or all day, and when she had seen him last, he'd been extremely uncommunicative. Perhaps she should wait until he at least seemed more willing to hash things out. Besides, if she did call and he didn't answer, she really didn't want to face the fact he might be ignoring her call. She'd wait until she actually saw him and then test how he felt.
Jun hurried through her shopping and was back in less than an hour. Spotting Kathy at the counter, she quickly asked her if she'd seen or heard anything from Jinpei. Getting less that she'd hoped, Jun delayed taking Frost his clothes and moved past a still sleeping Joe to go peek into her brother's room.
She knocked on his door, softly biting her lip, unsure of what she'd do if he was there. Getting no answer, she opened the door.
The room was empty, her brother nowhere in sight. And it was clean -- too clean. A creeping fear rising in the back of her mind, Jun's eyes roamed about her brother's room abruptly noticing all the little things that were missing.
Jinpei's posters were still there, but his prize skateboard was gone. His alarm clock was not there either, and neither was his butterfly collection. All the small, little things that spoke of her brother's individual personality had disappeared.
A large uncomfortable lump settled in Jun's throat as she tried not to think about what had obviously happened here. With a helplessness she'd not known before, Jun moved like one in a trance to her brother's dresser and opened the first of the drawers there. She found the inside to be almost totally empty.
Going faster and faster as she moved to look in the rest of the drawers, Jun found that they were all virtually empty as well. "Jinpei..." Her heart screamed within her even as she tried to lock her emotions out. Jun left the room, not looking at anything, and closed the door behind her.
As she moved slowly across the common room, she never noticed Joe staring at her from the couch.
Jun held on to her packages as she walked into the other hallway and knocked gently on her guest's door. Before she could raise her hand to knock on it a second time, the door opened suddenly before her. A bright smile greeted her there, and though she tried, she was unable to return it with one of her own.
"I'm sorry I took so long. I hope this will do." Jun extended the packages out to Frost making no attempt to enter his room.
"I'm sure they'll be fine." Frost took the packages from her.
His eyes then locked with her own a look of concern passing between them. Jun quickly looked away.
"Have you heard from Ken as to when we might depart?"
"No, not yet. But I'm sure we'll hear soon." She still wouldn't meet his eyes. "In the God Phoenix it won't take long to get you home."
Frost smiled again, still staring at her, leaving the conversation open for anything she might want to say. Jun stared at the floor, grateful for the opening, but not willing to take advantage of it. She was only too aware of the problems he was already having to deal with. She had no intention of burdening him with more.
Surprisingly, Frost gave her an out even as she was fervently trying to think of one.
"I guess I really should get dressed. I'm not all that used to having drafts up my legs. Though in a way these sheets are somewhat becoming. Perhaps I could start a trend." He gave her a small pose. "What do you think?"
Jun looked up and half smiled. "I'll bring something from downstairs so you can eat after you're dressed."
"That would be wonderful. Thank you."
Jun nodded slightly and started to turn away until a soft touch caressed her turning cheek.
"Thank you, Beautiful One, for everything."
When she turned back to look at him, all she caught was the edge of a smile as Frost closed the door. Staring at it for a long time, Jun finally shook her head and walked away. Though she tried, she couldn't dispel the oddly comforting feeling that remained with her where he'd touched her cheek.
Jun was halfway into the common room, heading for the stairs before she realized that Joe was sitting up staring at her.
"Oh! I didn't wake you, did I?"
Joe leaned back, stretching as he did so. "No, Ken took care of that a little while ago. He said that Nambu was quite receptive to the whole idea. They're haggling the finer points now. Lucky guy."
The grin Jun saw spreading on his face amptly conveyed how happy he was not to be at all involved in that phase of things.
"Oh, there was one other thing..."
Jun watched a little worriedly as his grin quickly disappeared.
"Nambu told Ken that Jinpei's asked permission to stay at headquarters for a few days. Knowing the mood the little twirp's been in lately, Ken and I both had the sneaking suspicion that he probably hadn't told you about it."
Jun avoided her teammates gaze, not quite sure what to make of what he'd just said. "No, I had no idea," she said cautiously. "I didn't even know he was gone until this afternoon." Jun headed once more towards the stairs. "I'm not sure what to do about it... I'm not sure if I even want to..."
Jun ran down the stairs tears rising in her eyes as she felt herself starting to lose control. Quickly and quietly, she sneaked off into the garage and locked herself inside. Standing alone in the semi-darkness, she stared at the empty place where her brother's buggy normally sat. The tears ran down her face as the inevitable tide of pain she'd been hiding from for days abruptly ruptured through as the realization that he'd really left her sunk in.
Sobbing quietly, Jun slowly sank onto the cold unforgiving floor beneath her.
Sometime later, her face clear of pain, Jun moved carefully up the set of stairs with a laden tray cradled in her arms. Rounding the corner at the top, she stopped, momentarily surprised by the sight that awaited her there.
Frost was sitting in the chair she herself had sat in not long ago, the light gray slacks and sky blue shirt seeming to be of good fit as he sat with one leg crossed over the other. At the moment, her guest's attention was riveted on a very alert Joe, who sat almost in exactly the same position on the far end of the couch. Both stared intently at one another, not a word passing between them.
Jun wasn't sure of what was going on, but at least it hadn't gotten violent. Both seemed to notice her at the same time and stopped their mutual contemplation to stare at her. "Uh, I brought the food as promised. Sorry it took so long."
Jun moved towards the table, feeling uneasy as they both continued to stare at her in silence. She was unloading the tray onto the table when Frost left his seat to sit at the table's end.
"I wasn't sure what you liked, so I brought up a couple of things," she said.
"I appreciate that."
Jun got up to go still feeling his eyes on her.
"Won't you join me?" Frost asked.
His gray eyes sought hers, even as Jun couldn't think clearly enough to come up with a reason to refuse. Slowly, she sat down, even as Joe got up from the couch and headed for the stairs.
He gave them both a sideways glance, hesitating at the lip of the stairs. "No thanks, I've eaten. Besides, I was sort of hanckering on going down and bothering Kathy for a while. I've gotten the feeling lately that she's been trying to avoid me." A wicked grin flashed momentarily on his face.
Troubled, Jun stared after him as he disappeared down the stairs.
"Was Joe bothering you?" She returned her gaze back to Frost.
"No, not at all," Frost said, filled fork part way to his mouth. "We had a pleasant time. I asked him questions, some he'd answer others he wouldn't. And regrettably I felt I had to do the same." He looked at her, his food momentarily forgotten. "Your team and I seem to have more in common than I would have thought."
That caught Jun's attention. "It's not a bad thing, is it?"
"No - actually it makes some things clearer. It's shown me some of the motivation for why you do what you do."
Jun stared at him in surprise. "Joe told you all that?"
"In a way." Frost smiled. "The answers were there in the things he said, all I had to do was look for them." His smile grew. "In some ways, I think he and I are very much alike."
"You and Joe?"
Frost laughed at the incredulity on her face.
Jun couldn't see where he could have come up with such a conclusion. If anyone had asked, she wasn't sure she wouldn't have told them that she figured the two to be as different as night and day.
A smile still clung to Frost's lips as he resumed eating.
Jun silently watched him.
"There are two more of you are there not?"
Jun looked up at Frost. She found herself involuntarily hesitating before answering the question "Y, yes, Ryu and Jinpei. I'm sure you'll get to meet them before we go."
Frost nodded. "Is Ryu the small one?"
Jun had to consciously keep herself from laughing as her mind inexplicably tried picturing Ryu in Jinpei's small clothes. "Uh, no, no. Jinpei is the small one. Ryu is the large one." Jun frowned, not liking how that had sounded and grateful that the two hadn't been there to hear it. She seemed to say so many stupid things in front of this man. What must he think of her?
Before the thought could go much farther, her wrist communicator beeped loudly for her attention. "Jun here."
"Jun, Ken. Hakase has agreed fully for both missions but insists on a briefing us before he let's us go." Ken hesitated. "He also wants to meet your friend Frost."
Jun felt her guest tense not far from her. "All right, I'll tell him. When does hakase want us there?"
"ASAP if possible. Nambu doubts that Katse will wait long before retaliating against Linthinium. The faster we can get the briefing over with the sooner we can leave. I've already notified Jinpei and Ryu. Would you let Joe know?"
"Sure. We'll be there as soon as we can. Jun out."
Frost stood up abruptly. "I don't think a meeting is such a good idea."
"Nothing will happen. I promise you!" Jun stood up as well. "None of them know anything about your time with Galactor. Can't you trust me?"
Frost slowly shook his head. "It isn't you, or even your friends that I'm worried about. It's the ISO," he said. "The organization may be made up of the most outstanding people in the world, but when something like it gains so much power and gets so large that individuals lose their identities within it, then all you have left is the group. Outsiders are nothing to the group. I am an outsider."
"Nothing will happen." Jun tried to put as much conviction as she could into her words. "Nambu Hakase works on his own. He has separate authority from the others in the ISO. He would do nothing against you."
Frost shook his head again.
Jun felt a sudden touch of angry exasperation. "I promise you, I will protect you if necessary. All we want to do is help you. We won't let anyone keep you where you don't want to be."
Frost's previous seriousness suddenly melted into an amused half smile. "All right, I'll let you protect me. A man couldn't ask for more."
Jun stared at him, startled by the change, wondering what had just really gone on. "Why, why don't you finish up and then we can go."
Still puzzled, Jun watched him as he sat back down and quickly finished his meal. As soon as he was through, Jun stacked the dishes on the tray and then got up. When she went to pick up the tray, Frost beat her to it and headed for the stairs. After dumping the dirty dishes in the kitchen, Jun quickly filled Joe in on what was going on.
"Let's go then, my car's just outside."
Following Joe, Jun and Frost piled into Joe's sedan. With Jun sitting between them, all three crowded into the front seat.
Frost raised an appreciative eyebrow as Joe turned over the engine. "This car... she has a very interesting voice. I take it she's not... conventional?"
Joe raised an eyebrow in return and then sent Frost an impressed and flashy grin. "Fully customized. Handled most of the rebuilding myself."
"How responsive is she? Being so large, I wouldn't want to assume that she compares with the new Porsche 929A..." Frost kept his eyes on Joe even as the latter snorted.
"The design for the 929A was old before the prototype rolled on the test track!"
Frost let the comment pass. Jun stared from one to the other of them.
"How much horsepower does she have?" he asked.
Joe almost purred. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you." He eased the car into the flow of traffic. A small, yet slowly growing grin lit on his face. "She does zero to one-fifty in eight seconds without breaking a sweat. And these numbers aren't just for decoration." Joe lightly tapped at the speedometer, his eyes daring Frost to doubt his word.
Jun started to worry at the odd glint she caught flashing in Frost's eyes.
"Surely that can't be right," he said. "She'd be apt to just get up and fly if that was the case. How could you possibly handle her?"
Two astonished faces turned as one, Joe's grin coldly disappearing as he regarded Frost for a long moment. "That... sounds like a challenge..."
Jun stared desperately at her guest, a cold feeling in her stomach assuring her of what was about to come next. "No, don't -"
Frost's silky voice answered the half-question with a smile. "It was."
"You're on!" Joe stomped on the accelerator.
"No!" Jun's eyes widened in panic never really having seen that look on Joe before. Too many times though she'd heard the horror stories Ken told of the few times he'd been trapped with Joe in a car when he was in one of his moods. She felt cold all over, realizing that she was about to experience one of them on her own.
As Joe shot into his first swerve to get past some of the slower cars in front of him, Jun reached out for the nearest steadying object she could find. Frost glanced at her for a moment in pained but pleased surprise as she latched hard onto his arm. With a large grin, Frost rolled down his window all the way to let in the rushing air.
Jun closed her eyes tight as Joe deftly cut into the oncoming traffic lane and then as deftly merged back into the proper side, inches from hitting the two cars he'd just passed. Jun opened her eyes again as they screeched around a corner, her hold on Frost's arm growing harder as the g-forces pulled her to the side, but quickly shut them as she noted the joyous grins on both their faces.
A long stretch of clear road unexpectedly opened up before them. Jun glanced at Joe and then wished she hadn't. The last time she'd seen a look like that on his face... She couldn't even dare to let herself think about it. Dread coursing through every fiber of her being, she watched as Joe shifted into overdrive. With a quick prayer, she shut her eyes tight.
Joe's voice shouted with unequaled glee over the roar of the engine as they sped forward. "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying Air Asakura!"
Jun cringed as Frost laughed beside her with unequal abandon.
She tried to keep a steady grip on her terror, her eyes inadvertently opening every time they swerved. The most recent barely avoided danger blended into the many others. Jun held on to Frost's arm for all she was worth, even as his continued laughter sent cold chills down her spine.
Just when she thought she couldn't take much more, the car took flight off the down ramp of the ISO's parking garage. Trying to choke down a scream, Jun felt it as the ‘Low Clearance' sign scrapped the top of the car, sending a few flakes of paint flying through the air. With the loud screeching of brakes echoing in the underground garage, the blue sedan slid past the immediate left turn after the opening. People were diving for cover even as the sedan slipped neatly into an empty parking space.
"We're here!" Joe chortled.
Jun wasn't sure if she should believe him, his exuberance was too great. Carefully, she slid open an eye. Though her stomach firmly disagreed, it did appear that they'd finally come to a definite stop. With some reluctance, she made herself release Frost's arm even as the latter flashed Joe a grand smile, a light flush coloring his cheeks.
"That was marvelous! Thank you for that awesome ride." His eyes shone. "You've no idea how long I've dreamed of a ride like this. We must do it again!"
Joe gave Frost one of his best smiles in return, looking only too pleased at the praise.
Seeing him so happy made Jun feel very ill.
"No problem," Joe said. "Anytime." His smile grew even bigger. "Finally someone who can appreciate true performance!"
"Can we get out now?" Jun squeaked.
Both men looked over at her, neither having any idea why she looked so green.
"Beautiful One, are you all right?" Frost's brow was furrowed with concern.
Jun tried hard to smile and nodded. She hoped with all her heart that they'd hurry up and let her out of the car. Now!
"You know, I've seen Ken look that way before..."
Jun threw Joe a dirty, murderous look and slid out from her seat after Frost had gotten out of the car. Jun tried to keep herself upright as she led the way out of the garage.
Now seemingly a bit more subdued, Frost followed close after her with a still grinning Joe bringing up the rear. The three of them rode the elevator to the main lobby and then took another to go into the floors above. Jun led them in silence down a number of twisting halls until they finally arrived at their destination.
Unusually enough, Nambu wasn't behind his desk as they came in, but was instead tinkering with a slide projector set on the far wall. On the opposite end of the room, a screen had been hastily set up for the briefing.
Ken was sitting by one of the chairs close to the door, his head leaning back and his eyes closed. Sitting across from him was Jinpei, who sat quietly spinning the wheels of his colorful skateboard. Neither of them looked over as the three of them made their way in.
Grabbing seats close to one another, they sat down and waited silently for Ryu to arrive. Glancing at Frost, Jun studied him as his eyes roamed about the room taking in every detail. For several moments his gaze lingered on Nambu before moving on to spend an even longer time studying Jinpei.
The door to the office opened, a winded looking Ryu filling in the doorway. "So - sorry I'm late. Traffic was all backed up. Seems there was a lunatic racing through the streets today."
Jun stifled a groan as two grins erupted around her.
Ryu looked as if he were about to add something but stopped in surprise as his gaze came across Frost. Trying unsuccessfully not to stare, Ryu closed the door and rapidly moved to take a seat.
For the first time since they'd all arrived, Ken's eyes blinked open, and he sat up working through a small yawn.
Nambu stopped fiddling with the projector and taking hold of the remote control unit, moved to settle behind his desk. "As most of you know, certain pieces of information have come to light pertaining the dreadful incident on the east-side of the city." He said. "The Galactor attack seems to be but the first in a quickly building campaign.
"Through the cooperation of Mr. Michael Frost, we have now confirmed the long suspected fact that a Galactor munitions plant is in truth located in the small country of Linthinium. Due to the fact that this same munitions plant has been wrested from their control, I strongly agree with the belief that Galactor's next target will be there rather than her in Utoland." Nambu pressed a button on the remote control and the lights in the office dimmed even as a slide lit up on the screen.
Gently rolling hills bursting with green moved off towards the horizon slowly growing in size into mist covered mountains. Nestled in these mountains, a German styled castle rose sharply upwards towards the sky its white gleaming spires reaching for the sun.
"According to the theories based on previous reports, it's believed that the munitions factory is underground beneath the country's main seat of power - Castle Rhollean." Nambu paused a moment, his glasses glinting with the projector's light. "Would you care to add anything to that Mr. Frost?" Nambu's unreadable stare moved from the screen to land unabated on Frost's relaxed form.
"Your theories are quite correct even if a bit understated." Frost straightened in his seat. "All of the valley upon which the castle sits and even under the small city that lies unseen in this picture, hold beneath them an extensive, multi-faceted factory.
"Though it did begin as a small disguised operation, over the last twelve years it has broadened into an amazing complex. Part of it now extends deep into the mountains at the border. The mines they've been able to make there have minimized almost all need to have raw materials imported in from the outside."
Nambu nodded once at the forwarded information and then pressed another button on the remote to advance another slide. A high aerial photo flashed before them, with all but the most prominent objects rendered indistinct. A dark rectangle had been added in to the picture.
"This is a current satellite photo of the area over Linthinium. As you can see, it is a small country covering an area of approximately fifty by one hundred miles. The mountain range you see spread throughout the northern border has kept the country well out of touch of a number of conflicts that have arisen in their neighbors over the years. Imports and exports have always been low, the land differing enough from one end of the country to the other to allow a number of different industries to exist, keeping the need for outside interference to a minimum."
Several slides now passed in quick succession showing sheep in the sloping hills, extensive farmlands, and even vineyards on the sides of the rising mountains, with wooded areas farther to the west. A few of the slides depicted scattered villages and towns. Multilevel wood stone homes, with white walls and bright colored roofs. Its people were shown to be fair skinned and strong.
"Not much real information has been gathered in the last few years. Tourism has been virtually curtailed there and is heavily screened. Security is incredibly tight at the capital. None of our agents has even been able to make it past the normal veneer." Nambu held their attentions a moment longer before switching to a new slide. "The picture is old, but it's the most current photograph on file of Linthinium's ruler. The boy on his left is his son and heir."
The impressive man covering the center of the picture was dressed smartly in deep red with gold trim, a dark wine colored cloak falling from his left shoulder. Dark brown hair streaked with gray was held back from the chiseled face by a simple gold band around his head. Standing beside him was a slightly shorter man, his kind face and open smile diffusing the almost overtly serious expression of the taller man.
Standing on the ruler's left was a young boy no more than twelve years old. The clothing exactly matched his father's in cut and detail, except it was colored in the lightest of blues.
Jun's gaze barely lingered on the two older men. Almost from the moment the slide had appeared on the screen, her eyes had been riveted on the young boy. Gray eyes like his father's stared towards the unseen photographer, the young face trying hard to emulate the older man's serious expression. His wild white blond hair was barely held in check by his own smaller gold band.
Wide eyed, Jun slowly turned to stare at her guest. Frost didn't notice her or anything else, his whole being focused on the picture of the man before them.
Though the similarities between the boy in the photo and Frost were unmistakable, Nambu moved on to the next slide after a minute or so without saying a word about it.
"Our satellites took a number of photographs over Linthinium earlier today. So far, we can find no indication of any Galactor movements to retake the munitions plant. It would seem that we have yet time to attempt to counter anything that they might be engineering towards that end." Nambu pushed his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose.
"It is likely that Galactor will try and recover the facility rather than attempt to destroy it. However, it would seem to indicate from the risks that were taken in trying to destroy Mr. Frost, that if they can't retrieve the facility they will surely go to any lengths necessary to keep anyone else from possessing it and destroy it instead."
Nambu touched the remote once more, turning off the projector and bringing back the lights. "The five of you will be in charge of returning Mr. Frost safely back to his country. In order, however, not to present Galactor with a doubly tempting target and precipitate an attack, the exterior of the God Phoenix us being put through some cosmetic modifications," he stated. "Once they're finished, the ship should have a sufficiently effective disguise to affect your entry into Linthinium. All specs have already been entered into the ship's data banks." He gave them all a moment to absorb his words before going on. "If all assessments of this situation are correct, you should have no problems. Radio silence however, will need to be maintained during your voyage. Ken has already received the schedule for status reports during your stay. Your vehicles are, as we speak, being transferred to Crescent Coral. Standard transports have already been summoned for you."
Nambu paused, his dark eyes roaming the room. "Any questions?"
Jun found her eyes drawn towards Jinpei as he sat up slightly forward almost as if he were about to speak. As Nambu's eyes locked on him and he noticed his sister's gaze, Jinpei abruptly sat back and said nothing.
"All right then, that will be all. -- Good luck team."
They all rose to their feet somewhat more subdued than usual. There was a slight feeling of tension in the air, one that couldn't be explained away by the mere presence of a stranger. Jun was heavily considering trying to intercept Jinpei, hoping to get rid of some of the bad feelings between them, when she was unexpectedly distracted.
"Mr. Frost, if you would remain a moment?"
Though his face was still as unreadable as it had been throughout the meeting, Jun noticed the line of Frost's jaw stiffen at Nambu's soft request. Caught by what was happening, Jun hesitated going after her Jinpei even as Frost turned to face Nambu's even less legible features.
Glancing away from them to look after her brother, Jun rapidly lost sight of him as he zoomed past the others to be the first out the door. Still thinking she might be able to catch him while simultaneously hesitant to leave Frost, Jun lost her chance to do either.
"We will only be a few minutes, Jun," Nambu said. "Please close the door on your way out."
Frost never looked back as Jun moved uncertainly to do as she'd been told. It made her slightly nervous that Nambu so pointedly wanted to speak to Frost alone. Closing the door, she almost jumped up into it, startled when she found Ken waiting for her in the hallway. Jun stared at him in surprise, wondering why he was there, even as he leaned easily against the wall staring strangely at her. "Is there something wrong, Ken?" she stammered out.
The odd stare abruptly vanished. "No. I just wanted to let you know we'll be using tunnel three and will wait for you and Frost there."
Ken made no move to leave. Not sure what he was waiting for and knowing better than to push him, Jun leaned up against the wall across from him and stared at the floor.
"Are you pretty excited about this trip?" he asked.
When she moved to look up at him, Jun found Ken staring away from her down the hall.
"I - I hadn't really thought about it." It was true, she hadn't. So many things had been happening so fast. It occurred to her to wonder though why he thought she might be. "The country does seem beautiful. And it would be nice if nothing happened. Maybe we could all have a small vacation there."
Ken grunted softly in response. "Has something else happened between you and Jinpei?" He only glanced at her for a moment before looking away again.
"I don't know. I haven't had a chance to talk to him. I'd hoped to do that today but..."
"He'd already moved out before you found him."
A deep silence hung between them for a while.
Jun looked up into his face. "Have you spoken to him?"
Ken shrugged his shoulders at the question. "I tried to when I found out he was here. Everything was going pretty well until I brought you up. He immediately clamed up and then walked away."
"Oh..." Jun's gaze dropped back towards the floor, her heart filling with disappointment.
"He's just being stubborn. I'm sure he realizes now that he was totally wrong, but just can't find a graceful way of telling you he's sorry. Perhaps he'd forget all about it if you did."
Jun stared at her commander in surprise. "How can you say that? Ken, he honestly believed me to be a traitor to all that is dear to us. How can I just forget about it? Do you have any idea what his accusations did to me?" Jun kept her voice low and stared at Ken with open pain while at the same time not trying to think about it.
"So you're willing to run the risk of losing him just because he made a stupid mistake? If he's avoiding you this heavily now, how long will it be before he decides to leave the team or I'm forced to dismiss him because of it?"
"You wouldn't!" Jun stared at him in shock.
"Only if it truly started to affect the team." His eyes held hers totally serious. "It's my responsibility to make sure we can work together, to make sure we avoid the errors this kind of conflict can create. All of that is why I'm asking you to try and forget about all this, so we can stab off this problem before it forces me to take steps none of us want to take." Not waiting for Jun to reply, he pushed away from the wall and started away down the hall. "I'll see you in tunnel three." Hands in pockets, Ken walked away without ever looking back into Jun's stunned face.
Everything just kept happening too fast! Why did it all just keep piling on? Jun bit her lip hard. Was Ken right though? Would it be best to act as if nothing had ever happened? Nothing else seemed to be working so far. And she didn't want to lose Jinpei, but how could he think so little of her? Would she be able to act like everything was normal still knowing in her heart that he had once distrusted her so?
The door to Nambu's office opened, distracting Jun from her jumbled thoughts. She quickly tried to push her worries aside as Frost stepped out into the hall, a small wondering grin plastered on his lips. Jun forced herself to wait until after he'd closed the door behind him before daring to say a word.
"Is everything all right?" she asked.
Frost walked on with Jun at his side, his grin turning into a smile. "Everything is fine. Better than I ever expected."
Jun waited anxiously for him to go on.
"I find your Doctor Nambu very intriguing. I think my father would have liked him very much."
When he added nothing else, Jun couldn't quite work herself up to asking for more, and so she led him quickly down towards tunnel number three.
A youthful pair of brown eyes kept darting quick glances towards the still closed tram doors. When he wasn't looking there, Jinpei paid only attention to his skateboard and the back wheel he had for some time now kept at an almost constant spin.
This whole time, Jinpei had been stubbornly ignoring Ryu and Joe, and they seemed just as happy to be ignoring him. Though he'd be loath to admit it, this hurt a little, but he knew that if he didn't keep himself from all of them all they'd do was hassle him with questions and accusations he couldn't yet answer to himself, let alone to anyone else.
Jinpei's eyes snapped up as the tram door opened. He quickly looked away again when he realized that it was only Ken. He didn't relish speaking to their chosen leader either. He had no compunction to have a repetition of what had happened earlier in the day. None of them understood what he'd seen and what it'd looked like. They didn't understand how sure he'd been that it had been the truth. He didn't like at all the strange emptiness that he kept feeling inside.
Jinpei went back to spinning his skateboard's wheel, tense and at the same time excited that the next person who'd come through that door would be his sister. He didn't have long to wait. Less than five minutes after Ken had arrived, the doors opened again. He tried to stare unobtrusively at Jun and her companion as the two of them stepped inside.
The smile on Frost's face bothered him. Every time he'd seen it it'd bothered him. That man was responsible for everything that had happened. If he'd never shown up at the Snak J, nothing would have ever looked suspicious, he would have never had a chance to get the wrong impression, there would have never been any Galactors there for him to see. Why did she hang around this guy? Why was she so desperate to help him? She was always with him, always talking to or about him, running off to be with him. And now she'd even roped the whole team into helping him. But why? What did this man really want? What had he offered her? Why wasn't Jun trying to spend time with him instead of this man?
Feeling his face growing hot, Jinpei looked away still trying not to draw any attention to himself. He didn't notice Jun's troubled gaze as it moved to find where he was.
Everyone seated themselves as Joe activated the self guided tram. With a burst of speed, the tram shot out of its underground station beneath ISO Headquarters and sped on towards the coast. Conversation was minimal though there was nothing to look at out the small windows but steel and concrete. When he thought he could get away with it, Jinpei stole glances towards Frost and Jun. He never noticed that a few of the others were doing the same to him.
Twenty minutes or so later, a squeal of braking metal wheels loudly announced their arrival to the end of tunnel three.
Still underground, the small group exited the tram and crossed the platform to join up with a man wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit. He led them on to a streamlined submersible poised at a slight downward angle before a ramp descending into total darkness.
Moving with the others, Jinpei kept his eyes on Frost even as the latter stared raptly at all there was to see here. Though he knew now that Jun wasn't a traitor as he'd previously and shamefully thought, Jinpei wasn't so sure of Frost. For if Jun wasn't the defector the Galactor had mumbled about, that left only him. And all Galactors were dirty, everyone knew that. And a person who'd become a traitor once could do it again.
As soon as everyone was on board the submersible the driver disconnected it from the mooring platform. Dropping hard onto the ramp, the submersible picked up speed as it descended into the darkness before it. After a few seconds, the darkness was dispelled as the submersible dove into the ocean waiting patiently at the end of the short tunnel.
The engines came quietly to life, activating the lights which showed them all the watery depths through which they traveled. Almost like a child, Frost marveled at the sights. A knife twisted in Jinpei's side as he saw his sister smile in pleasure at his wonder. As fish were seen passing by, Ryu started pointing out the different kinds to him and talked of their habits as Frost seemed genuinely interested in anything Ryu had to say. Jinpei stared with pure disgust at his friend, but Ryu was too involved in his narrative to ever notice.
Forty five minutes later, the small submersible maneuvered into a long, slow turn past some jutting coastal formations. Cresting the long turn, all eyes riveted themselves forward as a large metallic structure took up most of the front window. Rising majestically like a metallic Samson, the huge construction held over it a large crescent shaped isle.
Slowly decreasing in speed, the submersible headed towards the dead center of the metal leviathan and deftly entered one of the four large bays waiting there.
Frost's gray eyes were glued to the window even as Jun softly explained where they were. Jinpei felt the sudden urge to scream, especially at Ken, their supposed leader, for letting her tell this stranger things he had no right to know!
Glancing quickly at the others, looking for some support, Jinpei noticed that none of them seemed disturbed by what she was doing, not even Joe. They were all being suckered by this man, one by one! Why couldn't anyone else see what he saw? This was stupid!
Slowing even further, the submersible moved up into an open docking port and attached itself magnetically to the side. Behind them, the large bay doors closed and large pumps kicked in draining away the trapped water. As soon as the water level had dropped below the line of the dock, the submersible's hatch opened with an audible pop.
Jinpei didn't pay attention to any of this too wrapped up in his own thoughts. He didn't notice until much too late that Jun was at his side in the submersible alone.
"Are you looking forward to this trip, Jinpei?" she asked. " I thought if things went well that perhaps we could vacation there for a few days. Would you like that?"
"Huh?" Jinpei couldn't help but stare at his sister with undisguised shock. Now that Jun had him this close and basically helpless, he'd expected a torrent of abuse and lots of ear pulling, maybe even some tears. And though in a way he wanted all that, he'd also been avoiding it like the plague. But, now, now that she had him, she wasn't doing any of those things. Had things gotten even worse than he'd thought?
"The slides seem to make it out to be a very nice place, don't you think? We could have a really good time there."
Jinpei nodded not knowing what else to do. Jun seemed to be totally ignoring his blunder, and that wasn't like her at all! This could only spell a worse doom that any he had imagined. Had she decided to hate him because he'd moved out? Was this all some sort of trap? Why was she being so nice to him?
Jinpei moved in subdued confusion out of the docked submersible. He hesitated going on though when he found who was waiting for them outside.
"Jinpei, I want to introduce you properly to a friend of mine. I realize I should have done it earlier, but..." Jun left the rest unsaid even as she pushed him lightly before her so he could stand face to face with the Galactor defector. "Jinpei, this is my friend, Michael Frost."
Jinpei didn't look up.
"Frost, this is my brother, Jinpei."
"Hello. I'm very pleased to finally meet you."
Jinpei saw Frost extend his hand towards him and he almost stepped back as if it might hurt him. "I've really got to go now. Please excuse me."
Without looking back, he broke away from them and ran down the nearest corridor. Jinpei could feel their shocked eyes locked on him as he escaped and he was dead sure that the Galactor defector was busily laughing at him behind his back.
"Frost, I'm sorry about that. It was all my fault." Jun stared at the ground, the echo of Jinpei's running footsteps still ringing in her ears.
"I don't understand. Is there something wrong with me?" Frost asked.
Jun wasn't sure if he felt about it as lightly as his tone implied. "It, it isn't you, it's me. He and I, well, we've had a falling out of sorts and I just can't seem to get us worked out through it."
"Is it that serious?"
Jun turned away from his gaze, hearing the growing concern in his voice. "I - I think so... He accused me of something that hurt me very much. He's found out now that he's wrong but I'm not all sure that he still doesn't believe it anyway."
"This has something to do with my being here, doesn't it." It was more a statement than a question.
Jun snapped around to face him, not liking what she'd heard, while trying to keep all her own guilt and pain from showing on her face. "No, it's got nothing to do with you! Honest. Jinpei and I will work things out eventually, I'm sure. We've been together too long to let any kind of misunderstanding tear us apart for long."
Frost gazed deeply at her face. Jun stood still, hoping, praying that he would believe her. She didn't want this on him, she didn't want his burden to grow any heavier than it was.
After looking at her a moment longer, Frost reached out and gently took her hand in his own. "You'll let me know if there's anything I can do to help, won't you?"
Jun's eyes lit up. "Yes, I will! Thanks for offering." She tried to give him a heart felt smile. "I guess we'd better get going before the others decide to leave us behind."
Taking hold of the hand that already held hers, Jun pulled Frost along in the direction Jinpei had disappeared.
Jinpei hastily wiped at his wet eyes with his arm as he rushed up onto the open ramp of the almost completely disguised God Phoenix. He glanced around cautiously before going all the way in, not wanting anyone to see him just yet.
Why was Jun acting so strange? Why had she introduced him to that man? Was she trying to rub in his mistake? Jinpei burned inside hating how she was with Frost, hating how he seemed to take up all of her time and thoughts. If he hadn't been with them surely Jun would have chased him down long ago and boxed him between the ears for what he'd done. For how could anything be all right ever again if he wasn't made to pay for it? And how would she ever get around to his punishment with that defector always getting in the way?
Jinpei ignored the others as he finally made his way to the bridge. Without a word, he moved directly to his station and sat down.
"Can you estimate our possible maximum speed without risking the exterior covering?" Ken was standing behind Ryu's chair, peering over the pilot's shoulder as he tried to calculate the answer.
Joe was draped over Ken's seat, half watching the two of them work.
"Ah, about half-power, with no sudden turns," Ryu answered. "The stuff would just shake itself off the hull otherwise."
"At least it will come off," Joe added. "It'd be embarrassing to go into battle looking like this."
Ken roughly knocked his second in command's legs from the arm of his chair. "You shouldn't be complaining. After all it's only a façade. Though I could speak to hakase about making it permanent."
Joe snorted, not amused by Ken's comment even as he got out of the chair. With a dismissing gesture, he walked back to his own station as Ken grinned at him behind his back.
Joe didn't look at Jinpei as he started in on a thorough systems check. Jinpei made sure not to look at him and concentrated on the spinning wheel of his skateboard instead.
After a minute, Jinpei glanced over at Joe's back wondering if should try and seek advice from the sometimes surly teammate. He quickly dismissed the thought, realizing that with the way things had been going lately, Joe was still probably mad at him for the punch he'd tried to give him the other day. Looking away, Jinpei sighed as he came to realize that all his teammates were probably mad at him. He'd given way too much cause for it to be otherwise.
Staring once more at the spinning wheel, Jinpei felt his growing depression quickly deepening out of his control. He tried hard to sink into his chair as he heard Jun and Frost enter the bridge.
"When will we be leaving, Ken?" Jun hurried to her station as she spoke.
"We're running all the final checks now and the last pieces of the disguise are almost in place. After that, we only have to wait for hakase's okay."
Jinpei heard her sit down in her seat and the controls click as her hands moved expertly over them. He tried hard to tell himself that he didn't care that she hadn't said hello or perhaps even looked at him. He kept his own gaze riveted on the spinning wheel.
"Who pilots the God Phoenix?"
Jinpei stiffened in his chair as Frost's voice spoke from just behind him.
"I - I do." Ryu's half muted response whispered back to them from his station.
"Do you handle her anything like Joe does his car?"
Ryu stuck his head around his seat staring at Frost in startled surprise. "Heck no! I like my ship!"
"That's too bad." The disappointment was obvious in Frost's tone.
Joe snickered from his seat.
"Have you ever been in a car with Joe?" Ryu's curiosity had overridden his normal shyness for the moment.
"Has he," Joe responded. "And he loved it too! One of the few people to actually appreciate my talents, unlike some others I could mention." He grinned from ear to ear. "Maybe you should let me handle her today, Ryu."
His teammate turned green. "No way! Not after what happened the last time! Uh uh. Forget it!" Ryu threw himself protectively over the ship's controls.
"Aw, come on," Joe begged. He turned mischievously towards the team's leader. "How about it, Ken?"
"No, sorry. I'm not one of your appreciative fans - remember?"
Joe turned a defeated looking face towards Frost and then winked. "Maybe we could go for a ride once we get you home. Just the two of us."
Jinpei looked back at them despite himself. The twinkle in their eyes was almost identical.
"Sounds good," Frost said.
"No!" Ryu stood up his face flushed with panic. "Ken, you can't let them, you can't! My baby still has scars from the last time Joe tried to fly her. You can't let him at her again!"
Ken was trying hard to keep a serious expression but was having a difficult time doing it. Frost politely turned away, his face lighting with a smile, seemingly trying not to injure an already flustered Ryu. Jun hid behind her console to hide hers, even as Joe lost all control and burst out laughing.
Jinpei frowned, not finding any of it in the list bit amusing.
Ryu had finally begun to realize that he'd been had when the bridge's communications screen sprang to life. Nambu's familiar, stern face stared down at them.
"The maintenance crews have just finished mooring the last of the façade onto the ship," he said. "Your route has already been fed into the normal air traffic channels and shows your final destination as Horshin which is off Linthinium's east border. You should be able to call up the information on your board, Ryu." The pilot called the information up.
"As you begin your descent towards Horshin's airport, you will instead slip past into Linthinium airspace below the radar limits. Arrangements are being made as we speak to falsify your actual arrival at the Gurkin airport."
Nambu paused, slowly pushing his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose. "Good luck, team. Please keep me informed."
The view screen went blank.
On Ken's signal, Ryu activated the God Phoenix's engines. After a long moment, the ship's docking area started to rapidly fill with water, an alarm ringing loudly throughout the hold.
Once full, Ryu gently prodded the ship forward and exited the base through the large bay doors that drifted apart to let them through.
The God Phoenix moved slowly through the open sea gently slopping upwards towards the surface. As soon as the ship had come across the coordinates of the transports supposed route, Ryu broke out of the water, giving the engines more power, and merged with it.
Ken had just asked Ryu for an ETA about a half hour later, when Jinpei slowly rose from his chair.
Jun turned to look at him. "Jinpei, where are you going?"
The question hit him wrong and he spat out at her before he had time to think of what he was saying. "I'm going to the bathroom. Is that all right with you?" The words had barely left his mouth before he was already regretting the strong response. Hurt filled Jun's eyes and Jinpei found that he couldn't stand to see it.
Not knowing how to take the words back, he instead turned away and stalked towards the small elevator in the back. He felt his fingers go numb as he held his skateboard in a death grip, even as he didn't turn around in the elevator before the doors closed so he wouldn't see her hurt face again. Tears glinted in his eyes as the doors cut him off from view.
How was he supposed to face her now? Everything just seemed to get worse and worse with them. What was he going to do?
Jinpei got off the lift and dragged himself without enthusiasm towards the ship's private facilities located close to the small medical bay.
Coming out after a long while, he almost darted back inside when he realized that someone else was there. Suddenly deciding he shouldn't hide anymore from the inevitable, he walked on out, and looked up expecting to see his sister's angry face.
His eyes grew momentarily wide as he quickly realized that he'd made a mistake. Jinpei averted his eyes and then tried to walk hastily past the Galactor defector.
"Do I make you nervous, Jinpei?" Frost asked.
He almost walked past, not caring one bit about the smug tone that laced the question, but ended up hesitating. No way he would run and cower from a Galactor, especially a defector. Why should he give him the satisfaction? The man had already caused him untold grief! And he was the Swallow, a member of the Gatchaman team, at least at the moment, and the team didn't fear Galactors, the Galactors feared them instead. With a glare Joe would have been proud of, Jinpei bolstered himself and turned to face Frost. "Are you talking to me?"
Jinpei felt his ire rise as all Frost did was give him a gentle smile. "I get the feeling you don't like me very much."
Jinpei stared at Frost not knowing what to make of him as he noticed that his words didn't hold the faintest trace of malice in them. He was up to something. Jinpei just knew it! And he wasn't about to fall for it, no way.
"You've got that right." Jinpei tried to put as much anger and annoyance as he could into the reply glad to finally find an outlet for his pent frustrations even as a small part of his mind worried that the two of them were there alone.
His loaded answer didn't seem to phase Frost in the least. "I must admit that you're definitely a lot younger than I'd expected. You're not even fifteen are you?"
Jinpei bristled. "So? What of it! It's to our credit that we can save the world from men like you at our age!"
His intended barb did nothing to disturb Frost's calm demeanor. Jinpei didn't like it.
"You say that you save the world from people like me - Well then, what kind of person am I?"
Jinpei's eyes narrowed at the question. The almost innocently curious way the question had been asked didn't sit well with him at all. He was sure the defector was up to something he wouldn't like, not matter how innocent he seemed. "You know what you are!"
"That's absolutely correct. I do know what I am. But I don't know what you think I am. So, I ask again, what am I?" Frost's gray eyes abruptly pierced Jinpei where he stood.
All the warmth seemed to pour out of Frost's gaze as Jinpei watched. The unexpected coldness sucked him in and wouldn't let him go.
"Please enlighten me," Frost added.
The new chill in the defector's voice sent goose bumps pouring down Jinpei's spine. Maybe this man had been more than just the normal Galactor lackey. Nevertheless, Jinpei pulled his shoulders back and stood his ground. He wasn't about to let himself be frightened by this man, he wasn't! The traitor was not going to get the best of him! "You are Galactor scum, that's what you are. A traitor, a double agent, a defector! You sold your soul to Katse and then tried to steal it back. Now you're going to try and sell ours to him as well!" With some satisfaction, Jinpei watched Frost's face become suddenly unreadable. Still, his gray gaze wouldn't let go of him.
Jinpei stared in surprise at the tall, light hared man, guardedly unsure as to what that meant.
"Why is it that the members of your team seem capable of only seeing things in terms of black and white?"
Jinpei didn't get a chance to try and answer.
"Nothing is ever that simple! Evil is not absolute and neither is good." Frost's voice echoed with conviction. "There is some of both in all of us, making everything in the world fit in terms of black to white."
Jinpei took a step back at the unexpected onslaught.
"Some people are forced into the evil they do, others don't even realize that is what they're doing."
Jinpei's eyes grew wide at his words. He'd heard this philosophy before. From his own sister's lips in fact. It'd been during those first few weeks after she'd gone off to rescue Dr. Rathbone. It was during the very same weeks she'd stared off and on unseeing into space, remembering something she'd never shared with the rest of them. Those first few weeks after her life and Dr. Rathbone's had been saved by a man who'd been enslaved by Galactor. "You're - you're -"
Frost stepped close to a heavily startled Jinpei.
"Somehow you've decided to condemn your sister because of me. If you must delude yourself as to my evil, there's absolutely no reason for you to drag her down into it as well. It doesn't matter to me what you or the others think of me, but I do care about what you think of her." He thrust out an accusing finger at Jinpei. "For some time now, if we go by your absolutes, you have been wickedly evil to your sister. You have given her great amounts of pain and though all she'd done is try and forget what you've done and reconcile with you, you've gone and hurt her at every single opportunity making her wound deeper and more grievous than it had ever been before."
Jinpei took two more steps back, his face coloring with guilt, his heart racing at the anger he now saw reflected on Frost's face.
"Unless you want to lose everything you hold dear, you'd better fix what you've done. If you must be angry, bitter, even cruel, use me as your target instead of her." Frost leaned in close. "You would be well advised to do this if nothing else, for if you continue to hurt her, I will make sure that you permanently regret it."
Jinpei could only stare at the man before him as all his previous assumptions crumbled to dust. Ashamed, he did nothing as Frost's released him from his gaze and walked away.
Jun glanced back towards the lift as it opened and admitted Frost back into the bridge. She stared at him curiously wondering where he'd gone. Though he'd been right there beside her since their flight had begun, at some point in time he'd taken his leave and she'd never noticed. Jun frowned slightly as she noticed the strange pensive look on his face. Curving her original impulse, she asked nothing as he once more came to stand at her side.
Jinpei returned after being gone for twenty minutes or more and retook his seat in silence. Distractedly, she realized with a bit of surprise that he'd not brought his skateboard back with him. He got all of her attention however, when he slowly turned to face her in his seat and tried hard to smile. With suspicion sneaking into the back of her mind, Jun glanced to look at Frost, but his back was towards her. Deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, she looked back at her brother and gave him a smile of her own.
The trip to Linthinium at their forced slower pace, took them over four hours. As the disguised God Phoenix finally approached their final destination, Ryu slowed the ship and began a slow easy descent. Talking on the radio and getting his entry vectors from the Gurken airport's command tower, Ryu placed the ship on a very low approach and then veered the God Phoenix away before they'd come into actual sight of the airport.
Now treating the God Phoenix as if it were a heavy transport on a long easy take off pattern, he steered the ship over the border into Linthinium.
Frost moved to stand behind Ryu as they moved in, his attention totally absorbed by the view of the mostly unspoiled country before them.
Keeping them low and even further reducing his speed, Ryu buzzed over a number of colorful, small villages in the deep darkness. They continued forward for several minutes, straight towards the dark, rising line of mountains on the horizon. As they came close, a blotch of shinning white came into view, nestled between the mountains. As they came closer, the blotch became more defined, showing a grandiose set of lit spires rising like groping fingers towards the star lit sky.
"There is a large open area in the eastside of the castle proper that you can use to land the ship," Frost said. "There's and underground docking facility there."
Ryu set the ship on a slow wide turn though they were still some distance from the shinning castle.
"Might I use your radio, commander?"
Ken threw a glance in Frost's direction. "Sure. - Joe?"
The latter nodded as Frost turned to face him. "Any specific frequency?"
"Can you do a full sweep?" Frost asked.
Joe nodded a twinkle of interest lighting on his face.
"All I need is a cascading burst of static for around five seconds. My people will be looking for it."
Joe nodded again, an approving grin on his face, and then got to work. "It's done."
Frost had a small grin tugging at the edge of his mouth. "Good, now we won't get a gun filled reception."
Still following his long turn, Ryu slowed the ship as they came within sight of the huge lighted garden area that spread from the rear of the castle on the eastside.
"The pad is over there." Frost pointed to a large, manicured lawn square area surrounded by a tall well kept hedge.
Kicking in the lateral jets, Ryu had the ship hover over the area before gently setting her down. Before the God Phoenix came close to the ground, the whole square lowered down and slid out of sight. As the disguised ship came level with the open ground, lights sprang on beneath them showing the metallic floor of an underground hangar. With the care of a lover, Ryu eased the ship into the space waiting below.
As soon as they touched down and the engines were turned off, Ryu flipped the switch to open the God Phoenix's rear ramp. Ken led the way from the bridge.
As they all moved slowly out onto the ramp to exit the ship, a lone figure appeared from a hidden door on a side wall and limped slowly in their direction.
Though the face was more wrinkled and the hair was heavily streaked with gray, Jun immediately recognized the king's kind faced companion from the photograph at their briefing.
Upon spotting Frost, the man's face split into a large enthusiastic grin. "Sir! Welcome home!"
Frost moved past them, his steps quickening as a smile rapidly brightened his face. Without speaking, he took the limping man in his arms as soon as he'd come close enough. Jun watched curiously as the heartfelt hug was more than returned, the older man's face glistening with tears.
"We'd heard some bad news regarding Utoland on the net, Majesty. We'd been deeply concerned that you might have somehow been a part of it."
Jun saw Frost tense and wished heartily that she could see his face.
"No need to worry, old friend, since I've obviously made it back," he said. "Unfortunately, I didn't accomplish as much on this trip as I'd hoped, but I'm whole and I've brought us back some much needed help." Frost released the older man from his embrace and turned to face the team.
The gray hared man's brow raised for a moment as he stared at the group of youths before him. The appraising look however, was quickly replaced by a wide, pleased smile.
"They'll be staying with us for a few days, maybe more," Frost said. "Depending on how things go, they might also help us with that other project we've discussed before."
The older man glanced at Frost inquiringly and then looked back to regard the youths before him a little more closely.
"Everyone, this is my father's most trusted vassal and friend. He is the man most responsible for the present liberation of my country," Frost's voice rang with pride and gratitude. "May I present to you Colten Velissarious."
The older man stood a little more stiffly, the barest hint of red coloring his cheeks.
"Colten, these are Ken, Joe, Ryu, Jinpei - and this is Jun."
Jun watched in surprised amazement as Colten's kind smile abruptly blossomed into true undampable delight at the mention of her name. Before she had a chance to react, Jun found herself the recipient of an unexpected hug. Jun could only stare in shock from Colten's delighted face to Frost's and back again as Colten finally released her. She felt the eyes of her team mates, all as confused by the reaction as she had been, staring at her.
"I'm so glad that you, all of you, have come to stay with us," Colten said. "Please, I'm sure you're all very tired. Let's go up into the castle proper and I'll have refreshments brought for you while I have some rooms prepared for your stay."
Jun looked down in confusion as she found her hand nestled between Colten's own. As he took the lead, she had no choice but to go with him when he didn't let her go. As they walked, Jun noticed his lined face occasionally turned to look at her, his bright blue eyes smiling and a warm expression on his face.
Colten led them through the door he'd originally come through. Jun's breath caught in her throat as her eyes took in the sight of the huge room waiting beyond it. Even more amazing however, was the sea of people idly standing around the huge area at that time of night. The moment Frost walked through the door though, a great cheer rose from them that echoed loudly through the immense room.
With a light flush Jun had never seen on her friend's face before, Frost bowed to the cheering crowd. At his gesture, the crowd as one dropped down to one knee.
"Colten..." The smile on Frost's face never faltered as he whispered his displeasure to his old friend.
"Forgive me, sire, but we were all so worried about you. It seemed only proper that they should be able to welcome you home." A mischievous glint, shone in Colten's blue eyes.
"I see." Frost quickly motioned for the people to stand.
As they did so, smiles broke out all around and a second cheer filled the air. As Colten started forward again with Jun still in hand, the crowd parted instantly before them.
"Man, this feels like one of those parade's of Nambu Hakase's..."
Jun smiled at Jinpei's whispered comment, agreeing whole heartedly with the sentiment.
Walking towards the far side of the huge room, a number of large stalls of machinery became evident to them all. From where the group stood, the sets of machines seemed to run off towards infinity.
"Every facet of weapons manufacturing is housed in this underground facility," Frost informed them. "Mostly self animated, it at one time produced almost a third of Galactor's munitions needs."
Joe whistled appreciatively.
"Have any attempts been made by them yet to take it back?"
The group stopped as Ken aimed his question at Colten and Frost. Frost nodded slightly as Colten's gaze deferred to him.
"They've tested us a bit in the last day or so, but nothing we couldn't handle," Colten said. "The detectors however, that had been installed on the deactivated self-destruct mechanism at your orders, sire, did light up a number of times."
Ken looked genuinely surprised. "They put self-destruct mechanism in this place?"
"Yes," Frost answered. "Katse seems to have a fetish about the things. There's bound to be one in almost any large item that belongs to Galactor." He seemed almost amused. "Fortunately, we were able to find them all before I left. It would appear that Katse has decided that since he can't retake the factory, he'd rather see it destroyed."
Jun felt a slight chill at Frost's ‘matter of fact' tone. For though he didn't say it, if the factory had self-destructed, hundreds of his people would have died as well.
"Since the self-destruct has failed, they will most likely send a mecha to do the job."
Frost nodded agreement to Ken's evaluation. "I would expect so. The only problem is when."
Colten got the group moving again after a few moments and led the way up a set of wall hinged steps up onto a high walkway. "We've been working on upgrading our defenses day and night. Galactor will not find them to be quite the same as when they left."
At the end of a long suspended walkway, they entered a large elevator.
"What was done with all the Galactor men that were here?" The question came softly forward from Ryu who was standing in the rear.
Jun found herself suddenly full of mixed feelings on whether or not she wanted to hear the answer.
"There weren't all that many Galactors here at the time. The threat of what they would do to the king's son was felt, and truly was, more than enough to keep the people in line." Colten glanced back towards him. "The only time our home was truly filled with Galactors was right before the king's death. We gave them no trouble after it came, so most of them left again after a few months. Those that did stay are now quietly filling up the holding pens that were built long ago along with the factory."
"So Frost's father is dead?" The question came unexpectedly from Jinpei. Jun saw his gaze travel to her friend, an almost sad expression on his face.
"Yes, for over a year now," Colten replied. "Though I know they hadn't meant it as such, it was a mercy, really. His majesty had been painfully dying in spirit before us for many years."
Frost's eyes turned dark at Colten's words though his expression didn't vary. Jun remembered the concealed pain she'd glimpsed when he'd spoken to her of his father before.
The elevator doors opened. With a broad smile, Colten led them eagerly out into the quiet splendor before them.
The elevator doors closed behind them and were quickly hidden by a enormous painting of a bloodied warrior on horseback which slid out over the wall. Tall, delicate windows covered the entire right wall, the full moon a clear, crisp image above them.
The high wood paneled walls wove through various hues of natural color, numerous works of classic styled art nestled amongst them. Long settees and French styled chairs sat in small clumps about the room, the whole combination weaving together to give a sense of ease and relaxation.
Colten led a staring Jun to one of the settees and bid her to sit down. "If you will please make yourselves comfortable, it'll only take me a few moments to bring you some refreshements." Bowing slightly towards them, Colten hurried through the room's tall white doors on the far end and left.
Ignoring them all for a moment, Frost moved to the tall windows, gently cradling his wounded arm, and stared at the rising moon.
As the others settled down in the comfortable chairs to wait, Jun got up from her own and joined their host.
"Beautiful, don't you think?" Frost didn't glance at her as he spoke, but continued staring at the dark flowing vista before him.
"Yes," Jun replied softly. "It is." Though his words gave no indication, Jun frowned as she noticed Frost's stiff pose and clenched jaw. "It's hard for you to be here, isn't it."
His gray eyes turned to look at her, his previous tension suddenly draining away. "No, it's not that, not really. More it's that so many things are just as they were when I was taken, yet at the same time so much is different." His voice was low, meant only for her. "I've known this place all my life, and always my father was a part of it, part of its heart and soul. Whenever I thought of home during my captivity, he was always part of those thoughts as well." He turned to stare at the moon again. "There were times I only endured because of him, because I knew he would have wanted me to. It never occurred to me in all those years that he wouldn't be here when I was finally able to return. I suppose I was foolish, thinking him as timeless as our home..."
Jun turned her gaze away from his melancholy pain, not knowing what, if anything, she could do to relieve it. "You told me your father was wealthy, but you never mentioned the fact that he was a king, or that you were a prince."
Slightly amused eyes turned in her direction. "Why? Does it make anything different?"
"Well, no, but it also isn't what I'd call a trivial detail." Jun was pleased to note the subsequent half-grin that appeared on Frost's face.
As promised, Colten soon returned and brought with him two men dressed sharply in black and white uniforms, bearing trays laden with small sandwiches and cups of tea.
"I hope this will be to your satisfaction," he asked.
While the two men attended to the others, Colten personally served Jun and Frost.
After being under their ministrations for several minutes, the servants trying their best to stuff their guests, a gray hared woman, also dressed in black and white, appeared at the room's doorway. She stayed there long enough to catch Colten's eyes and nod in his direction, before disappearing from sight. Colten continued on as he had been before, making sure they were all indulging themselves before getting up to speak. "Sirs, Madame, your rooms are now ready. If you'd care to follow me?"
They all rose from their seats at his request and all but Frost moved to follow him out of the room.
"Please enjoy your rest," Frost said. "I'll see you again in the morning for breakfast. Then we could perhaps talk Colten into giving a tour, if that would be acceptable?"
Nods flowed all around, even from Jinpei, though his was somewhat more hesitant than the others.
"It's set then! Good night." Frost bowed in their direction as they followed Colten out.
From the sitting room, the small group moved into a large hallway. Decorated simply, but still elegantly, the hallway extended over fifty yards before and behind them.
"Sheesh, I'm glad I don't have to clean this place!"
Jun glanced behind her in pleased surprise as Jinpei uttered the most normal thing he'd said in days. It quickly became obvious that she wasn't the only pleased by this, as she noticed the slight grins on the rest of her teammates faces.
Leading them down the hall, passing a number of differently sized doors on the way, Colten turned at a large intersection and brought them into the main foyer of the castle. Two magnificent ironwood doors with gold plated borders rose majestically over their heads. All eyes however, were almost instantly drawn to the plush double set of winding stairs that led upward from the white marbled floor at their feet. A four tiered chandelier, at least seven feet wide, presided over it all.
Looking amused at their wide eyed stares, Colten took hold of Jun's hand again and led them up the dark blue carpeted stairs, his smile growing wider and wider as they went.
"Rooms have been prepared for you in the East wing. Should you find that you require anything, please don't hesitate to let us know." Colten gazed at each of them. "We want your stay with us to be as enjoyable as possible."
Colten warmly patted Jun's hand as they moved down the left side of the hall after reaching the landing. His pace was slow due to his limp, but none of them minded, for it allowed them plenty of time to get a good eyeful of everything they passed.
After a number of turns, they reached a hallway with five open doors. Colten stopped before the first of them. "These will be your rooms during your stay. Fresh fruits and drinks have been provided for your pleasure," he said. "I'll come by in the morning and escort you to breakfast. Would nine be too early?"
They all shook their heads ‘no'.
"Is there anything special you would each prefer?" Colten stared at them expectantly.
Jun and her teammates stared at one another, not having expected the question. "I'm - I'm sure that whatever you think is good would be fine by us."
When the others readily agreed with her suggestion, Colten gave Jun a bright, conspiratorial smile. Seeing each of them to their rooms, Colten continued to hold onto her hand and led her to the last of the five open doors.
Jun quietly closed her door after having bid Colten and the others good night and turned curiously to inspect her room. Set prominently in the center of the room was a luxurious four poster bed. It's dark cherry wood frame held a thick mattress four feet off the floor. A delicate matching vanity sat nestled in a niche at the far corner. A large, French styled armoire covered part of the right wall across from an open door leading to a wide bathroom.
The bedroom, almost twice the size of her own common room, had plush chairs set in a semicircle with a small matching table laden with fruit and drink. A regal fireplace faced the bed, at the moment unlit. A large writing table stood by the entrance, and yet even with all the furniture, the room was far from crowded.
With curious fascination, Jun approached the monstrous seeming bed. The bedspread was of a soft pattern of pinks, whites, and grays. The tall curving poles at the bed's four corners rose almost to the tall ceiling and supported a large canopy. Stepping daintily onto the matching footstool on the side of the bed, Jun slowly clambered up into it. With an intrigued smile, she let her body sink into the huge mattress even as she stared with delight at the canopy above.
Jun had only been lying there for a few seconds and already she could feel her body starting to relax and her eyes grow heavy. For a wispy moment, she wondered how the others were reacting to their own rooms. Her mind tried to picture her brother's small body being swallowed up by the enormous bed. It was all she could do to stifle a giggle.
She sobered quickly as she realized that for once, not only was she alone, but she knew where he brother was as well. And there was some definite unfinished business between them...
Getting up out of the bed, even as part of her sorely regretted doing so, Jun headed for the door. Opening it quietly, she glanced out into the hallway at her teammates' doors and saw that they were all closed. Stepping out and closing her own behind her, Jun silently made her way to her brother's room.
Jun stood before his door for a long moment, trying to work up her nerve. After a half minute, she finally raised her hand and gently knocked on the door.
As she waited for the door to open, Jun felt herself growing more nervous, her previous results with her brother gnawing hungrily away at her resolve. She was just starting to think that perhaps this hadn't been such a good idea when the door before her opened. Her eyes latched onto her brother's as he looked up and stared at her with unconcealed surprise.
"May I come in?"
Jinpei's large brown eyes, which had so briefly locked with her own, broke away as he moved wordlessly out of the way to let her in.
Jun rushed in seeing a room that in most ways mirrored her own, except it reflected a much more masculine demeanor. As she spotted the huge bed, she had a hard time suppressing a smile as she noticed the already rumpled blue and brown covers.
Unsure now that she was here as to what exactly she should say, Jun walked the length of the room before turning back to look at him. She caught a glimpse of his eyes as they moved hurriedly from her to the floor, even as he leaned lightly against the closed door behind him. A thick silence hung between them as neither of them made an immediate move to speak.
"How - how do you like the room?" Jun asked.
Jinpei's eyes continued to intently inspect the polished wooden floor. "It's all right."
Jun walked slowly to the large dresser on her side of the room as the awkward silence settled back between them. Distractedly, Jun opened one of the drawers. The emptiness there abruptly and painfully reminded her of the state of her own home. Her throat grew tight as she continued staring at the drawer's lonely interior. "Are you... Are you planning on moving permanently out of the Snack J?"
She heard him gasp at the question but didn't raise her gaze to look at him.
"Do, do you want me to?" Jinpei's voice quivered lightly as he spoke.
Jun looked up and saw that he'd turned away to face the door. "Do you?"
He didn't turn to face her as he answered. "Only... only if you've decided you don't want me back..."
"Jinpei..." Jun automatically started towards him, hearing the misery and need for reassurance in his voice. She was halfway to him when she suddenly brought herself short. "I never asked you to leave." She saw his back immediately stiffen. "Your room was never closed off to you, neither was I."
"I never wanted to leave at all!" Jinpei brusquely turned to face her, tears glistening in his eyes. He started into her shocked face for a moment and then turned away again. "I messed up, neechan. I was so confused! I couldn't talk to you and you were so..." Jun heard him bring himself up short. "What else was there for me to do? I thought maybe things would get better if I just went away. I didn't know that he was -- I never meant - to hurt anybody..."
Jun's heart twisted inside her at his tortured sigh.
"You can do with me whatever you want, neechan..."She knew this wasn't nearly enough, that his feelings should do nothing to ease her anger and pain. She shouldn't even consider forgiving him for having thought so little of her, to have thought of her as a traitor....
Jinpei stared at the door tears stinging his eyes. He would find out now how badly he'd messed up everything. He'd find out if his life could ever go back to being what it had been before. He shook feeling deep inside that it was too late and all his hopes futile.
Jinpei cringed involuntarily as Jun grabbed him by the arms and spun him around. With a small despairing whimper, he clamped his eyes shut, not wanting to see the punishment that was coming, not wanting to see his sister's angry face, though he deserved nothing less.
Rather than the blow he expected, Jinpei found himself pulled forward, pressed against his sister's body even as Jun's arms wrapped themselves tightly against his gangly frame. In startled surprise, he felt something warm fall on his shoulder even as Jun continued to hold him tight.
Her voice whispered in his ear, full of emotion. "What I'm going to do with you is to force you to be stuck with me for the rest of your life!"
Jinpei gasped as the implications of Jun's words slowly dawned on him. His strength left him, suddenly giddy with relief. He would make this up to her, he would! She'd never have to worry about him doubting her ever again. Happy tears rolled down his face as he eagerly returned his sister's embrace.
Just as he'd promised, Colten returned for them the next morning promptly at nine to lead them down to breakfast. Taking the group of five down another set of stairs, which were only slightly less grandiose than the ones they'd ascended the night before, Colten led them towards the rear of the large castle and out through a set of resplendent French doors. They walked out into a wide stone patio spilling into a well groomed lawn beyond.
Fifty yards from the doors, a large iron and glass table with matching chairs, had been set out for them in the lush grass. Frost was already there waiting for them and stood up to greet them warmly as they approached.
"I hope everything has been to you satisfaction so far?" Frost pulled out the chair closest to his own, even as Colten deftly steered Jun towards it.
"Yes, everything's fine," Ken replied. He moved towards the chair next to Jun's but suddenly found himself cut off as Jinpei swooshed around him and plopped into it. Surprised, and rather pleased, Ken smiled and moved to find another chair.
Jinpei's action was not lost on any of them. Sets of pleased smiles suddenly burst all around.
Frost asked Colten to join them and then bid them all to eat their fill. Before them were trays filled with omelets, steamed and fried potatoes, cheeses, fruit. Never needing to be told more than once, Ryu and Jinpei immediately plunged onto their breakfasts with gusto. Though eventually stuffed, both still managed to make room for a couple of the scrumptious pastries that had been saved for last.
Rolling off their seats, the two of them followed the others as Frost prodded Colten to tell them of Linthinium and its castle during the promised morning tour.
The number and variety of rooms within the castle rapidly left a number of them disoriented and overwhelmed by information. Most of the rooms were of some classic style, and some were sprinkled with modern conveniences and technology. There were rooms for almost every purpose imaginable.
Colten pleasantly explained that a majority of what they were seeing had been slowly added on by past generations. A large number of the rooms had been kept over the years due to their uniqueness and value as family history: Great-gram Clarisse's extensive clock collection, great-great-uncle Mordred's grand ball room, great-grandfather Charlemagne's library. Jinpei went almost wild with glee at great-great-great-uncle Hubert's grand bug collection. After a few amusing minutes watching Jinpei run from display to exquisite display shouting odd incomprehensible Latin names, they'd been forced to pry him away before they'd been able to move on.
Colten, in his slow way, showed the group every nook and cranny of the castle, happily telling stories of each room and ancestor associated with each. Later, with great reverence, he led them outside and solemnly pointed out to them the still unmarked grave of Linthinium's last ruler.
For the first time, Ken thought that he might have found something in common with the strange, light hared prince. The signs of pain on Frost's face that he tried so hard to conceal as they stood there too closely resembled the ones he bore over his own father.
Lunch was as splendid as breakfast. The food disappeared even as Colten was bombarded with questions about this or that room or ancestor. Each member of the team was fascinated in his or her own way by the things he had to say. To some it was a taste of things that had been denied them. For some of the others, it was a chance to see the true complexities of family lineage, for which in their own cases they didn't exist or they'd never thought much on them.
After lunch, Colten took them on a tour of the lavish gardens surrounding the castle. He even led them to a tall hill from which they could catch a good view of the village set nearby while at the same time giving them all a chance to rest.
When they returned indoors, Colten led them to the sitting room they'd first used to enter the castle proper. He touched a hidden button on the side of the large painting of the warrior on horseback, and the latter slid up into the ceiling to show them the elevator beyond. Once they'd all climbed on board, Colten took them down to the Galactor facility below them.
"This may sound strange, but in some ways my country has much to thank Galactor for." Frost's eyes twinkled at the shocked expressions now surrounding him. "Linthinium has never been a rich country. The castle above us only came to be by a slow process of refinement, much of the work literary done by the hands of the rulers at the time." He smiled.
"We've always been a simple, if sometimes sly, people. Most of our investments have been in foreign markets, which allowed us to improve our standards while still letting us preserve our own simple ways.
"Galactors intrusion into our lives, while never asked for, has nevertheless given us a number of things we would have never obtained otherwise."
"And what exactly is that?" Joe gave him a strange look.
Frost's smile grew wider. "Because of their own needs and methods, Galactor brought us a lot of top-of-the-line technology and know-how to our doorstep while simultaneously practicing the finest aspects of conservation and preservation. Due to their efforts, because of their need to keep their intrusion here a secret, they gave us a manufacturing complex that can serve virtually any need, and yet retain undamaged the beauty of our lands. Thanks to them, we have been able to keep all the things we've always treasured, while at the same time using the knowledge they gave us to run these machines, fix them, reshape them to do whatever we might wish."
Surprised glances were quickly exchanged in the elevator as they all began to realize the extent of what was being said.
"For the castle, they did more than we ever could have. Being masters of disguise and not used to our extent of simplicity, they added on generators and gadgets that extended to every corner and room, yet still preserved the exact look and feel of the original. Inadvertently as it may have been, they spent a great deal of capital on our behalf. Think how utterly disgusted they must feel as they realize all this now that we've taken it from them. Think of how much worse they will feel if we can succeed in keeping it from them."
As Colten led them down the high walkways they'd followed the night before, he started telling them about the underground facility. They boarded a small transport that sat waiting for them on the ground floor, even as Colten pointed out a number of the munitions machines that were already in a partial state of reconfiguration for the production of other finished goods. State of the art robotic units moved among the machines, in the midst of men and women in bright colored coveralls, who supervised their work. Ken was sure that Nambu would have been utterly fascinated.
Whenever any of the living workers spotted them and noticed who was riding within, broad smiles and reverent bows always followed.
"Are all these people from the village?" Ken asked.
"Some are, but most come from other villages," Frost answered. "Not long ago we initiated a slow migration down into the bowels of the complex, sure that sooner or later Galactor would become aware that the facility was no longer theirs." He pointed off in the direction they were traveling. "There's a large open area close to the first set of mines that has been slowly enlarged over time. It would have eventually been used to build a Galactor base once the mountain's contents had been tapped out. We've decided to use it for our own purposes. It's what's made the migration possible."
Even as he spoke, the road before them merged with a number of others, leaving the huge machines behind. The wider road sloped gently downwards into a broad open doorway. Light shone brightly down on them as they passed into a gigantic domed room. Men and machines moved within it in a beehive frenzy. Buildings stretched before them as far as they could see, many in different stages of construction. As their transport wove through the rising steel and concrete giants, the true immensity of the place started to sink in.
Twenty minutes later, after traversing the entirety of the domed room, the transport followed the outskirts of the growing city until it reached several yawning openings in the raw wall on the far side.
"These are some of the open shafts that were previously used for mining." Frost pointed at the dark holes before them. "As each vein was tapped out, the dirt from the new shaft was used to fill up the old."
From their current vantage point, they could see the metal rails that lined the sides of the wide shafts as they wound into the darkness beyond.
They then made their way back to where the underground tour had begun.
"As you have seen, Galactor truly can't afford to lose this place." Frost's voice was quiet. "I'm hoping that we won't have much longer to wait before they make their move." His eyes sought Ken's. "If we can prove to Berg Katse that retaking this place might cost him more than the organization is willing to pay, we might just be able to get him to leave us alone for a while. With time, we hope to get ourselves to the point where we would be able to defend ourselves if they came again. That or have the good fortune of having someone else take care of Katse for us."
"I'd be happy to take care of that little job for you." Joe gave him a fierce humorless grin.
Ken stared at Frost sharply. "Don't you want to extract some kind of personal revenge for what Katse's done to you and your father?"
He noticed Jun's eyes on him, a shocked look on her face. Ken ignored it, keeping his attention on Frost's, curious to understand his motives.
The transport came to a stop and they all got off.
For a long time Frost said nothing, his face unreadable. "Violence would get me nothing. It wouldn't bring back my father or even the years we lost. It would only serve to soil my soul."
Ken had to strain to hear his answer.
"But yes, I want revenge, revenge for what's he's done to me, to my father, to my people. But violence is not the answer - there are other more cruel ways to make Katse and his organization regret what they've done to us." Frost's eyes were clear as he turned to give Ken his answer. "Keeping this factory from his clutches is but one of them. Letting him know that I'm still alive is another. Then there's that small business that I'm hoping you will have a chance to help me with, that should more than recompense him for everything he's done."
"Well, that's all well and good, for I'm sure that to humiliate Katse a little wouldn't hurt a bit." Joe's eyes were bright. "But to feel his squirming, scrawny neck in my hands would bring a thousand times more gratification and would be more humiliating to him than anything else you could come up with." Joe clenched his hands before him around Katse's imaginary neck with a great amount of vigor.
"Ah, yes..." Frost nodded slightly and then turned his gaze away and moved on.
Ken saw Jun flash Joe a withering look. Ken found it both amusing and troubling at the same time. Jinpei and Ryu, one after the other gave their teammate reproachful glances.
With a surprised and suddenly sheepish look on his face, Joe turned questioningly to look at Ken. "What'd I do?"
Instead of leading the group back up the ramps to the elevator, Frost moved on past the last of the banks of machinery and stepped on through a small, unassuming doorway against the far wall. Going in after him, the team's attention was immediately drawn to the banks of monitor screens that covered the room's curved wall. Views flashed past each of them from all over the compound and beyond. Other screens littered the instrument panels that sat on consoles that also curved around the room. A set of large computer panels totally covered the area by the door.
The ten people that sat in the room in the chairs set evenly before the consoles, stood up and bowed as they all walked in. Frost quickly waved them to be seated again.
"This is the main control center," Frost said. "Originally designed to deal mainly with the monitoring of the manufacturing machinery, it's now been modified so that it monitors our defenses instead." He inclined his head, giving the team permission to look around.
Ken and the others split up to check the system, finally coming upon something with which they were familiar. The set up was simple, but thorough. All the incoming data was set up to be checked by both humans and computers. It quickly became apparent that a larger number of cameras fed information here than he'd originally guessed.
After checking the system for a few minutes, the group took their leave and allowed those inside to get back to work.
"You definitely seem to have things well in hand... Perhaps too well?"
Frost arched a tall brow at Ken's soft remark and then laughed. "Yes, it does look almost too good doesn't it?" He turned away from him and opened his arms gesturing at everything that lay about them. "None of this sprang up overnight," he said. "While some of the setup is only a few months old, the foundation for the current systems had been slowly sneaked into place over the last ten to thirteen years.
"My father was never one to sit idle. Since my imprisonment, all he ever worked towards was my liberation as well as that of his subjects. All I did was pick up where he left off." Frost turned back to face them his face calm yet at the same time unreadable.
"I beg you to feel free to inspect whatever you wish. If you find something that you feel is untoward, I won't hold you here if you decide to leave. While I very much appreciate your help, I would rather not have it if we can't have mutual trust between us."
Ken didn't back down from the pointed gray stare. "I apologize if I gave you the wrong impression. I hadn't meant to imply that there was anything suspicious on your part." Ken let his eyes sweep about the plant again before once more meeting Frost's own. "It's Galactor... This facility has been lost to them for months, yet they did nothing. Only when you came to Utoland and contacted one of us did they try anything against this facility. And all they did then was test your defenses and try to activate self-destruct mechanisms that more than likely they'd already surmised wouldn't function. It's now been days since that discovery and still they've mounted no true concentrated effort to retake the factory." Ken stared at Frost intently as he brought his point home. "Something doesn't feel right about it."
Frost broke away from Ken's clear-blue stare and looked at the rest of the team a look of apology shinning in his eyes even as a small smile tugged at his lips. "You don't know how glad it makes me to hear you say that, Commander. I've been feeling exactly the same way, but wasn't sure if it was something I should pay heed to or something I should simply dismiss as paranoia." He shrugged his shoulders, his gaze turning towards Ken again. "While it does reassure me that someone else sees this situation as I do, at the same time it also worries me all the more. It is extremely queer that the excessive action that Galactor exhibited in Utoland hasn't also been reflected here."
"I'm sure it won't be much longer," Jun said.
"Galactors aren't known for their patience," Joe quipped in.
Frost smiled. "A useful tool, that."
"Yeah, you know it!" This came from Jinpei.
"Anyone for tea?"
Colten led them back into the castle proper, light conversation and more Galactor bashing going on between them. Jun felt a number of the worries that had grown over the last few days become even more muted and unimportant. Instead, though they were in unfamiliar surroundings, she felt the old tension building up inside that always came upon them when they had to while away the hours before an upcoming mission. Jun found that it even helped drive home the fact that things were alright again.
"Sir, if you will excuse me, I need to go make the proper arrangements for dinner this evening. Is there anywhere in particular that you would like it served?"
Though the question seemed harmless enough, Jun noticed a strange twinkle in Colten's eyes as he asked the question. It made her suddenly nervous as she noticed the same look in their host's eyes as well.
"I think the main dinning hall would be appropriate. I think our guests would enjoy being served there."
Jun saw Ryu and Jinpei trade startled glances. "Is the main one the big one?" Jinpei asked.
A small grin tugged at Frost's face though Jun could tell he was trying hard to remain serious. "Yes, the very same."
"All right!" Jinpei and Ryu traded high fives.
Jun saw Joe's brow go up, his expression clearly conveying that he didn't see what would be so great about eating in such a large room.
Colten took his leave.
"I'm afraid that I'm going to have to leave you as well." Frost nodded apologetically. "There are a few items that I'd like to take care of before dinner." The twinkle had never left his eyes. "By the way, dinner is served at eight." He glanced over at Ryu and Jinpei. "I wouldn't suggest you keep Colten waiting."
Two eager faces stared into his own. "We wouldn't think of it." "No way!"
Jun brought up her hand to hide a smile. She was a little surprised when Frost came to stand at her side.
"Beautiful One, could I have a word with you for a moment?"
Jun nodded quickly and moved to follow him even as she wondered what this could be about.
A light snicker sounded out behind her but was quickly stifled. Jun resisted turning around to see who'd done it, embarrassed by Frost's knick name enough as it was. She tried to distract herself from the nervousness she felt rising inside her, by devising ways to put whomever had laughed through living hell.
Frost led Jun out of the room they were in and closed the door behind them. "Well, what do you think of the place?"
"It's - it's like nothing I could have ever imagined. It's wonderful!" She thought it was more than that, but couldn't think of a better way to express it. "You must be very happy to have finally made it back. I'm sure you missed it terribly."
Frost nodded slowly, his eyes staring intently at her, a bright smile glowing on his face. "I wanted you to know how very much I appreciated your kindness to me back in Utoland. In return for that kindness, I've taken the liberty of acquiring some clothes for you just as you did for me. It would please me greatly if you would do me the honor of wearing them tonight." His eyes danced. "I would really like to see you in them."
Jun blinked, staring in shock at him, surprised that he'd gotten her a gift. "I - I appreciate it, but... It really wasn't necessary."
"Yes, yes, but will you wear them?" Frost stepped up close to her, trapping her eyes with his own.
Jun found it suddenly hard to breathe under his intent stare. "Y-yes, all right, I will... Thank you." Jun felt a pleasant chill cut through her as he reached out and gently stroked her flushed cheek.
"No, Beautiful One, thank you."
With a blindingly bright smile, Frost left her and moved down the large hallway without another word.
Jun watched him, lightly shaking her head as he went on his way. She felt strange, and she wasn't at all sure she'd ever understand it. With a small sigh, she turned away and walked back into the rooms were the others waited.
"Neechan, is something wrong?"
"Huh?" Jun looked up distractedly from where she'd unconsciously stopped in the open doorway. Jinpei was staring at her worriedly, and so were the others as well. Jun felt the light frown that had grown on her brow and made it disappear.
"No, nothing's wrong... I... no, nothing." Jun made herself move out of the doorway, and avoided the others' gazes. Awkwardly, she walked to one of the serving tables and made herself a cup of tea.
Jun turned to stare at the gorgeous view from the room's large windows, the silence that now dominated the room never registering in her mind. When she finished her tea, she set the cup down and looked at her teammates, who suddenly found other things to look at. Jun frowned a little, but went on. "I think I'm going to go rest up a bit before dinner. See you guys at eight?"
Getting a bunch of non-committal responses, Jun left the room and followed the large hall to the main staircase. As she came near, her footsteps began to quicken on their own. Goaded on by the sudden desire to find out what Frost had gotten for her, Jun almost ran the rest of the way to her room.
The sight that greeted her there stopped her before she'd gone two steps into the room.
Her eyes first moved to the delicate vanity on the far wall of her room which was no longer empty. It lay almost to overflowing with a profusion of perfume bottles, pearl handled hair brushes, scented powders, colors, and jeweled pins.
At least ten pairs of shoes were lined up at the foot of her bed and a large selection of undergarments lay strewn over the mattress. The large armoire was open, a single cloth wrapped garment hung within.
"Ah, Mistress Jun!"
Startled, Jun's eyes moved away from the mysterious dress to the white hared woman coming out of the room's adjoining bathroom.
"My name is Claire, mistress, and I am to have the pleasure of assisting you for the evening." The older woman smiled pleasantly, and Jun recalled that she had been the one who'd traded looks with Colten the evening before. "I've already taken the liberty of drawing your bath. Would you like to partake of it now?"
"I... I..." Jun stared at the woman before her and what she represented, with both wonder and horror. She'd expected to find something nice waiting for her in her room, but this, this was beyond all her expectations. She wasn't sure she could deal with it. "I - I have to go."
Without waiting for a reaction from Claire, Jun turned around and rushed out the way she'd come.
As she hurried down the hall away from her room, Jun found it suddenly hard to breathe. Turning down the first connecting corridor that presented itself, she stopped breathlessly beside a large cabinet filled with archaic weapons and hid herself on its other side. Sliding her back down the paneled wall, Jun placed her flushed face on her knees and tried to steady her breathing.
Confusion laced her thoughts, Jun not understanding her own reactions. Frost had meant nothing bad by his gesture; she should be feeling flattered not half scared to death! Why was she afraid? Did it really have to bother her so much that she might actually enjoy what he had given her?
Jun almost laughed out loud at the twisted logic of the thought. Why was she refusing this? Wasn't it the dream of every girl to be treated like a fairy princess? To be able to wear the beautiful dress she knew was waiting for her in the armoire? Surely she wasn't terrified by this solely because she'd always tried never to allow herself the dreams of other girls? She had her own dreams, her own goals, of course - but they were more sane, more realistic. Even if at times they seemed no less reachable... Her youth and then her job had allowed for nothing else and she'd learned to live with that. So why did this scare her? Was it only because she'd never allowed herself such dreams? Was it because unlike other girls she would actually get to experience something this fanciful for this one night? Jun gave a quivering sigh.
She was a team member of Gatchaman. She'd helped save the world numerous times. Surely she could handle something as small as this? Jun tried hard to bolster her courage. She could handle, she would handle this. Jun made herself slowly rise to her feet.
Besides, she told herself, she'd promised him she would, hadn't she? Jun recalled the eagerness in Frost's eyes and felt herself blush.
More nervous that she was willing to admit even to herself, Jun stiffly moved out from behind the cabinet and started back towards her room.
"I don't know what happened. I asked Mistress Jun is she was ready for her bath and she just ran from the room." Claire's voice was filled with anxiety. "I don't understand!" The white hared woman wrung her hands in obvious agitation.
"Don't worry, I will go look for her." Colten's tone was calm. "I'm sure that everything is all right."
Jun, standing at the door, had to use everything she had not to slink away before they spotted her. She stared at the floor and forced herself to speak. "Don't bother. I'm here." She glanced at them, her eyes half filling with tears. "I'm sorry." Jun dropped her gaze back to the floor before her eyes had a chance to betray her.
"Is something not to your liking?" Colten limped towards her, genuine worry adding to the lines on his face. "Have we inadvertently offended you in some way?"
"No, no, it's nothing like that!" Jun clamped down on the repeated impulse to run, even as she felt guilty at the worry she'd caused them. "I - I was just, just a little overwhelmed that's all..." She tried hard to smile.
"Our prince has always had a tendency to go for all or nothing." Colten's voice held an amused tone.
Despite herself, Jun suddenly found her curiosity aroused. Better to think about Frost than the ordeal that lay ahead of her. "Can you, would you tell me about him? Is he at all like he was before - before he left?"
Colten momentarily turned away to nod at Claire, even as he took Jun's hands and drew her further into the room. Jun glanced at Claire nervously as she moved quietly past her and closed the room's door. She gave Jun a curious smile as she headed off to the bathroom.
"In some ways, he is still very much as he was - there is still a great deal of the adventurous and curious boy I had known then." Colten's voice grew softer. "Since his return, I have noticed a lot of his father in him as well. He has a core that is as strong and stubborn as his father's ever was. Yet though he never really knew her, Michael has many of the softer qualities that so endeared his mother to the king." His gentle eyes met Jun's own. "She was quite beautiful, somewhat like yourself."
Jun looked away, feeling her cheeks grow warm.
"Michael thinks very highly of you, and I must admit it is easy to see why. You truly would honor us all greatly if you would accept his gift."
All Jun could trust herself to do was nod.
"Please enjoy it. It's what it was meant for." Colten patted Jun's cold hands and drew her even deeper into the room.
Claire reappeared from the bathroom. "I've warmed your bath, Mistress Jun. Would you care to take it now?"
Jun threw an uneasy glance at Colten. The old man smiled gently, his eyes telling her there was nothing to fear, even as he patted her hands again.
Jun tried to take as much courage from that as she could. "Yes, thank you. I would." She squeezed Colten's hand in gratitude as he let her go. "Thank you."
"I aim but to serve." Giving her a wide smile, Colten bowed towards her and then proceeded to take his leave.
With a small sigh, Jun straightened herself and with as much determination as she could, walked to Claire's waiting smile.
"That woman was so rude! All I wanted to do was talk to neechan for a minute. She wouldn't even let me past the door!" Jinpei paced, looking indignant as he ranted at the others, all of them standing beneath the bright magnificence of the huge chandelier at the bottom of the double staircase. The four male members of the Gatchaman team had been standing there for several minutes waiting for their last member to join them before going off to dinner.
"The old bag told me to wait outside, or better still to wait down here. She said Jun would be seen at eight and not a moment sooner." He grimaced. "I wanted to smack that ugly smirk right off her face!"
"Maybe she just didn't appreciate the way you look."
Jinpei sent Joe a reproachful glare. They were all dressed in their team uniforms, their jeans and t-shirts, just as they always were.
"Perhaps we shouldn't be taking this all that lightly."
All eyes turned to look at Ken's slightly frowning face even as he continued to stare back the way they had come.
"Come on, Jun's a big girl," Joe said. "What could that woman do to her anyway? If something was really wrong, we would have noticed it by now."
Ken glanced back at Joe and softly shook his head. "Even so, Joe, we haven't seen her for a number of hours. I think I will go up to check on her, I want to -" Ken paused in mid-sentence as he suddenly saw the others stiffen their gazes fixed on the top of the stairs.
Not sure what to expect, especially after Jinpei's wide eyed exclamation, Ken moved to look in the same direction as the others. His questioning gaze was stopped cold as it was drawn in by the bright apparition coming slowly down the broad winding stairs.
Ken blinked twice before he realized he knew who was coming towards them. The shape so easily outlined in the glittering pearl and emerald studded dress was the same one that he'd worked with every day for several years.
Long white gloves hid Jun's shapely arms past the elbows. Strings of pearls set in small loops on the fabric of the dress pronounced the soft curve of her breasts. The white shimmering fabric hugged her tightly before falling straight to the floor where it spread out behind her. Her creamy shoulders lay bare except for pearl straps merging into the dress. A delicate necklace of diamonds rested easily around her neck and flowed towards the merest hint of cleavage below.
Jun's long hair had been lifted above her head in soft loops held in place by diamond and emerald pins. The deep green in both the dress and pins brought out the usually subdued tones of her hair. Her eyes, shadowed with just a hint of color on the lids, were shinning almost as brightly as beacons as she moved silently towards them.
Ken found himself totally captivated. This image of Jun, of his teammate, his fellow warrior, he could never have imagined it in his wildest dreams. She was truly beautiful!
Jun smiled at her brother's reaction. She felt nervous tingles rising through her as she felt her teammates attentions riveted on her. With intense curiosity, mingled with foreboding, Jun dared to chance a glance in Ken's direction. His clear blue eyes met her proving gaze, but he quickly looked away. Not before she'd seen the awe in his eyes however.
"Jun you look wonderful!"
Jun happily indulged Ryu with a grateful smile even as he stumbled over his words in his eagerness to say them.
Joe slyly sauntered up to her and looked her over with an overtly critical eye. "Yes, I suppose some people might believe this could be Jun. But I know that you have to be a Galactor impostor. Our Jun could never look this pretty!"
Her teammate grinned wickedly at her even as her nervous enjoyment and duplicitous embarrassment at the obvious flattery were betrayed by her rapidly coloring cheeks.
"Would mademoiselle allow us poor, unworthy men, the honor of escorting her to dinner?" Joe asked.
Giving his unrepentant face a half-hearted frown, Jun quickly agreed.
Joe, followed by Ryu, Jinpei, and a rather hesitant Ken, all bowed to Jun. Joe grabbed Ken and dragged him behind Jun to form part of a square, leaving Jinpei and Ryu to fill the front positions.
Feeling rather foolish and at the same time exhilarated by her friends' unnecessary attentions, Jun walked between her strutting escorts to the dinning hall.
With a little surprise, they all noticed the two very fancily dressed men standing to either side of the closed dinning room doors. At their approach, the two men moved as one and opened the doors for them bowing as they passed.
The room beyond was brightly lit by a number of simple yet still grand chandeliers, which hung at ten foot intervals from the ceiling. The polished floor echoed their steps as they approached the enormous table with the high backed chairs set before them. Several lit candelabras adorned the long table. The latter was large enough to accommodate at least a hundred people, yet only seven plate settings had been cozily set together at the far end.
Colten, smartly dressed in a dark blue suit, moved slowly towards them as they approached the table. He glided in smoothly between Ryu and Jinpei and took Jun's hand to lead her to her seat.
Jun tried to slow her speeding heart as she spotted Frost standing at the far end behind one of the high backed chairs. She stared at the bright floor as Colten led her forwards, a bout of self-consciousness bolting through her now that she stood before her benefactor. He pulled out the chair next to his, and Jun felt herself flush intensely at his proximity. After a few moments, no longer able to bear not knowing what he thought of what he'd wrought, Jun gathered her courage and shyly glanced up to look at their host.
As she had seen him the first time they'd met, Frost was dressed in white. The Austriana styled cut attire had brocades of gold marking his cuffs and collar, with ruffles cascading down his V cut jacket. The long chain and pendant that Jun had come to find out represented his family crest, was in full view, the grayish metal and his own eyes gleaming out at her past all the white.
Jun's eyes locked for a moment with his and she felt her cheeks burn hotter than ever before. The smile that followed his intense gaze told Jun all she'd wanted to know.
"Thank you for coming." Frost's eyes lingered on her own a moment longer before sweeping out towards the others. "Everyone has gone out of their way to outdo themselves tonight. I hope you will enjoy it." He gestured for the rest of them to take their seats.
As if on cue, the far doors to the dinning hall opened and a stream of sharply dressed men and women began pouring in carrying lavish dishes of food.
Colten stood up as they came close. "Since it has been so long since Linthinium has held such noteworthy and honored guests, plus of course willing to use any excuse to try and show the full extents of their talents; I'm proud to announce that our dear cooking staff has prepared a long discourse on the most preferred and famed dishes of our small country. It is their hope that you will be entirely delighted."
With twinkling eyes, the members of the science ninja team watched in fascination as round after round of delectable creations were brought before them.
First they were served a small green salad with a dark biting dressing. This was quickly followed by a light soup sprinkled with cheeses and crunchy noodles. Later came steamed vegetables, fried vegetables, vegetables smothered in thick sauce. Meat, chicken, pork, quail, one after the other came past them, all covered with exotic sauces and spices. For the piece de resistance, they were served apples cooked in red wine and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
They all tried every dish that was passed before them, a sampling of each left behind on the table in case they wanted more. Jun and the others ate in continuous fascination, mesmerized as even their drinks changed with every dish.
Frost ate, a smile on his lips, as he too sampled each concoction with as much relish as his guests. Jun found herself watching him now and then, buoyed by his enjoyment, though she always turned away whenever his gaze rose towards her own.
The meal slowly trickled to a halt after a long delicious hour. Jun stared at her desert, the smell of it tickling her nose, yet knowing that if she tried to eat it she was bound to explode out of her gorgeous dress. She couldn't understand how Ryu and Jinpei hadn't burst already - the way they'd been gobbling down everything in sight. From the way Ken and Joe were leaning back in their seats, Jun knew they felt as bloated as she did. Jun glanced over at Frost as he set down his fork on his newly emptied plate.
When Ryu and Jinpei had finally had enough, they all sat quietly for a number of minutes trying to give their bodies a chance to recover from the amazingly large intake of food.
"Would any of you like anything else?"
Jun almost groaned with the rest of her teammates at Colten's seemingly innocent question. She couldn't help but notice the amused smile showing in his eyes.
"Perhaps you'd care for some entertainment then? While your stomachs' settle?" Colten's suggestion didn't receive any dissenting groans, but neither did it seem to spark much enthusiasm. "We do have a number of video games and even some Americana films on video. Would either of these prove of interest?"
"Video games? Here? Really?" Jinpei's face lit up, bringing him back to life from where he'd been sitting brimming to overflowing with what he'd eaten.
"Oh yes, most definitely, young sir."
"All right! That sounds great!" His bright face turned to his friend. "Come on, Ryu, I'm gonna beat the pants off ya!" Carelessly forgetting about his own overstuffed condition, Jinpei jumped out of his chair and vigorously pulled on Ryu's arm so he'd join him.
Ryu eventually rose, but did so very, very slowly. The others rose after him, even as Ryu waddled behind Jinpei and Colten. Ken and Joe were next, none of them noticing as Frost moved silently next to Jun and placed his hand on her gloved arm, silently asking her to stay. Jun stared at him curiously, wondering what he had in mind now.
Colten led the small group to a small study. Under Jinpei's eager questions, he revealed a number of screens and games hidden behind the paneled walls. It was only once Jinpei challenged Ryu to their first game that Ken noticed Jun wasn't with them.
"Joe, have you seen Jun?"
"No, though I thought she was right behind us." He shrugged. "It's not as though we don't know who she's with though."
Joe watched Ken frown, and then gave a quick glance at Colten as the latter headed for the door. As soon as he was out of earshot, Joe turned to Ken again.
"You have to admit that it makes sense for her not to be here. Video games and fairy tales don't mix you know."
"What do you mean?"
Joe stared at his commander in surprise. Surely he hadn't meant that? Was Ken trying to put one over on him? "You're actually going to stand there and tell me that you don't have any idea?"
Ken frowned. "Any idea about what?"
Joe took a good long look at Ken's obvious confusion and suddenly couldn't hold back as a fit of laughter rose wickedly inside him.
He saw Ken's ire rise. "I don't find this at all funny, Joe!"
This only fueled Joe into further laughter. This was hilarious! How could his friend be ever so dense? The fit got so bad that Joe was forced to wrap his arms about his midriff as mild pain flowed through his aching sides he was laughing so hard.
"Aniki, what's going on?"
Ken looked over his shoulder at Jinpei and Ryu, both of whom were staring towards both of them, their game currently on pause.
"It's nothing, Jinpei. It's just Joe thinking he's very funny." The lack of humor in his voice goaded Joe on.
He in no way resisted as he found Ken roughly grabbing him by the arm and dragging him out into the hallway.
"Dammit, Joe, stop that! What's this all about?"
Tears of laughter rolled down Joe's face even as he tried to get himself under control. "Well, it's - after all - so absolutely - obvious!" The thought of it just made him laugh harder.
The anger in Ken's tone threatened to make Joe lose what little headway he'd been able to make so far. The fire burning in his friend's blue eyes didn't help at all either. Having no choice, Joe closed his eyes and turned away from him to lean against the wall and tried to catch his breath. When he felt more in control, he opened his eyes again and turned to face him, even as a smile tugged against his lips when he saw the deep scowl now bearing down on him.
"You see, fearless leader," Joe looked away a fit of laughter rose inside him again as Ken's scowl deepened, "Michael Frost is making a move on Jun."
"What do you mean ‘he's making a move'?"
Joe shook his head, still unable to believe his friend's inability to seemingly understand what he was talking about. Even Ken couldn't be this dense, could he? "Uh - Ken, - making a move, a pass, impressing the girl, feeling the goods, going for the gusto, first base - you know!"
Joe saw understanding slowly flicker in Ken's eyes. A shadow crossed his scowling features, but it was gone before Joe could make some sense of it.
"I see, " Ken said. And then without another word, moved to turn away.
Joe spoke out, this being too precious to just leave alone. "If he keeps going in the same vein he has so far, I'll bet you twenty that I know where and what they're doing right now." He felt a mischievous grin tugging at the edge of his mouth.
He was a little surprised though when Ken's head snapped around to stare at him, a look of panic flashing through his eyes. "What? Where!"
It was just too delicious! "Do we have a bet?"
"Joe, just tell me where they are!"
An inkling of suspicion rose in Joe's mind at the hurried urgency in Ken's voice. "No go, not unless you take the bet."
Ken exploded in his face. "Damn you, Joe! You can have your damn twenty dollars! Just tell me where."
Joe could barely keep his face straight as his suspicion was confirmed. This was just too rich! If that was what he thought, who was he to spoil it for him? "Why tell you, when I can show you?"
Joe almost lost his composure as he saw the horrified look that came over Ken's face at his reply.
"Yeah, come on!"
Ignoring his friend's protest, Joe grabbed Ken's belt and pulled him along. He led him down a number of corridors and then up a set of small stairs.
"I went exploring before dinner. Found out all sorts of secret things!" Joe grinned as he saw Ken cringe in reaction to his words. This was way too sweet.
Never giving Ken a hint of where he was taking him, Joe turned left at the lushly decorated hallway at the top. He dragged Ken towards one of a set of six equally spaced glass doors.
Bearing down on the nearest one, Joe looked at Ken and placed a finger over his own lips. He tried hard not to let his mirth show in his eyes or face as Ken abruptly paled before him.
Opening the glass door, though Ken tried halfheartedly to stop him, Joe sneaked through and signaled for Ken to follow. When the latter hesitated, Joe reached back and grabbed him by the belt again to pull him through.
As they entered the other side, they heard the unmistakable sounds of music and laughter. Joe stared at Ken as he looked around and watched as his friend realized that he'd not been brought to where he'd fearfully imagined. It was all Joe could do not to laugh out loud.
Huge colorful mosaics lined the ceiling of the room. From where they stood, the floor extended another ten feet and then stopped at a wide railing that ran around the perimeter of the large room. Beyond, was offered a clear view of the room below.
As Ken moved forward to look over the railing down into the ballroom below, Joe gave him a gentle jab in the ribs. "You owe me twenty bucks."
Ken didn't say anything. Instead, his eyes roamed the floor below locking on the two figures in white that wove in and out of view. Jun's thrilled laughter sent small chills coursing down Ken's back as it echoed through the room. Though he couldn't clearly see her face, Ken could easily picture her bright, smiling features in his mind.
"They make a nice couple, don't you think?"
Ken didn't deign to answer Joe's question, already disgusted at the amount of amusement his friend had already had at his expense. Really, he should have known better, but for some reason his misguided conclusion was all he'd been able to come to. He was only too happy to have been wrong.
"Do you want to make a bet on how long it'll be before Frost asks her to marry him?"
"What?" Ken stared in utter shock at Joe even as the latter abruptly pulled him away from the railing.
"Are you trying to get us caught?" The severity of Joe's question was offset by the laughter in his eyes. He pulled Ken still closer to the doors. "Frost is rich and single. A prince that will probably soon be made into a king. And all kings need a queen, right?"
Ken, for reasons he wasn't even willing to admit to himself, felt very nervous about what Joe had just proposed. "She, she wouldn't do it. Jun's part of the ninja team and we still have a lot of work to do." His reasons sounded lame even to his own ears.
The music below came to an end. Joe pulled Ken out into the privacy of the hallway and closed the door before saying anything else. "Not all of us care about our goals as much as you do, Ken. We're not all driven by the same things. So why shouldn't she say yes. It's her life."
Ken stared at Joe and said nothing. What he said was true and he knew it. He realized that Joe came to know that as well as he saw the last vestiges of humor disappear from his second's eyes.
"Here is a man who wants her and has freely let her know it. He has money, power, ideals, and even plans to help against Galactor in ways not as bloody as our own." Joe's voice was low. "He's a dream come true. How could Jun do anything but take all this if she's given the opportunity?"
Joe's words lay in him like a stone. His analysis was true. They could really lose Jun to this man. They really could. Ken felt suddenly cold.
"You're going to lose your number one admirer, Ken... That is unless you..."
Ken stared at Joe and his unfinished suggestion. It was only too easy to guess at what he was trying to say. Yet it was the one thing Ken wasn't sure he could do. Jun's feelings for him were known to all of them, though Ken had always tried his best never to encourage them. What good would it do? His duty came first, all else came second, and as team leader, he just couldn't afford to get involved. He couldn't do what Joe wanted him to do, he couldn't try to compete against Frost, he couldn't give Jun a reason to stay with them if a choice was presented to her - he couldn't afford to let himself want to do it.
Ignoring Joe's expectant stare, Ken pulled out a twenty from his wallet, stuffed it in Joe's belt and then just walked away.
Jun's heartbeat fluttered inside her chest more than it ever had in her life. The dancing had been hard and even fast at times, but it wasn't the reason for how she felt right now. She could dance all night and never feel it; she'd been trained for endurance as had all the rest of those in the team. But the excitement of the moment, the unreality of what was happening to her - it made her blood sing through her veins faster than she would have ever thought possible.
Never had she danced like this before. She'd always thought that freestyle dancing was the only way to go. She'd never dreamed that the older European styles could be so exhilarating. When Frost had first suggested it, she'd been rather hesitant, but as he patiently showed her the steps, the music had filled her and she'd wove herself into it with growing relish.
"Are you tired?" Frost's soft voice whispered in her ear as the latest waltz came to an end.
Jun glanced beyond him at the group of ten men set up on a small rising stage in the far corner, who'd been playing the sweeping music just for them. "No, can we do more?"
Jun smiled hoping that the men weren't too tired. She twirled around once on her own, the long train of her dress hooked in one hand, too full of energy to stand still.
Giving her an easy smile, Frost glanced back towards the musicians and gave a signal. The men moved their instruments into position.
Frost turned back to her, his gray eyes locking with her own. Jun could feel her pulse rising again as he moved near to take her in his arms.
The two of them stood close, Jun barely able to breathe, as they waited for the music to begin. Frost's hand settled on the small of her back even as his left gently brushed away a loose strand of hair from her flushed face. Smiling brightly, he took her hand in his even as the sound of violins drifted to fill the air.
Later as their breaths came in and out in short, heaving gasps, Frost parted reluctantly from her. "I'm sorry, but... I think... I've finally reached... the end of my endurance." He gave her an apologetic smile. "If you'll go on.. to the back terrace... I'll thank the maestro and then fetch us something... cool to drink. What do you say?"
Jun nodded but said nothing, surprised at how sorry she felt that it was over. Moving to the large glass doors at the rear of the ballroom, Jun opened one of them and slipped out onto the terrace. She couldn't help but breathe a grateful sigh of relief as a cool breeze whispered over the open space and her skin.
Moving up to lean against the broad stone rail at the end of the terrace, Jun breathed deeply of the night air. A light smile touched her lips at the fragrance of greenery and freshness that she found there, rather than the mixed city smells she got at home. In the quiet solitude, the waltz continued to play inside her mind, her body very gently swaying to their rhythms.
Jun turned around rather quickly, jolted out of her reverie, as a cold hand gently settled for a moment on her exposed shoulder.
"Oh, please forgive me, Beautiful One," Frost said, "I hadn't meant to startle you." As if in apology, he quickly handed her a tall, frosted glass filled with ice and a dark liquid, which he'd brought with another on a small tray.
Jun gratefully took it from him and watched as he drank some of his own. "Don't worry about it," she said. "I wasn't paying much attention. I was wool gathering, I guess." Shyly, she took a small sip from her glass and then marveled at the heavenly mixture of sweet and cool tastes that teased her tongue before coursing down her throat.
"A kingdom for you thoughts." Frost leaned easily against the stone rail beside her and stared at her from the corner of his eye.
Jun looked away, her cheeks burning lightly, embarrassed by the strange comment though she didn't know why. "I was... I was just thinking about tonight. How overwhelming and wonderful it's all been..." She brought her glass up quickly not wanting to say anything else that might make her look even more foolish.
"It's but a small part of all you deserve."
Jun felt her face grow hotter. She was pleased and at the same time a little frightened by his words.
His voice grew softer. "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to dote on you like this."
Jun turned her face away a mixture of tangled feelings rising in her breast. She stared unseeing at the darkened greenery of the manicured yard, not sure of what she should say. Surely he couldn't mean these things, could he? "Michael, I..."
Jun lost all she might have said as his fingers unexpectedly but gently stroked her cheek sending shivers of fear mixed delight through her skin. She glanced towards him only to find his handsome face very close to her own. His eyes seemed to shine with a light all their own as they locked with hers.
"This and more could be yours forever if you only decided you want them."
Jun couldn't breathe or break away as the implications of what he'd just said trickled through her.
He leaned a little closer to her. "You are so beautiful..."
Suddenly his lips met her own. A sudden jolt swept through Jun as he pressed against her, the memory of their first kiss and her unsuspected longing for another, merging with this reality. A swift burning fire flowed into her wherever his skin touched her own.
The moment was everything. Resistance was never an option. Jun lost herself in it.
It was almost painful when Frost finally pulled away, his voice falling gently in her ear. "Please," he whispered, "think about what I've said..." He pulled further back. "Good night."
By the time Jun was able to recover and open her dazzled eyes, Frost was already gone. It was almost as if the perpetrator of the kiss had never been. As if she'd had a small dalliance with a ghost.
Jun stared at the ballroom's empty entrance, the heat of her recent embrace still upon her, her lips still tingling from his touch.
With a single large swallow, Jun emptied the contents of her glass and then pressed the cool, frosted surface against her flushed face. Stubborn waves of goose bumps raced across her exposed skin as what had just happened replayed itself over and over in her mind.
A half hour later, Jun finally reentered the castle proper. Tired, but still totally exhilarated, she walked slowly through the halls, a light smile caressing her lips.
As she entered the east wing and headed towards her room, she didn't notice that one of the other doorways was open. She didn't even know that someone had come out after she'd passed by until he spoke.
She stopped, the soft call sending an unexpected shiver up her arms. Jun turned around slowly. "Ken?"
He was the last person she would have expected to have met. Seeing him standing there, staring at her, after what had so recently happened - after having been given the choice for something strange and possibly wonderful, Jun found herself suddenly filled with intense embarrassed guilt over what she had done, and worse, enjoyed. Though she tried to stop it, Jun could feel her cheeks reddening before him.
"It's a little late, don't you think?" Ken asked.
Jun could no longer bear to meet his gaze. "I - I'm sorry. Time just got away from me. I was, I was about to turn in though."
Jun heard Ken quietly step closer and she quickly wondered if there was any way she could escape. She bit her lip hard, immediately feeling guilty for the thought.
"I realize this place and its people may seem wonderful to you, but - we're here to do a job. We can't afford to let ourselves get distracted."
Jun looked up and at seeing Ken so close and looking tense, she quickly looked away again. "Yes, you're right of course. I realize I got carried away - I'm sorry. I'll... I'll try not to let it happen again."
When Ken said nothing, Jun decided to take it as her cue to leave. Picking up her skirts, she turned away and rushed on to her room.
"Good night, commander." Jun heard no response as the made it to her room and shut the door.
She never saw the pain filled, longing expression that had followed her as she'd moved away. "You look so beautiful..."
After a moment, Ken turned away and returned quietly to his own room.
The Return pt. 3
By Maya Perez
Helpful prodding by Wendy Dinsmore
The morning was bright, the sky clear with a light breeze blowing across the open lawn. The ninja team, Frost, and Colten sat comfortably at the white iron-rod table enjoying their breakfast.
"I made contact with Nambu this morning as per the schedule," Ken said. "He informed me that the ISO satellites have detected some unusual high activity close to your southern border. He's dispatched some operatives in that direction to check it out." Ken spoke calmly, almost icily to the Linthinium's heir apparent.
"So, we may not have to wait long after all." Frost's gaze ventured to the south.
"Most of our people have been pouring in from the outlying villages, including those on our southern border," Colten informed them. "They've been taken to the underground city as soon as they've arrived."
Frost smiled warmly, grateful for the information. He turned to look at his guests. "Unfortunately, duty calls this morning, and I must spend my day inspecting the constructions under the dome as well as a number of other projects currently underway. However, you're all welcome to come along if you like. Your company is always most appreciated." His gray gaze looked over them coming to rest on a rather quiet Jun.
Ken looked away from the lingering exchange. His attention was diverted further as a man ran up to them from the castle.
Frost's gaze snapped in the direction of the voice, his eyes lighting with sudden excitement.
"Sir, it's coming!" The man stopped breathless before them for a moment before going on. "A mecha has been spotted from remote 638. It's three miles from the southern border."
Throwing a quick glance at the ninja team, Frost left the table and started towards the castle at a run. Without a word, Ken and the others rose as well and quickly followed after him. Colten was left behind to catch up at his lower pace.
Rushing through the halls, they entered the sitting room and headed straight for the hidden elevator. Pouring out of it as soon as it had opened on the complex below, they quickly reached the main control room and piled inside.
"Status report!" Frost converged on the seat near the front, his eyes glancing at the cameras lit around the room.
A flushed young man turned around from one of the numerous controls. "Sir, we've picked up a large mass moving at high speeds through the southern quadrant. A number of probes were launched towards it and when they got cloe to its vicinity they were almost immediately destroyed."
Frost leaned forward, his arms resting against the back of one of the high chairs. "Have you been able to obtain any visuals?"
The young man swiveled back to his controls and deftly pressed a number of buttons before him. The screen-filled wall above them stopped flickering through its myriad scenes and then filled with partial images that formed one giant picture. Someone in the room gasped.
An enormous cloud of grayish gas undulated on the screens before them, long waving tentacles stretching out from within.
"Looks like Katse might be getting a little more imaginative in his designs." No one commented on Joe's remark.
"What's the intruder's speed?" This came from Frost.
"We estimate it to be currently moving at 200 mph. It should reach us in less than 30 minutes, sir." It was hard not to hear the touch of fear in the young man's voice.
"Come on, let us at it!" Jinpei proclaimed. "That's what we came here for anyway, right? We'll take care of this nasty for you. No sweat!" His excited statement was followed by quick nods from Joe and Ryu.
"Activate all the defense systems currently on line," Frost said. "Notify the bay crew to stand by."
Colten, breathing rather heavily, limped his way into the crowded room as Frost finished issuing his instructions. The prince turned to him.
"Old friend, I'm giving you command of the control room. I'll be going with the Gatchaman team." With a curt nod, Frost moved past him, not waiting for a response.
"But, sir!" Colten's protest fell on deaf ears. Frost left the room.
Jun opened her mouth to add her own dissatisfaction to his decision but stopped as Ken followed the departing prince without a word, his face unreadable.
"He's not taking my seat!" Jinpei rushed after them soon followed by the others, leaving a slightly confused Jun behind.
Sending a concerned look in Colten's direction, and seeing her worry mirrored there, Jun took off after them.
In less than a minute they'd all reached the bay housing the disguised God Phoenix. As they rushed up the lowered ramp, all five members of the team spoke into their bracelets and activated their clothes unusual transformation capabilities. "Bird Go!"
Frost stared, enraptured, as each of the five was momentarily enveloped by bright, coalescing bands of color before they emerged covered in the familiar uniforms of the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Seeing them like this, Frost suddenly found it a little difficult to picture them as the long-haired teenagers they'd been but moments before.
Piling in shifts of two into the lift, the six of them soon entered the bridge.
"Ryu, dissengage the outer façade." Ken spoke as he headed for his seat.
"Roger!" Ryu was only a step behind him.
"Everyone, quickly check your stations." Ken's hands flew over his own controls as he spoke.
The team ignored Frost as each reached his or her own station and started in on their pre-flight checks. A loud thump rocked the ship as the façade on the exterior was summarily detached. The team quickly finished their checks and soon Ryu flipped on the ship's vertical engines. The top doors of the bay opened as they approached. The God Phoenix shot up through the opening.
"Bring us into a high arc, Ryu," Ken said. "I want to get a good top view of this thing."
Nodding, Ryu switched to the thruster jets and set their course in a southerly direction. It wasn't long before they found their quarry.
"Look at the size of that thing! And that cloud around it is so thick you can't see anything through it." Jinpei was half out of his seat trying to get a good look at the mech before them.
"Why don't we put a couple of missiles in there and see if we can stir them up a bit?" Joe's eager glance strayed towards Ken, his body already poised to leap from his seat if he got the answer he wanted.
"No, not yet." Ken didn't look back at his second in command, but turned his head to look at Ryu instead. "Ryu, make a pass over them. Try to get us low enough to see if we can disrupt that cloud of theirs."
The pilot frowned. "Those tentacles aren't going to make this easy."
"Just do whatever you think you can get away with."
From the back of the bridge, Frost studied the people around him even as Ryu began his dive. Though he wouldn't have readily said so, he was amazed by what he saw. As he stood there, he could sense a change in the small group that went farther than a mere change of costume. Although in many ways they were acting the same as they had before, he could still sense a palpable, yet not quite identifiable change.
"Everybody, grab hold of something," Ryu yelled out. "I might have to get fancy!"
Suddenly realizing that the bridge had never been meant for six, Frost quickly stepped forward and grabbed a solid hold on the headrest of Jinpei's seat. Hearing him move up, Jun looked up and sent him a reassuring smile.
Diving at a steep angle, the God Phoenix headed directly towards the tentacled cloud.
The mecha's appendages waved madly at their approach, and moved, seemingly without restraint, all through the cloudy surface. Deftly gauging the tentacles' movements, Ryu wove between them as he abruptly righted the ship.
After skimming through the dark cloud, the God Phoenix quickly darted away from the Galactor ship. Ryu maneuvered the God Phoenix into a sharp climb as the mecha chased after them.
"I couldn't get any readings of the ship's interior, Ken," Jun said. "There's something in that cloud that's interfering with our sensors."
Ken barely nodded.
"You want me to put a couple of missiles into her now?" Joe asked eagerly.
"Go ahead," Ken answered, "give it your best shot."
Joe slid past Frost, a humorless grin painted on his face and a devilish spark in his eyes.
"Jun, how far behind is that thing?" Ken asked.
Jun switched duty stations and quickly came up with a reading. "It's at ten thousand meters and rising. We've got better speed."
Ken nodded to Joe and Ryu that they could begin. Instantly, Ryu moved the God Phoenix into a diving turn straight at the ascending mecha. Joe fixed the firing systems cross-hairs on the center of the cloud and then smashed his fist down on the large, red firing button set on the console before him. Before the first missile had gone far, Joe swicthed his aim to either side of the cloud's center and fired two more times.
Ryu swerved as soon as Joe finished, expertly avoiding the closest of the rising tentacles.
All three missiles easily entered the body of the cloud. They watched expectantly, but no explosions ensued from the attack. They all watched in shock, as seconds later, the three missiles came out of the cloud's other side and heaved straight for the lush land below.
"Damn!" Joe's fist slammed down angrily on the console before him.
Tight faces stared as the missiles continued unhampered on their way.
"Ryu, try to go after them!" The ship changed course at Ken's terse command.
As soon as they were able to get close enough, Joe sent three more missiles to stop the wayward ones before them. As a credit to their skills, they were able to take them out before they hit the land below.
Before the team could decide on what to do next, the bridge's communication screen lit up. Harsh laughter echoed out around them as a familiar purple clad figure gazed down on them from the screen.
"My, my, isn't this day turning out to be quite delightful." Everyone tensed as more laughter followed Katse's chortled phrase.
"I hadn't expected to see you here, Gatchaman. How nice of you to come out and put the icing on the cake," Katse said smugly. "Not only will I be able to rid myself of some bothersome upstarts, but I'll have the pleasure of getting rid of you as well!" He leered at them with glee.
"You're being a little premature aren't you, Katse? We aren't through fighting you yet!" Ken's eyes flashed, his determination written clearly on his face. "Your tricks haven't brought you victory before, and they won't do so now."
Katse laughed with wicked amusement, not at all deterred by Ken's statement.
"It might behoove you to listen to him, Berg Katse."
Katse's laughter died as he tried to identify the strangely familiar voice. Frost stepped forward into his field of vision.
Katse stared in slight confusion at the handsome stranger. "So... the Gatchaman team has a new member does it?" he said. "Is the ISO so poor that they couldn't afford to give you a birdie costume of your own, boy?"
Frost smiled in good humor, diffusing whatever enjoyment Katse might have been expecting from the barb. "I hadn't thought it'd been so long since we'd last spoken that you would have already forgotten me, Katse," Frost said. "Though it has been quite sometime since you've actually seen my face."
Katse's eyes widened with sudden recognition. "You!"
Frost allowed a sly smile to tug at his lips as the leader of Galactor fought to overcome his surprise.
"I see." Katse spat. "Everything becomes quite clear now." He gave them a humorless smile. "I should have known that your spineless countrymen wouldn't have the stomach to try and thwart me on their own."
Frost laughed in his face. "Think what you like, Katse, it makes no difference to us." His tone turned serious. "I will give you one more chance for you and your men to get out of Linthinium. We'd rather resolve this peacefully, but we will do whatever is necessary to get you out of our borders."
Katse's ample, red lips pursed themselves for a moment as he stared at the set face before him. His previous haughty expression returned full force. "Your seemingly kind gesture is duly noted and rejected," his voice dripped with sarcasm "Fool! Don't expect such foolishness from me as I grind your people beneath my heel."
His laughter still rang in the bridge as the transmission was cut off as abruptly as it had appeared.
"The Galactor mecha has stopped its pursuit! It's moving back to its original course." Jun's anxious eyes moved back and forth between Frost and her commander.
"He didn't buy it..." Frost's stare was glued to the retreating ship on the screen.
Without being told to, Ryu maneuvered the God Phoenix to follow the giant mecha as it continued once more towards the munitions factory.
"Look," exclaimed Jinpei. "Some of the tentacles are changing!" He pointed excitedly forward. Everyone's gaze followed in that direction.
A number of the mecha's tentacles had stopped waving around and had become stiff. Their smooth tips then flared out, a circling metal band slipping from the tip to about an eight of the tentacle's length. Even as they watched the odd transformation, some of the newly changed tips started to spin.
"Hey, they're making them into boring machines!" This came from a startled Ryu.
"The factory won't stand a chance," Joe added.
In frightened realization, Jun turned to look at Frost. She knew only too well that they were all that stood between Katse and the lives of those below. Whatever defenses the people of Linthinium had been able to erect over the past few months would slow Galactor down, but it wouldn't stop them. And so far, the team hadn't even been able to do that much at all.
"Let me fire again at that thing! At least one of the missiles is bound to hit something." Joe's hand hovered over the ship's firing button.
"No," Ken responded. "All it would do is make us run out of missiles and help Katse destroy the country side." He never looked at the second in command, his eyes locked on the Galactor mecha.
"Dammit, Ken!" Joe turned on him. "We've got to try something." The Condor's agitated face hung close to Ken's, but he said nothing.
Frost stepped forward. "Is there not something in your arsenal that might help to disperse that cloud? If it were gone, then you might be able to see something to hit."
Ken's head snapped around, his eyes locking with Frost's questioning stare. A smile broke slowly over the Eagle's face. "Well, there is something." His smile faded. "But it won't be pleasant." He looked at the others. "Jinpei, rig up with Joe. Frost, you'll take the Swallow's position. Everyone, prepare yourselves for the Fiery Phoenix."
Jun gasped, a cold chill running down her back. They'd never done the change with civilians on board.
Without a word, Joe ran back from the firing console to his station even as Jinpei left his. Once Joe was settled, he helped the smaller boy up onto his lap.
"Don't try anything funny while I'm here, eh, aniki?"
Joe slapped his open palm against the side of Jinpei's helmet. "Smart ass! As if anyone would want to have a go at a skinny thing like you." His face wrinkled in disgust.
"Hey!" It was hard to tell which had made the Swallow more upset, the blow or the insult.
Jun ignored the friendly banter going on behind her as Frost settled into the chair at her side. "There, there might be some risk to you," she admitted even as a small frown creased her forehead. "Our suits were specially designed to protect us from the rigors of the transformation into the Phoenix. We've never gone through it without them." Her eyes met his. "Maybe it'd be better if we dropped you off rather than take the risk."
She didn't notice Ken glancing back in their direction.
Frost reached for her hand and squeezed it lightly. "No, Beautiful One, we can't afford to lose the time involved for that. I'll just have to take my chances."
Ken nodded at Frost's answer as if it had been intended for him. In one smooth move, he reached forward and took hold of the large, red lever on the console before him. Taking one last look back to make sure everyone was ready, Ken then pulled the lever all the way down.
A deep humming sprung up around the bridge penetrating them to the bone. Waves of pressure beat at them from all sides even as the ship shook in every direction. The bridge acquired a surreal quality as all objects within it appeared to occupy a number of spaces at once.
A loud screeching filled everyone's ears as the Fiery Phoenix came to life.
The God Phoenix now in the guise of a giant flaming bird, bore through the air and pierced the dark undulating cloud before them. Within moments, in a spurt of flame, it spit out the dark cloud's other side.
Ken numbly released the lever holding the ship in its present state even as the pressure of the transformation continued battering mercilessly at them. Faster than it had come into being, the pressure and all that had come with it disappeared.
Jun struggled to straighten up from her console, feeling drained as she always was after the transformation. She jerked her head up way too fast, as her muddled mind remembered their extra passenger. Ignoring the ensuing dizziness, Jun turned in her chair to look at Jinpei's station.
Frost was sitting back in the chair, his eyes closed, and his chest rising and falling slowly. His face was unnaturally pale, his lips parted slightly, even as a thin layers of perspiration made his light-colored hair stick wetly to his forehead.
Jun's query was greeted with silence, but after a moment, his eyes slowly fluttered open. Looking incredibly tired, his gray gaze moved to meet her own. A slight smile played weakly at the corner of his lips as their eyes met.
"I'm... fine," he said. "Did it work?"
His question caught Jun off guard. She'd forgotten all about why they'd gone through this in the first place. Quickly, she glanced forward to see if Ryu had brought the ship around so they could find out.
"Jinpei... get off! You're not that light you know." Joe sounded more tired than annoyed.
The boy jumped indignantly off the Condor's lap.
Joe was forced to make a grab for him as Jinpei's unsteady legs tried to go out from under him.
"Take the chair," Joe offered. "I won't be needing it. It's time for my finger to really go to work."
"I'm okay." Jinpei sounded surly. "I don't need to sit."
Joe arched an eyebrow. "Yeah, right."
"I can handle it!" Jinpei threw him a dirty look.
As soon as Joe had gone, however, the young team member took the empty seat.
None too steady on his own feet, Joe supported himself against anything he could grab a hold of on his way to the firing station.
"Ryu, bring us about."
Ken and Ryu both sounded as drained as the rest.
Jun kept her eyes moving from the front viewscreen to Frost's pale face and back again, not sure which she should be worrying about the most.
Though his features still looked strained, Frost's eyes were clear and he stared ahead with great intensity. Jun didn't notice how he was doing his utmost, however, to remain absolutely still.
The God Phoenix arced about slowly, once more bringing the Galactor mecha into view.
The dark cloud that had surrounded Katse's ship was gone. In its place, two large rings were revealed connected to one another by four long tubular sections. Tentacles roamed over the two rings and through the tubes at amazing speeds. As the team and Frost watched, the whole dispersed structure twisted and turned on an invisible axis making it obvious, since its camouflage had been dispersed, on how it had evaded damage from their missiles before.
"Katse's getting sneakier - the bastard!" Joe glared at the ship, his disgust dripping with every word.
"Ryu, get in close," Ken said. "Joe, do you think you can hit one of those central struts?"
Joe's finger was already poised over the firing controls. "Just watch me."
The God Phoenix drew closer to the Galactor mecha even as it ignored them as it continued on its original approach.
As soon as the first missile left the God Phoenix's launcher, however, all of the mecha's tentacles slid back to the rear ring to form a crude shield for the ship. As Ryu banked the God Phoenix to attack from another angle, the tentacles followed them and moved to protect the targeted area. After launching several missiles, they'd gotten no closer to damaging the Galactor ship than they had before.
"Damn it all," Joe cursed. "Those struts have got to be the weak point. But those stupid tentacles won't let me get a shot through!"
"We're going to have to go in closer."
All but Frost turned to look at the ninja team's leader.
"K - Ken, you've seen how fast those things move. I... I don't think I can go faster than them." Ryu stared only at his console, embarrassed by the admission.
"We don't need to be in there long. Just enough to fire some missiles too close for the tentacles to be able to defend against them." Ken's determined gaze moved to his second in command. "Fire three missiles when I give the word." He then turned to their pilot. "Ryu, you'll follow the missiles in as close as you dare and then, just before they hit the tentacle shield, twist us off towards the nearest exposed area." He glanced at the Condor again. "Joe, I'm sure you know what I want done then."
Joe's broadening grin assured them that he did.
Jun noticed that Frost was smiling faintly as he sent what might have been a look of approval, perhaps even admiration in Ken's direction. Slowly, he leaned forward in his seat and then spoke. "Commander, please, before you do this, send Katse a final message. Give him a last chance to avert his people's bloodshed. Make it convincing."
"We don't have time for that!"
Frost ignored Joe's outburst, still waiting for Ken's response.
Ken looked back, surprised as he noticed Frost's pale pallor. He turned away as he also noticed Jun's open faced concern for him. "Jinpei, make the call."
"Roger!" Jinpei's hands worked busily at the controls before him. "Aniki, he's coming through."
Katse's haughty countenance filled the screen. "Well, well, well, to what do I owe the pleasure of this most unexpected call?" He smiled magnanimously. "Have you decided to surrender yourselves to me?"
"I don't have time to waste bantering words with you, Katse. So just shut up and listen!" Ken half rose out of his seat, a metallic echo booming through the bridge as he slapped his hand hard on the console before him. "This is your last chance to leave here intact. You have ten seconds to change course or you'll leave us no choice but to blow you and your men to oblivion."
Katse's surprised face stared at Ken and then started chuckling softly. "So, is this what you have come to is it, Gatchaman? Empty threats and petty delaying tactics? Tsk, tsk, I'd thought better of you than that."
Ken's gaze was hard. "Believe what you like. You'll be finding out the truth of it soon enough."
Katse's smile slowly faded under Ken's deadly serious expression. But it didn't do so for long. "I'm calling your bluff, Gatchaman. Destroy me if you can."
The comm screen went blank.
"Joe, Ryu, get to it before he comes up with something to divert us!" Ken sat back down.
Timidly, Jun placed her gloved hand over Frost's own as she leaned over to gaze into his face. Frost's eyes stared at nothing, his face hard. "I'm sorry, Michael..."
His gray eyes focused back around them and turned to look at her. "There's nothing more any of you could have done... I know that." His voice was soft. "I didn't really have much hope that Katse would suddenly listen to reason." His gaze left her concerned face and turned to look once more out the front screen.
"I'm ready when you are, Joe," Ryu said.
"Go for it!"
The God Phoenix shot towards the Galactor mecha as Joe set three missiles on their way. As they'd expected, the tentacles gathered together at the targeted area and formed a shield to protect it. Speeding in after the missiles, Ryu sharply changed course as they connected with the erected shield.
Braced against Ryu's chair, Joe waited patiently for his opportunity to fire. As the God Phoenix careened over the top of the shield and over, Joe fired, finally locking onto a clear target.
Two missiles were already under way when the God Phoenix was violently slammed from behind.
Joe was thrust hard into his console, a blue clad hand reaching out for him as he was then propelled backwards. Ken grimaced as he kept his precarious hold on his temporarily dazed friend, even as Joe tried to gain purchase on the back of his seat. "Chikusho!"
The God Phoenix tumbled as it was batted about, clanging noises reverberating throughout the ship.
"Ryu, get us out of here!"
"I'm trying, I'm trying!"
The ship pitched and yawed violently as Ryu struggled with his controls.
"Joe, give those bastards something else to think about!"
The Condor stared at Ken in confusion for a moment before comprehension dawned. Timing the erratic movements of the ship as well as possible, Joe left the safety of the back of Ken's chair and leapt for Ryu's. Landing hard, Joe quickly wrapped his arm tight against the head rest before another jerk of the ship could pitch him away. Holding on for dear life, Joe lifted his foot and slammed his heel down on the ship's missile firing button. He lifted it just enough to do it again and again.
Instantly, most of the pounding against the ship ceased, as a large number of the attacking tentacles moved to block the outgoing missiles. With one hard pull of the controls, Ryu seized the brief respite and thrust the God Phoenix on a high speed course away from the tentacles' reach.
"Did we damage it at all, aniki?" Jinpei strained to look out the front view screen from Joe's station, not yet ready to release the death grip he had on the chair's arms.
Ken didn't answer, instead signaling Ryu to turn them around.
The tentacles were still moving randomly across the dispersed structure of the ship, yet it was almost immediately obvious that one of the struts was being used less than the rest. Moving to view that side of the mecha, the team quickly found out the reason. A large, uneven hole was gaping form the struts' side. As far as they could tell, however, that was the only damage their risky effort had brought about.
"What's it going to take to destroy that thing?" Joe's frustrated question spoke for them all.
"At least there's an opening now," Ryu said. "If one of us could somehow get inside...?"
"I'll go!" Jinpei stood up excitedly, hoping against hope that they would allow him to go do the quick-and-thorough job he knew he was capable of doing.
"There's no time for that." The odd tone in Ken's voice brought them up short and made them glance out the view screen before them.
The white spires of Linthinium's royal castle gleamed in the bright sunlight, contrasting against the backdrop of the large mountains beyond.
"Can... can your ship do its transformation again?"
All eyes turned to look at the doomed kingdom's pale-faced ruler.
"It should, but why -" Ken stood up, his eyes widening with startled realization. "The damage we could inflict that way from the inside..."
Both men stared at one another, the look in their eyes showing their hope that this new gimmick would work where the other had not.
"No, you can't!"
Both of them turned in surprise at Jun's anguished statement.
"Ken, he's already been through this once and it was almost too much for him. He could be seriously hurt, or killed if you have him go through it again!"
A glint flashed in Frost's eyes at Jun's words, an almost unnoticeable smile touching his lips. Ken's, which lay partially concealed behind his visor had gone blank.
"I'm sorry, Beautiful One, but this has to be done." Frost spoke only to her. "My people come first." He turned to face Ken once more. "Commander, please, we're running out of time."
Ken turned away from the gray stare, not once looking in Jun's direction, and sat back down. "You heard him, people. Ready yourselves for the Fiery Phoenix."
"Ken!" Jun moved to rise out of her seat. He just couldn't do this. There had to be another way!
Frost's hand landed on her arm. "I will be fine. Trust me. We have to do this."
Jun heard the reassurance in his tone but didn't believe it. They should have never allowed Frost to come on board in the first place. What had Ken been thinking?
Not knowing what else to do or how she could stop this, Jun stayed in her seat.
Making sure all were ready, Ken pulled the lever down.
The God Phoenix hurled itself towards the still moving mecha like a falling meteor, transforming into its bird shape and spreading its fiery wings as it closed in on its prey.
Tentacles moved swiftly to intercept the Fiery Phoenix and prevent it from its chosen destination only to melt into slag as they crossed its path. With a scream of victory, the Fiery Phoenix plunged into the whole yawning on the Galactor ship's side.
Only moments later, the Fiery Phoenix burst in a cloud of flame from within the mecha and into a clear blue sky. Dark smoke stained the heavens as the Galactor ship suddenly lurched in the air, wracked by violent explosions. Its tentacles writhed madly, trying somehow to attempt to avoid the destruction that spread like a plague all about them.
The God Phoenix left the mecha behind, its flames dying and as it changed once more to its normal red and blue shape.
A bright burst of light and sound flared out behind them sending showers of small metal pieces raining down to the land below. Larger pieces of tentacles fell helplessly towards the ground as they no longer had anything to cling to, except for one of the tips, which suddenly extended a set of hidden wings. With a burst of a now exposed engine, the newly created rocket rapidly sped off towards the far horizon.
The bridge of the God Phoenix lay unusually silent. The ninja team was strewn about their stations, none of them moving as a shrill beeping sound suddenly filled the deathly silent room.
After a minute or more, Ken moaned softly as the beeping continued to ring insistently in his ear. The shrill noise eventually forced him to open his eyes, its high pitch digging in his head to give him a piercing headache.
Almost as if a deep fog were lifting, the memory of what had just transpired slowly trickled back into Ken's awareness. Exerting his will, he forced his tired body to sit up from where it lay draped across his console. His gaze slowly drifted towards the Owl's station and he found Ryu fallen over the arm of his chair. Ignoring the still insistent beeping, Ken got to his feet and then somewhat unsteadily stumbled over to him. "Ryu, wake up. Ryu!"
Ken shook his teammate trying in vain to set him upright, even as he had to lean on Ryu's console for support.
Ryu moaned loudly after a few moments, his eyes fluttering open to stare at Ken in a daze.
"Ryu, the ship needs you," Ken said.
The Owl's eyes abruptly became a little clearer. "Roger."
Making sure that Ryu would remain upright on his own, Ken regretfully pushed himself away from the console and made his way towards the others.
As he reached the back, he noticed that Jun was already sitting up on her own, her head cradled in her hands. "Jun, are you all right?"
Dark circled eyes looked up at his question even as Jun tried hard to smile. "I'm all right... Now if I could just get my head to stop spinning..."
Ken leaned heavily against her chair and tried to return the smile.
"Jinpei...off..." Joe's request was barely more than a grumble.
"But, aniki, it's so comfortable here..." Jinpei's eyes never opened and he didn't try to move despite the fact his inaction could earn him a hard bop.
The hit never came as Joe could only find the strength to growl his displeasure. Neither of the two looked to be in the mood to move any more than they had to, which at the moment was not at all.
Ken couldn't help but grin at them.
Ken's gaze returned to Jun as she leaned over her armchair to touch Frost's shoulder. The prince was slumped over the console, his face turned away from them. He made no reply to Jun's query.
Jun stood up too fast, her face suddenly creasing with concern, and almost fell over in the process. Ken moved to the other side of Frost's chair a strange mixture of emotions flowing through him, and helped her sit him up. The shrill beeping continued to fill the bridge.
Frost's face was totally without color. His closed eyes looked sunken, with wide dark circles running beneath them. A trickle of bright red ran from the corner of his mouth.
Though Jun shook him almost roughly, still Frost didn't respond. "Michael!"
How long she'd been sitting here, Jun couldn't remember. In a sort of daze, she recalled the seemingly timeless periods when one or another of her friends had helped her keep her silent vigil in the large room. Colten had sat with her at every available moment, holding her hand, regretfully excusing himself and asking for her forgiveness whenever duty called him away.
Off and on, each of her friends had tried to get her to leave so that she might eat, maybe even sleep, but she wouldn't do it, couldn't. It wasn't right that he was lying there so quietly, so pale, while she hadn't been hurt at all. It was wrong.
And... and she cared for him. She knew that now. Might she even be falling in love with him? The question had been buzzing in the back of her mind even before this tragedy began. Jun had found herself yearning more and more for Frost's company. Yet he could so frequently and easily infuriate her. But he could also please her, embarrass her, and make her lose herself entirely in a span of but a few seconds. Was that love?
She sighed feeling the weight of her exhaustion as well as other things. What about her feelings for Ken? She'd loved him for what seemed like forever, hopeless as it so often seemed. Should she give up that comfortable, familiar kind of love for one that might be more erratic yet burn hotter than anything she'd known before?
If only everything weren't happening so fast! How could she be sure she wasn't being influenced by all the weirdness that had happened to her of late? Would she feel the way she did if she'd met Frost as a normal girl, without all the world-threatening business getting in the way?
Frost should never have been allowed to come with them! She should have protested it when she'd had the chance. She should have forced Ken to make him stay. She should have done something... Instead of letting herself be lulled by the eagerness to be able to share her secret life with Frost, to give her a chance to show him what it was they went through - so that he could see what had made them as they were. But she'd given in to this strange, secret desire, driven on by her joy at Ken's and the team's acceptance of Frost to the point where none of them had disputed his coming along.
Jun felt hot tears fill her eyes as they had done so many times that day. Colten didn't even blame the team for what had happened, no one did; and it was horrible - horrible! It was their fault! They should have known better that to take a civilian out to battle. They knew better! Frost's life had been endangered by her own stupidity. She looked up guiltily towards the cause of her concern.
A lone light lit the darkened room, dimly illuminating the folds of an unbelievably wide four poster bed. Frost lay tucked beneath the bed's heavy covers, only his head showing through. His pale face and hair seemed almost to glow amidst the darkness, a beacon for her desperate gaze.
He'd been unconscious for so long... The doctors had seen to him immediately and had later told them that he'd passed on into a deep sleep sometime during the late afternoon. The diagnosis had been good. No one had seemed overly concerned. Damage had been minimal, still Jun couldn't bring herself to believe it. She wouldn't believe it until Frost was awake and made it clear to her.
Though she knew she had no cause, Jun had been gripped by a fear that he would never awaken, that Frost would never be there to tease her again, that there was damage caused inside him by the Fiery Phoenix effect that none of them had seen. Until she saw him smile again, until he made her blush again, she wouldn't let herself believe that he was all right. Only then would she really be sure.
The hours had dragged on and she'd yet to even see him move. If she hadn't occasionally reassured herself by watching the perceptible rise and fall of his chest beneath the covers, she would have been certain he was dead.
He wouldn't die on her! She would kill him if he did! Jun abruptly chuckled humorlessly at the irrationality of her thoughts. She felt tired, so horribly tired, but she couldn't sleep, she couldn't leave. It was partially her fault Frost was here like this, and she couldn't shake the feeling that something would go terribly wrong if she didn't stay. Yet she was so tired...
Jun jerked up from where she sat in the deep comfortable chair, realizing that she'd almost dropped off to sleep. Roughly, she got up from the chair and started pacing about the dark room, making herself look about her though she'd not bothered to do that before.
Now that she did, she stared curiously at the neatly stacked toys sitting on a set of low wooden shelves - the remnants of Frost's happy youth before it'd been destroyed by Galactor. She picked one up, handling the smooth wood in her hands, picturing Frost as she'd seen him in that picture back at Crescent Coral.
Putting the toy back, Jun found her wondering gaze caught by a large painting hanging on the wall directly across from the wide bed. From where she stood, Jun studied the dark enshrouded figure of the woman within it. From what little she could see, the woman was tall and her stance was graceful and natural.
Overcome by a surge of curiosity as she wondered who the woman might be, Jun walked closer to the picture to try and get a good look at the at her face. Hunting around for a nearby light, Jun noticed a set of carefully hung lamps surrounded the painting. She was able to quickly find the switch for them, and after hesitating for a long moment, she flicked it on.
Instantly the lamps around the painting came on and suffused it with a soft white light; making it come alive in the darkness.
The young woman indeed was graceful. It showed in every line of her body. She stood at ease amidst a breathtaking field of colorful flowers, which rather than take the attention from her, it actually made her presence stand out all the more.
The woman wore a sleeveless light gray dress that flowed past her knees. A rose-lipped smile bloomed lightly on her slightly angular face. Captivating green eyes called for Jun's attention. How much more beguiling they might have been in real life, Jun dared not guess.
A hint of an idea as to who the mysterious woman might be tickled Jun's mind as she was finally able to disengage her attention from the green, piercing gaze to look upon her long flowing white-blond mane.
"Her name was Eleina."
Jun snapped around, startled by the familiar voice. She could barely make out Frost's form within the dark canopy of the bed as he struggled to prop himself into a sitting position.
"My father... it pained him to see it, so he gave it to me... I've always kept its memory with me."
Jun glanced one last time at the painting and the woman within it before slowly moving to the right side of the large bed. "Was - was she as beautiful in real life?"
"I... don't know, though I've always fancied that she was." Frost's voice was soft. "She died when I was very young."
Jun reached the side of the bed and ached at the pain she saw momentarily flicker across his face as he stared at the painting before them. "I'm so sorry."
Frost's sparkling gray gaze turned to meet her own. "There's no need for it. You can't miss someone you've never known."
Jun was forced to turn away to hide her face from him. She knew from her own experience that what he'd just told her was a lie. She felt tears gather in her eyes over the pain she'd felt at missing her own parents and the pain she knew he felt as well. Helplessly, she tried to stop them, knowing that her exhaustion was working against her.
"How long have I been like this?" Frost asked.
Jun quickly raised her hand to wipe at her eyes, still keeping her back to him. Trying to sound more normal than she felt, Jun made herself answer him. "It - it hasn't been too long. Perhaps a day?"
He didn't seem to notice her uncertainty.
"Have there been any other attacks?"
"No, everything's been quiet."
Jun could feel Frost's eyes on her. Guilt, anger, relief, and utter exhaustion swirled simultaneously inside her, none of which she could control at the moment.
"Beautiful One -"
"How dare you call me that!" Jun whirled around to face him, her mixed emotions covering her face. "Why didn't you listen?" She half-pleaded, half-accused. "Don't you realize how close you came to getting yourself killed?" She looked away. "You knew better. We knew better! What would your people have done if you'd been killed? Where would they be without you?"
Jun turned angry eyes on him, wanting, yet not wanting him to respond. While a part of her thought that it was mightily unfair of her to be yelling at him like this, another part was sure that it was probably long overdue.
Frost's face lit into a brilliant and mischievous smile. "Missed me, did you?"
Jun's anger stalled as she stared at him in open mouthed surprise. A grin suddenly tugged at her lips, her anger irrevocably dissolved, leaving behind only relief and exhaustion. She didn't realize she was crying until the hot tears splashed onto her shirt. Quickly, Jun turned away hoping in vain that he hadn't seen them. "I - I'd better go now." Her voice wasn't quite steady. "You need your rest. I can finish giving you my lecture tomorrow."
Without waiting for a reply, Jun got up and started towards the door, feeling what little control she still had over her tears quickly fraying.
"Jun - please!"
She stopped, hearing something she didn't understand in Frost's voice.
"Won't you stay?" His voice was barely audible. "For some reason, I... I don't relish the prospect of being left alone just now."
Jun shook her head slowly, momentarily unsure on how to respond. He sounded so vulnerable. "I - I can go find someone else to stay with you. I'm really tired and should have gone to bed sometime ago." Though she meant what she said, she made no move to go on towards the door.
"If it's your virtue that concern you, I promise, on my honor, that I will try nothing. It will remain intact."
"It isn't as though I'm in any shape to try and take advantage of a not-so-helpless maiden..." His voice was filled with mirth. "Wouldn't you agree?"
A splintered sigh eased from Jun's lips as she fought to decide on what things she should or shouldn't do.
"I would consider it a great favor," he said.
Drying her eyes as inconspicuously as she could, Jun turned around slowly and tried to smile. "All right."
Jun almost frowned again at the large amount of relief she sensed in those two words. Silently, she moved back to the bed. Not daring to meet Frost's gaze, she carefully moved aside the curtain on the bed's canopy and sat down.
Keeping her back to him, Jun stiffly removed her shoes. Trying to act as if she were unconcerned about how close she was to him, though at the moment she could think of nothing else; she lay down on the bed, on top of the covers. She let the slow realization that Frost would be all right drag her down into the depths of long denied sleep.
The door quietly inched open into the prince's dark room. Silently, Ken slipped inside, holding onto his resolve like a cloak, a determined look on his face. "Jun?"
Getting no response, he gently closed the door behind him. Glancing about the barely lit room, his gaze was caught by the lit-up oil painting across from the canopied bed.
For several long moments, he stared wonderingly at it, almost entranced by the gentle beauty captured there. Tempted, but deciding not to go for a closer look, Ken moved forward to the high backed chair where Jun had been keeping her constant vigil. When he went around it and was surprised to find that it was empty.
Knowing from her previous protests that she wouldn't have left the room of her own free will, Ken looked about trying to find her.
He was just starting to think that perhaps one of the others had somehow succeeded in making her leave, when he noticed a pair of clothed legs through the half closed curtains of the bed.
Carefully making his way there and shifting the curtain to the side, Ken found Jun stretched out on top of the bed's cover. Her hair had fallen, partially covering her face and her eyes were closed in sleep.
Ken smiled a little at what he saw, not entirely able to help himself. The smile slowly disappeared though as he raised his eyes and found Frost's covered form laying not too far away.
If Jun had succumbed to sleep, it meant that Frost had awakened at some point. Had he asked her into his bed or had she unthinkingly decided to lie there? Ken shook his head to drive the question away. After all, it was none of his business.
Perhaps Jun would be happy with Frost. Actually, he very much doubted that she wouldn't be. Frost would be good for her, the prince had proven his worth to them all. He would miss her, perhaps even regret all the ‘might have beens' once their battles with Galactor were finally over. But then, that didn't matter either. This would be the best thing that could ever happen to her.
Ken found himself staring softly at his teammate. On impulse, he studied Jun's face very carefully, engraving every line and dimple into his memory.
Surprised by the movement, Ken stepped hastily back. Abruptly deciding that he didn't want to be found there by her, he almost collided with the chair behind him.
Ducking down, he realized after a moment that she hadn't awakened. Instead, she'd curled her legs up against her body. Ken wondered if she was cold.
Although he knew he should be moving to get out of there, Ken quickly glanced about looking for something to cover her with instead. He found a discarded afghan on the floor. More than likely, Colten had brought it for her earlier in the day and Jun had dismissed it as she had everything else. Picking up the afghan, Ken gently laid it over her.
Absently, he carefully moved the hair away from her face.
He really would miss her. And if Jun stayed, would Jinpei do the same? With a small sigh, Ken stared at her one last time before letting the canopy's curtain fall between them.
As silently as he had come, Ken made his way to the door. He never noticed the piercing gray stare that followed after him.
Jun awoke slowly, her mind wandering aimlessly as her cob webbed brain tried to clear. Barely opening her eyes, it took her a moment to notice the bright sunlight coming from somewhere behind her. Stretching as she turned to lay on her back, her eyes followed the light to the huge windows that were open to the clear sky.
Jun sat up and with a yawn gingerly stretched again. As the afghan slid down to her lap, she realized that she'd been sleeping in her clothes. Frowning at this, her gaze wove more carefully about her.
She wasn't in her own room. Then where...?
The events from the day before abruptly came back to her. Turning where she sat, Jun looked for the object of her previous vigil. Her brow furrowed as she found that Frost wasn't there. Quickly glancing about the room, she found she was alone except the eternal form of Eleina guarding the bed.
Running a hand through her disheveled hair, Jun rushed out of the bed only to notice a large silver tray sitting on the nightstand beside the bed.
On the tray, sat a still warm pot of tea and a plate full of delicate pastries. A folded note sat between the two. Without pausing to think about the food, she reached for the note.
Good morning, Beautiful One.
I had things to do and couldn't find the heart to disturb you.
If you're up by then, I will see you at lunch. Don't worry,
I'm fine. Thank you so very much for your company and
Your indulgence of a foolish prince.
Reading the note over again, Jun slowly frowned wondering if he could actually be as fine as he claimed. And he'd just left her there! He said he didn't want to disturb her but she was disturbed. Jun's building annoyance was suddenly waylaid by a loud growl from her stomach. She sighed. While pouring herself a cup of tea, Jun quickly bit into one of the pastries and then chased it down with the tea. As soon as she was done, she made her way hurriedly out of the room.
Licking the sugary topping off her fingers on the way to her room, Jun stopped in the hall as it occurred to her to wonder what the others had thought at seeing Frost up and about this morning with her nowhere in sight. Would they have asked about her? Would he have told them that he'd not awakened her because she was tired? Would he then have added, with that mischievous smile of his, that she was still asleep in his bed? Jun felt her ire rise knowing Frost wouldn't be able to resist the temptation. He would have had the lot of them jumping to all sorts of conclusions. All the wrong conclusions! She'd wring their necks if they had. And if they dared tease her...!
Even so, as Jun reached the hallway containing all their rooms, she glanced down it from the corner to make sure none of the team were around. Seeing no one, she ran to her room, closed and locked the door once she was inside.
For over a half hour, Jun bathed, scrubbing, soaping and soaking, until she finally felt more like her old self. More prepared then to find out what everyone had been up to, Jun got dressed and went looking for them.
"How much longer are we going to be staying here?" Joe asked.
Ken looked up from his coffee, which he'd been idly stirring for the past hour and a half. "Why do you ask?"
Joe scowled slightly, obviously not liking his question to being answered by a question. "Let's go for a walk - now."
Ken's brow raised up a bit at Joe's ‘not be debated with' tone. After a moment, he set his spoon down and got up to go with him.
Walking away from the small hill where they'd had breakfast earlier that morning, Joe silently led them to the left, towards a maze made of sculpted hedges.
Ken waited expectantly as they walked into the maze, but his somber companion said nothing. Joe continued on at a fast pace until the tall, wall-like hedges hid them totally from view. Only then did he stop and turn to look at Ken.
"I think it'd be best if we went home as soon as possible," he said.
Ken frowned. "Why?"
A flash of impatient anger flew across Joe's eyes, but was quickly subdued. "We're finished here. We should leave. The sooner... the better."
Ken slowly shook his head and walked further into the maze. "We still have our second mission to complete."
"Are you willing to pay the price that's going to cost you?"
Ken snapped around, feeling suddenly annoyed. "Will you just get to the point! I'm not in the mood to play twenty question with you."
Joe glared back at him, but was silent. After a moment, he stepped up until their faces were very close. "We've been here too long. If we stay, we're bound to lose her." His voice turned to almost a whisper. "It may already be too late."
"You brought me all the way out here to talk about Jun?" His annoyance growing, Ken forced himself to turn away from his second in command.
"Yeah, that's right. You know, Jun, the girl, our teammate." Joe's voice dripped with his own anger. "I wasn't kidding when I told you Frost would try to keep her here. And if we don't leave now, she's bound to let him!"
"So?" Ken shrugged, not looking at Joe. He was only too aware of that already. He started back the way they'd come.
"Dammit, Ken! If she stays, there's a real good chance Jinpei will stay too. What good will the Gatchaman team be if we're cut down to only three of us?"
Ken didn't answer but kept on walking.
With a grimace of barely restrained anger on his face, Joe stomped up behind him and yanked at his arm, forcing Ken to turn around and face him.
"Let go of me, Joe." Ken's tone was cold.
"No. We're going to talk about this."
Ken's face was hard, his eyes expressionless.
Joe didn't back down. "You can't stand there and tell me you don't care about whether or not she goes or stays," he growled. "She's family, damn you, and we all care for her. Why are you just standing there letting her be taken from us?"
Ken's eyes narrowed dangerously at the accusation. "I'm not doing any such thing." He shrugged out of Joe's hold. "If for some reason Jun decided to stay and marry Frost, it'll be her decision. I won't stand in her way."
Joe looked disgusted. "You're that afraid to fight for her are you? You think you're that outclassed?"
"That has nothing to do with it." Ken kept his voice level, trying hard to keep his growing anger in check.
"Then talk to her! Let her know there's something waiting for her if she comes back with us."
"You have no right to ask that of me!" Ken almost screamed this in his face. How dare he?
"No one can offer her that but you." Joe's dark eyes locked with Ken's.
"You know I can't do that."
Joe snorted. "It's not that you can't. It's that you won't." He grinned without humor. "You're too stupid to do what's best for you."
"It doesn't matter." Ken shook his head slowly as if from regret. "I won't do it."
Joe's grin turned into a nasty smile. "I can make sure you do."
"You can't and I won't." Ken tensed.
"You -- will!" Joe launched himself at him.
"Sigh. I wish I had a kite."
Ryu looked down at Jinpei as the latter stared with a whimsical look at the wide open sky. "A kite? What for?"
Jinpei shot his large friend a reproachful look. "To fly it, you moron! That's what they're for." He looked once more at the sky. "Look at this place. It'd be perfect! You could run and run ‘till the kite flew on forever. There'd be nothing to get in your way..." A faraway looked settled over his features. "I wish I had a really large kite..."
"Maybe you could ask, Colten. He might be able to find one for you."
"Nee-chan!" Both Jinpei and Ryu turned in surprise to find Jun standing behind them. She gave them a big smile.
"Did Frost join you all for breakfast?" she asked.
"Yeah," Ryu answered cautiously. "Though you didn't show."
Unobtrusively, Jinpei reached over and jabbed Ryu in the ribs. "What he's really trying to say, nee-chan, is that we missed you. Isn't that right, Ryu?"
Ryu quickly nodded, his cheeks turning red. To her chagrin, Jun now had no doubt that most of them had assumed the things she'd hoped they hadn't. She made herself ignore it. "Did he seem all right to you?"
"Who?" Jinpei and Ryu looked questioningly at her though she had thought it would have been perfectly obvious whom she meant.
"You know, our host, Michael Frost?" She stared at them as they still looked a little befuddled. "Are you two feeling all right?"
Ryu and Jinpei exchanged odd glances before deigning to give her an answer. "Everybody's fine, nee-chan. He was walking a little slow, but said he was okay."
"He left after breakfast," Ryu added. "Said he had to catch up on stuff."
Jun nodded absently at their replies. She wondered how much weight she should give their information. "Do you know where the others are?"
"Ken was still at the table when we left earlier, nee-chan," Jinpei replied. "We have no idea where Joe went."
"Do you think he might have gone with Frost?"
Jinpei shrugged. "Don't know. Did you want us to go looking for him?"
"No, no, I was just curious."
Ryu and Jinpei joined her as she moved to stand in front of the stone veranda and stared out at the manicured landscape.
"Nee-chan... Do you really think Colten might have a kite?"
Jun smiled at her brother's one track mind. She found it hard to believe that he was the same person who'd not long ago had thought such awful things about her. "I don't know, Jinpei. But it would be worth a try."
"Hey, who's that?" Ryu asked.
Jun and Jinpei followed his gaze towards the far side of the lawn. Two figures, barely visible, moved away from the distant hedged maze. Keeping a five foot distance from one another, the two figures staggered their way slowly towards the castle.
Not sure of what was going on, all three started towards the pair, afraid that perhaps Galactor hadn't given up after all. As they got close, they suddenly realized who the pair were.
Both men lifted their heads in their direction and stopped. It didn't take Jun, Ryu, and Jinpei long to run up to them.
Grass stains, scrapes, and small cuts covered the two men from head to foot. Surly expressions met their questioning gazes, though neither Ken or Joe would look at them directly. Jun had seen them in this kind of state before. The only thing was, as far as she knew, there was no reason for it.
"What happened?" Jun stared at them very concerned.
Joe glanced at Ken, waiting for him to answer. When he didn't, Joe glared at him and then answered for them both. "Nothing much, I guess." He sent another glare in Ken's direction. "We weren't watching where we were going and tripped. No big deal." Joe shrugged, his eyes telling a different story.
Ken said nothing on the obvious lie.
"Uh - yeah." Jun bit her lip not sure what to make of all this. "Are you hurt?"
Both shook their heads no and then glared at one another for having responded in the same way.
Jinpei dodged for a moment behind his sister's back, glancing at Ryu. He made an ugly face and twirled his finger at his head, giving his opinion on the whole affair. Ryu quickly nodded agreeing whole-heartedly.
The glaring kept on between Ken and Joe with Jun not at all sure what she should try to do about it. Without warning, however, Joe grinned nastily in Ken's direction, his eyes brightening with obvious delight. "Jun, there's something Ken is dying to talk to you about."
"Shut up, Joe!" Ken took a menacing step towards him.
Joe's grin widened, an almost triumphant gleam in his eyes. "I think this would be the perfect time, Ken."
Ken took another step towards Joe his eyes bright with anger. Abruptly exerting control, he stopped, his body stiff, his hands bunched into fists at his side. "Joe..." His tone dripped with promised dire consequences.
"Come on. Go ahead." Joe's grin grew into a smile. "Now she won't leave you alone until you do."
Ken's mouth twitched at Joe's smug comment. A moment later, however, his whole stance noticeably relaxed. "All right, you win... I was going to wait until lunch, but I guess now that I've got no choice..."
Joe stared hard at Ken, a suspicious look in his eyes as he waited for him to go on.
Jun stared from one to the other wondering what in the world was going on.
"We're all to meet at two this afternoon in the sitting room. It's been agreed that it's time for us to discuss our second mission here in Linthinium. Please make sure you all show up on time." Without waiting for a reply, Ken turned away and continued on towards the castle.
"Ken!" Joe's furious voice called after him, but Ken never slowed or looked back. Joe's murderous fury spilled onto his face, his body tensing to strike.
"Joe! What is it? What's wrong?" Jun recklessly stepped in front of him blocking Joe's view of Ken's retreating back. His burning gaze locked with her own, yet he was still the first one to look away.
"Joe... What's happened?" Jun asked.
He tried to slip past her to go after Ken. Jun reached out and took hold of his arm to stop him.
Joe glanced back at her, knowing his gambit might now backfire. He was fuming. Ken, you bastard! Rage and disappointment welled within him. Yet going after Ken again wouldn't solve anything. His friend could at times be as stubborn as he was, and he was proving that today. Joe's anger eased a bit. Still punching Ken in the face again would have made him feel at least a little better.
His dark blue eyes locked with Jun's. Here was his opportunity. Perhaps he could do what Ken wouldn't. He could tell Jun how much she meant to all of them; how her level headed, and sometimes calming influence was something he didn't want to do without. He could tell her all these things, stack the odds in their favor, so that when the question came - as he no longer had a doubt it would - there might be at least a slight chance that Jun would decide to stay with them instead of Frost.
Joe opened his mouth intent on saying all this and more; wanting to express his feelings more than he'd ever wanted to in his life before.
"Joe?" Jun's brow furrowed.
"Jun - we - I - " The words stuck themselves stubbornly to his throat, Ken's previous words and Jun's trusting gaze tripping him up before he'd even begun. "Jun - uh -" Joe looked away.
He wasn't meant for this kind of thing and he knew it! Damn Ken for putting him in a position he'd known damn well he couldn't handle! It wasn't his place, he had no real right. Yet the only one that might have any say, the only one who could possibly give Jun a reason to stay, was the very one who was willing to let her go! "Jun, it was... nothing."
Joe tried to walk away then, but Jun was still holding onto his arm. "Joe?"
Jun's emotion laden whisper tore into him, but he still remained silent. What could he say?
Seeing that he wasn't going to add anything else, Jun reluctantly let go of Joe's arm.
Without once glancing back, Joe walked away from them, returning once more to the green hedged maze.
Jun's heart screamed for her to go after him, to try and somehow convince him to tell her what all this had truly been about. She didn't move, already knowing the uselessness of it. So much had been happening lately - too much. How was she supposed to keep up with all of it?
Jun turned around, knowing there was another way of finding out what she wanted. Something important had happened since Galactor's defeat and Frost's collapse and she intended to find out what it was!
The burning question died on her lips as Jun confronted the two stares that looked as confused as she felt. Trying hard to smile at both Ryu and Jinpei, she said nothing. Whatever had happened, it had been strictly between Ken and Joe. Until one or the other broke down and told them of their own free will, none of them would ever be able to find out what this had been all about.
To be Continued…
Joe and Ken didn't show up for lunch.
Jun sat at the iron rod table and looked around. Her attentions divided between worrying about them and waiting expectantly for their host.
Frost greeted them as he came out to the lawn and seemed well at ease. Jun watched him carefully as he approached, trying to see if she could spot any of the stiffness Jinpei had mentioned earlier. With some relief, she noticed that Frost's coloring was back to normal, and if he was feeling any kind of discomfort, it didn't show.
Colten joined them a few minutes later and they all made small talk while they ate. Colten even gave them an update on the progress of the construction on the city beneath them.
"Will your people be going back to their villages now?" Jun stared intently at Frost as she asked the question, still trying to convince herself that he was all right.
"No, not just yet," he said. "It's been agreed that they'll remain until the construction is finished. It will help everyone become familiar with the city and we felt that for now it would also be safer for everyone concerned."
Jun nodded slowly before taking another bite out of her large sandwich. "It really isn't very likely that Galactor will try anything for a while."
"Yeah! Not after the trouncing we gave them!"
A small grin lit on Frost's face at Jinpei's exuberance.
"Well, it was also the easiest way to make sure everyone would attend the coronation." This came from Colten.
"Coronation?" Jun noticed that Frost's cheeks had suddenly taken on a bit of color.
"Yes," Colten said with pride. "A coronation." Frost's cheeks colored even more. "We would have done it months ago, but his Highness wouldn't allow it. And our country needs it's king."
"Colten, please," Frost's voice was low. "I will only be crowned once certain things get done."
Jun felt a thrilling chill spin through her as Frost slipped a veiled glance in her direction. She looked away, blushing, wondering why she was making such a big deal out of the momentary attention.
"Still, my prince, we'll all feel much better once you've been crowned and have properly assumed your rightful place."
"You've always been such a traditionalist." Frost gave Colten a raised brow and a half smile before leaning in a conspiring way towards the others. "He's been the one actually running the place for who knows how long. He just wants a well dressed figurehead so no one will figure it out and give him the job."
Frost winked at his guests before turning a very serious face towards his father's aide. "Yes, Colten?"
The question dripped with sweetness and was followed by the innocent batting of lashes. As Frost placed his chin over his laced fingers, the scene quickly became more than the others could stand.
Jun hid a smile behind her hand while Ryu and Jinpei tried their best not to choke on their food and laugh outright. Frost kept his smiling gaze on Colten until the latter began to blush.
"That wasn't very amusing, your highness." Much to his own chagrin, Colten's injured tone was belied by the enormous grin that insisted on curving his lips, despite all his attempts to stop it.
"By the way, where are Ken and Joe?"
Jun's smile faded at Frost's question. "Oh, I'm sorry, I guess I forgot to tell you." She tried to think fast. "They'd asked me earlier to please pass on their apologies for skipping lunch. They had to -" Jun hesitated still unable to come up with a believable lie.
"Check the God Phoenix!"
Ryu and Jinpei had spoken out at once. Both realized their blunder too late.
Jun stepped in. "Actually, they're doing both. You see, the two of them get rather, uh, tense before major meetings..." She avoided Frost's direct gaze, not sure she could maintain the lie if she saw him looking at her. She totally missed the troubled expression that momentarily crossed his face.
"I see," he said.
In the suddenly awkward silence that followed, they all returned to their meal. It wasn't long, however, before Colten distracted them with a different topic of conversation.
Once lunch was over, Jun lingered behind, nimbly intercepting the prince as he got ready to go. "Frost, how are you feeling? Really?"
He glanced over at her a small look of surprise on his face. He smiled. "A little tired, to be sure, but otherwise okay."
Jun wouldn't let him go just yet. "What about the bruised ribs? How are they?"
Her serious tone made Frost's smile widen. "They're a bit touchy, but they're wrapped up tight so it's not bad if I take it easy." His gray eyes trapped her own. "I appreciate your concern."
Something about the way Frost said that made Jun feel unusually self-conscious. "Why shouldn't I be concerned? I would feel this way about any of us." She dared to look at him and noticed that his smile had grow yet again. Jun felt her face turn warm.
"How much do you know about the upcoming meeting?" he asked.
Jun fell in beside him as Frost started back towards the castle proper. "It's going to be about your other mission for us?"
He nodded. "Yes, I spoke to your director this morning. He reiterated his consent for the operation as long as you and your team are willing to take it."
"Do you really think it's feasible?" she asked.
Frost shrugged. "All I can do is try. And I'd rather have you all in on it if I can." He glanced over at her. "Things will be difficult enough as it is. It's a real pity you didn't have the time to get the records I needed."
Frost started forward again but Jun didn't follow as a look of excitement blossomed on her face. "But, we do have them!"
Startled, Frost turned around. Jun leaned down to unzip one of the secret compartments in her stripped slacks.
"I'd got them on the day you were attacked," she said. "So much has happened since then that I completely forgot about them."
As Jun straightened back up, the copies of the microfiche in hand, she gasped as she suddenly found herself in a tight and warm embrace. Before she could fully realize what was going on, she was being enthusiastically kissed. Breathlessly, she didn't resist, and found herself feeling rather disappointed when it was quickly over.
"Come on, let's get these analyzed." Frost's eyes were bright, his own excitement brimming in every word. "They might just make a world of difference!" He took hold of her hand, a broad smile on his face and led her inside. Jun followed, a smile of her own trailing after him.
Less than two hours later, the two of them joined the rest of the ninja team in the sitting room.
Refreshments abounded but they'd been totally ignored. Upon entering the room, Jun immediately noticed Ryu's and Jinpei's subdued looks and after a moment the reason for them. Ken and Joe were in the room as far from one another as the place would allow them. Joe was leaning against the wall near the doors while Ken sat in a chair close to the painting on the back.
Jun sat down, trying not to care about the grim expressions on their faces. She couldn't help but frown a little though as she heard Frost sigh in relief as he sat down.
"Thank you all for coming," he said. "If you aren't already aware, Dr. Nambu has graciously consented to allow me to sway you to a second mission.
"It's my hope that once I've explained my plan in detail, that you will decide to accept it." His eyes traveled to each of them. "If you decide not to, I will understand. The final decision will be yours."
Everyone remained silent as he moved to spread out a large map on a nearby table. "As some of you already know, I've had some opportunity to pick up on a number of little known facts about Galactor. While none of them are sufficiently sensitive to really be used to hurt the organization, some of them might still prove good enough to throw them off balance."
Frost spread out the copies of the microfiche on top of the map. "If you'll please look closely at these, you'll notice some dark spots here, here, and here, which don't seem to correspond with the rest of the terrain." He paused for a moment. "It's my contention that these dark spots are huge air vents and that somewhere beneath them, Galactor has built a base solely for the purpose of containing its members' families."
Jinpei inched forward to the table to curiously take a look at the satellite pictures as Frost spoke. The rest of the team remained where they were.
"It would be my intent, with your help, to free these families from Galactor's grip."
"Why would you want to go to the trouble? Why would they come with us?" Ryu scooted to the edge of his chair, his broad face showing his confusion.
Frost laced his fingers and leaned back, his eyes focused on no one in particular. "When someone is recruited into Galactor, they're told that in order to guarantee their loved ones' safety, they must all be relocated to one of their civilian facilities. Life at these facilities can be quite pleasant, if unchanging - that is until the member that joined dies or tries to leave the organization." He paused letting the unvoiced consequences sink in.
"Eventually all recruits realize the truth of what they've really gotten into, how in assuring their families safety by taking them into an organization's safe-haven they've drawn a two edged sword. This is one of the reasons why there are very few defections in Galactor. This is but one of the ways the organization uses to keep its people in."
"That's... that's..." The pain on Ryu's face told them that which he wasn't able to express.
"Yes," Frost said. "And that's exactly why I want to so something about it."
"But, what, what do they do with, do with the families of the men that die?" Ryu's eyes were filled with sorrow as if he already suspected the answer.
"The families are never told of their loved one's demise. Rather, they're informed that they're to be honored by being transferred to a better facility. Once en route, however, the children are quickly separated from the parents. Every member is then tested, and if they have skills or potential that could be useful to the organization, they become new employees. If so, then the rest of the family is shuffled once more back to one of the family facilities. If they have no talents that can be exploited, they're drafted into labor camps, prostitution, or worse - Galactor wastes nothing."
Jun felt a chill sweep through her and averted her gaze, unable to handle the looks of shock on Jinpei and Ryu's naïve faces. Despite herself, she wondered how many people the team had inadvertently sent off to that kind of hell. She looked up again, as Frost gently squeezed her shoulder.
"These people aren't stupid. No matter what Galactor does, rumors get around. But they normally learn too late what kind of fate awaits them, and there's not much they can do to stop it. I'm hoping to try and change that, if I can."
Ryu leapt to his feet, a rare strain of steely determination in his voice. "I'll help you."
Looking startled for a moment, Jinpei recovered quickly and joined his friend. "I'll go too!"
Though she had half expected it, Jun didn't see Frost exhibit any pleasure at his easy victory.
"I appreciate your decisions, but I can't accept them yet. There are some conditions to this expedition, and you may very well change your minds on the matter before I'm through."
Nodding slowly, both Ryu and Jinpei sat back down. Ryu's expression, however, clearly declared that there was nothing that would change his decision.
"First off," Frost said, "I believe it would be prudent if you didn't come along as the Science Ninja Team."
All eyes focused on Frost at the statement. Ken's face appeared more lively than it had so far. "Why is that, if I may ask?" There was a tinge of antagonism in his question that Jun was very surprised to hear.
"Commander, this is not something that I came up with out of dissatisfaction with you or your team," Frost quickly explained. "I insist on this point only due to the soiled reputation that Galactor has spread about you within the organization."
"So? What difference does that make?" Ken's eyes were hard.
Frost sighed and hesitated a moment longer before answering. "The mere whisper of your name chills Galactor blood -- literaly. The high death rate within the organization has been hyped up to be entirely your doing rather than attributed to the sometimes rampant incompetence of commanders or the self-destruct mechanisms used by the organization." His gaze met Ken's dead on. "The current propaganda paints the five of you as murderers who don't care who they kill as long as they are somehow connected to Galactor. Pictures of the team have been plastered at every single installation showing the hideous acts that you've supposedly commited." His voice grew soft. "I grew up with this propaganda. I've seen how it has affected others, even myself. If any civilians saw you in costume, they'd run in terror rather than take the risk that even a tenth of the terrible stories about you are true."
"That's stupid! We're the good guys." Jinpei's angry stare shot out at Frost daring him to deny it.
"You'd be truly amazed at the number of atrocities that have been attributed to your name alone."
Jinpei's face paled at the sudden coldness in Frost's voice. It was only too easy to imagine what types of things Galactor might have accused them of.
"All right, we can deal with your first condition - what's next?" Joe moved away from the wall he'd been leaning against and moved to stand behind where Ryu and Jinpei were currently sharing a settee. His face had the look of a man who expected things to get even more distasteful than they had already.
Frost smiled at what he saw, but the smile held no mirth whatsoever. "My second condition is that we will stun the guards, not kill them."
"Are you nuts?" Joe stared at their host in disbelief. "How do you think we've been able to survive as long as we have? Galactors enjoy killing people, or hadn't you noticed?"
"Joe!" Jun stood up, surprised by her friend's vehemence.
"No, it's all right." Frost sent her a reassuring glance before turning his full attention on Joe. "I realize what you're saying -- I'm only too aware of Galactor policy. But it's still not a good enough reason to stoop to their level."
Joe frowned at him.
"Besides," Frost continued, "how much more of a slap in the face will it be for Katse if not one of his men is killed in the raid?" His sudden mischievous smile was infectious.
Joe wasn't ready to give in yet, however. "That's all well and good, but we've been trained to kill instinctively. We might be slaughtered if we try and curb ourselves, if we hesitate and think about every move. It would require too much of a conscious effort; it could critically slow our reactions down."
Frost's smile never faltered. "In the last few months, we have created weapons that shoot very potent tranquilizer darts. Security should be nowhere near as tight as what you're used to. With stealth, we should be able to avoid the need for any hand to hand combat. The tranquilizer guns are accurate to thirty yards. Anyone hit by them will remain unconscious for at least four hours."
"You've thought this out pretty well, haven't you?" Joe's tone was not as antagonistic as before but it still wasn't welcoming.
"I've been planning this raid for a very long time."
"Are there any other conditions?" Ken's expressionless stare didn't waver under Frost's scrutiny.
"None as major as these, and the rest are mostly negotiable."
"I'm still going then!" Ryu stood up again his determination as strong as ever.
"Well, okay... me too." Jinpei stood up slowly, his face looking uncertain.
Jun smiled at their host. "I'll be glad to go."
Joe shrugged, moving forward to take a chair. "What the heck, it'll be a challenge." There was an odd gleam in his eyes.
Glancing worriedly at Ken, Jun saw him nod as Frost sent an inquiring gaze in his direction.
"It's settled then... I want to thank all of you for your willingness to help me make this work." Frost said cheerfully. "I'd like to share the rest of my plan with you now, and then we can discuss your opinion and any suggestions you might have."
The afternoon went by swiftly as Frost first outlined his plan and then made alterations from their suggestions. The next day went quickly as well as preparations were made for the journey. That evening, before they all turned in for a few hours of sleep before their departure, Ken gathered the ninja team together for an impromptu meeting.
"Look, I know it's unnecessary, but I still feel the need to ask you guys to be extremely careful on this mission." Ken's voice was low as the five of them stood in a half circle in his room. "The suits Frost is providing are good, but don't offer as much protection as our own. Remember not to get careless, to watch out for each other. And if we actually pull this off, there'll be every reason for us to be very proud of ourselves."
Joe snorted. "You're staring to sound way too much like Nambu."
Ken met Joe's frown with one of his own. "I could do worse. I could sound like you."
Jun bit her lip and then quickly stepped up to intervene. Whatever had happened between them was obviously still unresolved. "Joe, tell me, why did you decide to go on this mission?"
Joe glared at Ken before looking over at her and answered her question. "There really isn't a reason. You see, it didn't look like you guys could be talked out of it and someone had to come along to make sure you kept out of trouble." He shrugged lightly.
"Sure, aniki, whatever you say." Jinpei rolled his eyes. He also moved quickly out of reach as Joe made a half-hearted grab for him.
Jun smiled, having an inkling at least of part of Joe's motivations. Though she knew he'd never admit it, she was sure that it thrilled him in a small way to be working towards preventing others from living with the pain and torment that he had grown up with. Jun saw that some of the others thought the same as light smiles grew all around. Joe staunchly ignored them.
"Was that all, commander?" He glared at Ken again, who wasn't smiling at all.
"Yes, unless anyone else wants to add anything?"
No one did, so the group quickly bid each other ‘good night' and started to go their own ways. Jun hesitated as she heard her name called out.
Her teammate waited in silence until all the rest had gone. Jun frowned slightly as she spotted Joe's thoughtful gaze looking over at them as he went out the door.
"Jun, I just wanted you to know that I've tried several times to convince Frost not to come with us." His clear blue eyes met her own and then looked away. "Even when I threatened canceling the mission, he wouldn't budge. He insisted that he'd do this with or without our help." He hesitated a moment. "His doctors say he's fit enough, as long as he doesn't overdo it."
Jun stared at Ken in surprise, wondering how he'd known about her secret worries, and perhaps even her own efforts to dissuade the prince from coming with them.
"He's not at full strength," Ken continued, "and I've no idea of his capabilities. So, since you know him best, I'd like to assign you to stick by him in case things get out of hand. Will you do it?"
Jun didn't quite understand the guarded expression in his eyes. "Sure, I'd, I'd be happy to. Sometimes Frost can be too stubborn for his own good."
Ken nodded but didn't say anything else.
"I really appreciate that you tried," she said. "It means a lot to me. Thank you"
Ken turned away so that she wouldn't see the pain in his expression. "Good night, Jun."
At one in the morning, Frost, Ken, Joe, Jun, Ryu, and Jinpei assembled before the God Phoenix, which had once more been outfitted with the cargo plane façade.
Colten slowly limped past each member of the team, checking their uniforms and equipment of the umpteenth time.
Joe tested the grip of his tranquilizer gun and then twirled it, comparing it to feel of his own standard weapon. A black holster hung low on his hip, its black material both belted and velcroed to the side of the not-quite skin tight suit. Holstering the gun with a well practiced flair, Joe then lightly pounded his fist against his chest and the thin layer of kevlar underneath. His light weight helmet housed the latest in miniaturized communications gear as well as a mirrored visor made of light intensifying material. With a flick of his wrist, Joe lowered the visor, noting that he could see through it perfectly, without the slight color distortion of his bird style helmet.
Glancing at the others, Joe noticed that the lowered visors hid every aspect of their features. With an unseen grin, Joe realized that for the first time, he and the rest of the team actually looked like the ninjas they tried so hard to emulate.
"All right everyone, let's get on board. We've got a schedule to keep."
Ken's voice came through clearly over the helmet's headset. Several responses of ‘roger' echoed through as well. Joe followed the others into the redisguised God Phoenix.
Giving them all a last worried good bye, Colten quickly hobbled out of the bay and headed for the control room.
The double doors over the bay soon opened overhead and the God Phoenix's engines came to life. With an ear splitting roar, the ship lifted up into the night.
In less than two hours, after an uneventful flight, Ryu informed them all that their pre-planned landing site was almost in range.
Silently staring out the front view screen, Jun inspected the dark enshrouded, desolate land that waited below.
With a soft roar, the God Phoenix soon landed amidst a field of rocky hills, which would protect it from any prying Galactor eyes.
Ken stood up as they touched ground. "All right, the nearest vent leading down into the installation should be approximately two point five miles from here." His visor turned to look at each of them. "The backpacks with the extra ammo and tools are waiting for us down by the lower hatch." He turned towards the team's pilot. "Ryu, we'll contact you as soon as things are ready. We probably weren't spotted landing, but keep your eyes peeled just in case."
"Sure - though, I still think it would have been a better idea for me to be coming along..." Ryu sounded as if he were pouting.
"Well, if you want to go that badly," Joe quipped, "I think I could be persuaded to stay here and fly the Phoenix when it's time."
"No! That's all right," Ryu protested in panic. "I'll stay, I'll stay!"
With his visor down, Ryu wasn't able to see the large smile broadening Joe's face.
Leading the way, Frost hid his own smile as he approached the lift on the back of the bridge. In expectant silence, the rest of the team lowered their visors and followed. When they reached the ramp in the lower levels, they each picked up their backpacks and slipped them on. Moving quickly down the ramp, they merged into the night.
"Team, remember that the default for communications is line of sight only," Ken said. "You'll need to manually switch the setting for longer distances - in both cases, keep the use to a minimum."
Forming a straight line with Joe in the lead, the group set off at a fast pace to the north. As they came within a half mile of their destination, Ken signaled for them to slow down and spread out. Their black clothed, silent forms were barely visible as they began their search for the way in.
"Aniki, I think I've found it!" Jinpei's excited whisper rang in each of their helmets. The team moved to converge on his coordinates.
As she'd been asked to, Jun had been sticking quite close to Frost. Therefore she didn't miss the fact that he'd slowed considerably as he moved to join the others. Lifting her visor and cupping her hand over the helmet's mouthpiece so that the others wouldn't hear, Jun reached out for his shoulder and brought Frost to a stop. "Are you all right?"
She could see nothing but her own reflection as Frost turned slowly to face her. He didn't lift his visor, but only gave her a slight nod.
Jun thought of pushing the point but didn't. It was too likely that his sensitive ribs were letting him know just how much they didn't appreciate all the running they'd been up to. Lowering her visor again, she walked silently beside him to meet the others.
The vent Jinpei had found was set low to the ground, colored to match the desolate landscape. A bent rectangular grate lay beside it, with a mangled heat diffuser still attached. A long coil of rope was anchored to the ground with a pair of heavy stakes even as Ken and Joe eased the rest of it down the opened shaft.
As the two of them worked, the communicators crackled to life. "I can't find any monitors or anything else in here, aniki."
"All right then, Jinpei," Ken answered, "keep going, but be careful."
For long tense moments, they waited to hear from Jinpei again. Joe helped stabilize the rope Ken was still feeding into the vent, while Frost and Jun kept an eye on the surrounding landscape. The wait was starting to feel too long, when Jinpei finally called back in.
"Aniki, I've reached the end of the vent." His voice came through with barely controlled excitement. "There's a whole town down here!"
"Take a careful look from your position," Ken advised. "Check for sentries and any electronic watchdogs."
The communicators were silent for several long minutes.
"Come on, Jinpei, hurry it up!" Joe growled into the mike.
Ken turned to look at him. "Just leave him alone, Joe."
"Yeah, just leave me alone, Joe." A light boyish giggle and an answering snarl poured clearly over the ear pieces of their helmets.
"Aniki, I haven't been able to spot anything. This place is lax." Jinpei quickly added. "It's gonna be so easy!"
"All right, can you estimate the distance from the end of the vent to the ground?" Ken asked.
"Um... ah... yeah, aniki, it looks to be about fifty feet."
Jun noticed Ken nodding to no one in particular. "Jinpei, we're going to send the rest of the rope down. Stay in the vent, out of sight, and watch for any kind of reaction." His voice grew serious. "No ‘hot dogging', understand?"
"Ah, why do you guys always have to ruin all the fun?"
Ken didn't answer the youngest team members age old question but continued feeding the rope down the vent. Rechecking to make sure the stakes would hold once the rope ran out, Ken slipped the metal ring connected to his belt around the rope and slid into the waiting vent. "Jun, Frost, follow me in. Joe, bring up the rear."
At first, the climb down was fairly easy, the vent slopping at a gentle angle. As they moved farther on, however, the vent abruptly dropped straight down. Held up by their hooked belts, the group of four slowly made their way down, their backpacks pulling at them. Jun began to worry as labored breathing quietly intruded through her ear piece. She wanted desperately to ask Frost how he was and if he needed help, but knew that everyone would hear it if she did. Resigned to silence until he asked for the help, she continued on down, trying to keep an eye on him from above.
After a seeming eternity, the vent sloped again, giving them a place to stand once more. Ken stopped and waited for the others to catch up to him, which gave Frost and unasked for moment of rest.
Continuing on their descent, they were soon able to meet up with a fidgeting Jinpei. "You guys sure took your time!"
"Only because you had it easy, short stuff." Joe reached out to cuff Jinpei on the side of the head, but the other dodged.
"Have you spotted anything at all, Jinpei?" Ken asked.
"No, aniki, everything's been quiet."
Ken nodded. "All right then, we'll go down one at a time. As soon as the first one is clear, the next will go." He pointed out toward the vista below. "Use that building over there as cover until we're all down." Ken tapped Jinpei's shoulder, picking him to go first.
"Wings would sure be nice about now..."
"That kind of attitude won't do you any good, Jinpei."
The young boy almost cringed at the tone of disapproval in his sister's voice. "Sorry, neechan." Before he could blunder again, Jinpei slid down the rope and deftly leapt the few feet it ran short from the ground. Waving back towards them, he scooted into the deep shadow from the building across the way.
Joe went next, and then a hesitant Jun. As she ran towards the building to join the others, she glanced back, knowing Ken would assign Frost to go next. She watched him as he came out of the vent, and in her distracted state almost ran into Jinpei. She stood in the shadows watching the prince as the lowered himself quickly down the rope and then dropped to the ground.
Frost's landing was good, but he stayed crouched on the ground making Jun suddenly wonder if he was all right. After a moment, she saw him stand, his left arm wrapped protectively about his side. He moved towards them to allow Ken to begin his own descent.
He waved Jun away as she came forward to help him. "I'm all right. I just landed a little hard. I'll be fine in a minute."
Joe and Jinpei looked over at them but said nothing. Ken joined them a few seconds later.
"All right, team, this should be the hard part," Ken said. "Frost, Jun, Jinpei, you three spread out and recon the town. Look for a command center and keep an eye out for the main way out of here."
The three of them nodded.
"Joe, you take the left hand side of the wall and I'll take the right." Joe nodded as well.
"If anything untoward happens, call in. Remember to be careful."
"Yes, mother Nambu," Joe crooned.
Ken went on as if nothing had been said. Jun moved closer to Joe to kick him if need be. Ken released the tranq gun from its holster and held it at the ready. "If you meet anyone, tranq them. If they're out this late, it's bound to be someone we don't want aware of our presence."
There was a long sigh over the comm. "Come on, Ken! Quit babying us." Joe sounded exasperated. "We know the routine. Let's go already!"
Jun saw her brother's head bob with agreement even though he never said a word. Ken stared at Joe's annoyed stance and then nodded. "Okay then, let's go."
Silently, the group spread out from the building's shadow. Joe and Ken headed in opposite directions towards the base's outer walls. Jinpei zoomed out randomly into the town proper. Frost's lithe form moved off to the left of Jinpei's direction. Jun followed after him on a parallel course.
The small town spread before them in death like silence. The streets were wide and evenly spaced intersecting one another to form neat square blocks. The small, tall three bedroom houses lined up on each side of the street like clones. Their boring uniformity was occasionally broken by a small warehouse set between them or an odd looking store. Large square mailboxes stood at each intersection, their slots numbered to match those set above the small houses' doors.
Each warehouse and store contained large bulletin boards on their outer walls. As Jun slowed to take a closer look at one of them, she came to a complete stop, startled by what she saw.
All across the top portion of the board were posted eight-by-ten glossies. In them, figures dressed to look like the Gatchaman team. Jun's eyes grew wide as she realized what these impostors were doing in them. The first, with a man dressed to look like Ken, showed the Eagle stabbing an obviously unarmed lab technician while laughing maniacally. The next was of the Condor slapping a woman with her clothes already half-torn off her body. The Owl and the Swallow were playing ball with an unattached head. With a cold chill making its way through her, she saw a picture with a woman dressed as the Swan using her yo-yo to rip away a man's privates. Feeling slightly ill, Jun couldn't help but wonder what other horrible atrocities had been fabricated and then blamed on them. Would Katse take what they were doing today and attribute the loss of the people here to be a Gatchaman murder spree, instead of the liberation it was meant to be? The fear and murderous zeal of some of the Galactor men they had encountered over their career was now so much easier to understand.
Though the voice had come through the comm, Jun turned around feeling a presence somewhere behind her. Frost's black dressed form signaled to her from a nearby house. His reflective visor stared at her even as he repeated the gesture.
Holding her tranq gun tightly in one hand and putting the grisly pictures out of her mind, Jun quickly crossed the street to join him.
Without saying a word, Frost signaled her to follow. Within moments, they reached the side of a yellow house and he pointed past the corner towards an isolated building in the midst of a small park.
Every side of the building had huge bulletin boards, all of them filled to overflowing. While all the other buildings they'd seen so far had been made of wood, this one looked to have been built out of one immense block of stone.
From where they hid, Jun could see a set of steps leading up to a large metal door. On either side of the door stood a brown and green clad guard. Sets of speakers protruded out of each corner of the flat roof, a number of cables rising from them and joining others that went up towards the high, domed ceiling above.
Jun moved slowly back behind the house, and reaching up to the side of her helmet, switched her comm unit to the mid range communicator. "Ken, this is Jun. We think we've found some kind of communications center in the middle of town. We're going to go check it out."
There was a slight pause. "Roger. Call back when you can."
Jun moved back to where Frost was still watching the building. When he saw her, he pointed up towards the roof.
"Did you see me, nee-chan?" Jinpei's voice whispered over the comm.
"Where are you?" Jinpei's head rose above the edge of the roof as he looked around for them.
"We're across the street. Forty five degrees from the southeast corner of the building."
His head turned in their direction. "Are you planning on spoiling this for me, nee-chan?"
Jun shook her head in wonder. Though she couldn't see his face, Jun was sure that Frost was smiling. She sighed. "No, Jinpei, I wasn't planning on it. We'll just cover you."
Nodding from his perch, Jinpei crawled along the edge of the roof towards the main door. With infinite care, he slowly inched his way over the lip and looked down. Jun watched with held breath as he brought his arm down, tranq in hand. After he'd pulled the trigger twice, both guards slumped slowly to the ground.
"Hah! Piece of cake!"
"Don't get cocky, Jinpei, this isn't over yet," Jun said. "Keep watch while we cross over."
Slipping silently past Jun, Frost carefully checked the sides of the open park area. Before she could think of stopping him, he made a dash towards the far stone building. Forcibly holding herself in check, Jun waited until he was past the halfway mark before going after him. Inwardly, Jun fumed at his stunt, even as she was flattered by it. For though his trying to protect her was a sweet gesture, she was the expert here, not him. He could be hurt. It was up to her to take the risks. She wouldn't let him do it again.
Reaching the stone steps, Jun held Frost back for a moment as she took out a small device from the side of her backpack and scanned the area for any surveillance devices. "It looks okay." She put the device away. "Let's prop these guys up before anyone notices that something's amiss."
"Your wish is my command."
Jun's head snapped around to stare at Frost, just as a momentary gasp turned into a string of soft giggles in her ear. Up to this point, Frost's staunch silence had been a little unnerving, but it might be that soon she would learn to prefer him that way.
As if he had no idea of what he'd just said, Frost moved by her to do as she'd suggested. Shaking her head slowly, Jun moved to do the same.
Grabbing one of the unconscious Galactor guards, she carefully lifted him into a semi-upright position. Reaching down, she locked his knees into place and leaned him up against the wall. "How does it look up there, Jinpei?"
"All clear so far, nee-chan."
Nodding at the answer, Jun then turned her attention to the building's metal door. There were no handles visible on it, but there was a numbered keypad embedded into the wall beside it. Distractedly, Jun removed her backpack and reached for a small toolkit inside. Prying the keypad's outer panel open, she stared intently at the mesh of wires and sensors within. Working quickly, she added some new connectors to bypass the main system and reset it with her own code.
Slipping her backpack back on, Jun nodded at Frost before triggering the door. It slid upward with a silent rush. Jun instantly rolled into the room tranq gun in hand.
The interior hallway was dark save for the light flooding in from the outside. Seeing no immediate danger, Jun moved back outside and quickly replaced the keypads outer casing. "Jinpei, we're going inside," she said. "Keep an eye on things out here."
As soon as she and Frost had made it inside, Jun shut the door behind them. The light intensifying aspect of their visors lit up the darkness. So, for the moment, Jun ignored the large switch she spotted on the wall and instead turned her attention to the contents of the room.
A functional desk as well as several chairs crowded the end of the hallway. A drinking fountain filled a recess in the wall. Propaganda covered all the walls, with a large picture of Berg Katse hanging near the front door. Two other doors stood closed on opposite sides of the hallway not five feet before them.
Frost signaled that he would take the door on the right. Giving him a slight nod, Jun started towards the other. Both quietly approached their objectives from the side. Acting in unison, they threw their respective doors open. They both lunged in and rolled, Jun clearly hearing Frost's pain filled grunt as they did so.
Jun's room was unlit and appeared to be empty of life. Keeping her tranq gun at the ready, she slowly retreated to the doorway, looking for any signs of movement.
From her vantage point, she could see an array of instruments crowding the room from one side to the other. A number of headsets rested on the long table among them. There was a matching stool for every headset. Also a large video screen looked down into the room from one corner with a large switchboard set on the side. After taking a quick, but more thorough survey of the equipment within, Jun left the room to go check on Frost.
As she entered his room, she found the prince busily checking over the large span of equipment that filled that room as well. "Ken, this is Jun. The building is now secure. I'm pretty sure that it's the communication center for both the town and the base." She watched Frost as he continued working. "So far, we've found an elaborate switching system with a number of overrides and tapping devices. From what I can tell, they shut down all communications in town at night."
"Good," Ken's voice whispered to her over the comm system. "Keep the lines shut and see if you can fix the system so it can't be activated from the outside. Maintain your position until we've found all the guards."
As Jun switched her communicator back to its default setting, Frost slowly raised his visor after turning on the lights in the room.
"All this scanning equipment is set on standby," he said. "They wouldn't have known we were coming even if we'd landed on top of them... Very sloppy."
Jun raised her own visor. "You make it sound as if you cared."
Frost smiled. "Of course! It's making our work all that much easier. I'm always for that."
Jinpei remained outside on the roof as a lookout. Jun set Frost to disabling the scanning equipment while she tackled the communications setup in the next room. She'd set her backpack against the wall and was about to immerse herself in her work when a call came over the comm.
"Ken, I've found the main entrance." It was Joe. "It's northwest of our entry point. It has a pretty sophisticated looking security lock on it, but it shouldn't give us too much trouble when we're ready for it."
"Have you seen any signs of the guards' main quarters?" Ken asked.
"Not yet." Joe's tone implied that he'd have the situation remedied before long.
Ten minutes later, Jun joined Frost and began poking through the papers of an - until recently - locked cabinet. While they were sifting through them, Ken's voice came up on the comm.
"Team, I've found the guards' sleeping quarters. They shouldn't be bothering us for some time."
Jun smiled at the words, guessing at Joe's chagrin for not having made the discovery first.
"It doesn't look like all the guards were here, however, so everyone keep your eyes open, we may need to deal with some stragglers."
"Roger." Jun went back to what she'd been doing.
"It looks like it won't be long before the show begins."
Jun glanced over at Frost as he laid down a numbers of papers he'd been skimming through to stare at her expectantly.
"With any luck, everything will go as planned and we can get you back to Colten so he can stop worrying about you," she said.
Frost's gray eyes danced lightly at her remark. "With that, I'd only be too happy to oblige." He bowed deeply before her and bade Jun to lead the way. "Have you ever thought of what you'll do once the fight with Galactor is over?"
Jun threw Frost a quick glance over her shoulder, curious as to why he was asking her such a thing. "I - I've always tried not to think about it," she admitted. "Though everyday I pray that this conflict will come to an end, sometimes I'm not all that sure that it ever will." Jun looked away, surprised she was telling him this. She'd never even mentioned these things to Jinpei. "We've defeated Galactor so many times, but we seem no closer to stopping them now than when we started... I dread that someday our luck will run out and we'll lose." She felt a light shudder run through her. "If something happened to us, there'd be nothing standing in Galactor's way. The world might lose all hope then..."
"You five carry such a great burden."
Jun heard him walk up behind her and she didn't resist as he gently embraced her from behind.
The warmth, the comfort was so great and unexpected that Jun eye's instantly filled with tears. She wanted to let go, to weep freely in the protection of his arms - and for the first time truly share her doubts and fears with someone who'd understand yet wasn't directly connected to her work. It would be safe to share her innermost secrets with Frost, she knew this in her heart. But, but she couldn't afford to do this now. It wasn't the right time or place. Still it was so tempting!
Hesitatntly, Jun forced herself to push away from Frost's protective warmth. She dared not look at him, as a part of her yearned to do nothing but return to it. "We'd better get busy. It shouldn't be long now."
Trying to ignore his unignorable presence, Jun moved on to the last set of controls, making the equipment ready for what was to come. They didn't have long to wait.
"All right team, we're set here." Ken's voice came clearly over the comm set. "Jun, if you and Frost are ready, go for it."
Her reflective visor back in place, Jun nodded towards Frost. Nodding back, the prince began flipping a low row of bright green switches on the wall.
Lights that had lain dormant over the town outside, blazed to life.
"Oh! That's bright!" Jinpei's surprised voice rang just a little too loudly in their ears.
"Are you ready?" Jun glanced at Frost, sliding up a number of the horizontal bars on the console before her.
Removing his helmet, Frost sat down on the stool next to her and brought forward a large microphone from the wall. Jun turned a large dial as Frost stared at the waiting microphone in silence. He slowly ran his hand through his light hair before he spoke.
"People of station A-137, good morning." Frost paused as his voice roared over the town through the building's external speakers. Jun winced at the slight whine of feedback that followed.
"My name is Michael Frost and I have come today to give you an opportunity. It is one which, in all likelihood, I'll only be able to present to you this once." He paused for a moment, before pressing on.
"I was once, like you, an unwilling guest of the mighty Galactor machine. Like you, I'd heard the whispers, the rumors, about the unspeakable truths regarding the organization. Yet, unlike you, I am now free of their grasp! Yes, free." Frost paused again. "It can be done, it has been done. And now I wish to extend an opportunity to you to gain that same freedom. I offer you a haven from those who would oppress you and use you against those you love."
Jun turned to her left, a small red warning light catching at her attention. She activated her comm link. "Ken, someone is trying to communicate with this facility from the outside. We might be running out of time."
"All right," he answered. "Try to speed things up as much as you can then. We need to get these people out of here as soon as possible."
Lifting her visor, Jun cupped her hand over the comm and spoke to her companion. "Frost, we may have a complication. We need to try and move them out now."
The prince nodded slightly, acknowledging Jun's whisper, before speaking into the microphone again. "As quickly as you can, gather up your loved ones and start moving towards the main doors of the station. I realize that you have no reason to believe that my offer is genuine and unfortunately I don't have the time to try and convince you otherwise. No one will be forced to come with us. The choice will be entirely up to you. But remember, I'll only be able to give you this offer this once. It may be your only chance to ever escape Galactor." He took a deep breath. "My companions and I are dressed in black. We will meet you at the doors. Please hurry."
Frost pushed away the microphone and shut it down and then reached for his helmet. He glanced once at Jun as he put it in place.
"Jinpei, we're coming out."
Frost quickly followed Jun out of the room. Once they'd made it outside, they met Jinpei at the building's steps. Her brother was impatiently swinging one of the unconscious guard's arms back and forth.
Jun couldn't believe it. "Jinpei!"
He jumped back as if stung. "I'm not hurting anything, nee-chan! Besides, they're kinda cute this way, ne?"
"We'll talk about that later." Jun grabbed her brother's arm and led him down the steps, with a grinning Frost bringing up the rear.
Following the wide road on the other side of the small park, they quickly moved in the direction of the main doors. Unlike before, they made no efforts to disguise their presence and instead walked down the middle of the street where they'd be easily seen. People slowly came out of their homes and stared at the three of them, their faces filled with confusion and fear. Jun, Frost, and Jinpei tried to beckon to them as best they could, trying to encourage them to follow.
By the time the three of them reached the doors, a trickle of townspeople were timidly approaching.
The large, twenty-foot door was only slightly open as a frustrated Joe kicked violently at the disassembled panel beside it. "Open damn you!"
The door hesitantly slid open the rest of the way.
"Hah! I haven't lost my touch." Joe stared smugly at the open door.
"Don't congratulate yourself quite yet, there's still the outer doors to be taken care of."
Joe snapped around to stare at Ken, and though they couldn't see it through the visor, Jun was sure his expression wasn't pleasant. "Maybe we could blow that one up? I definitely could do that." His voice filled with excitement. "It's been just too quiet around here. We need a little bang."
"No, we don't want to scare these people," Ken answered. "I'm sure with a little patience, you'll be able to open those doors the old fashioned way."
Jun turned from where she'd been inspecting the butchered panel to look at her two teammates. "We'll take care of it, Ken. If the outer door system is the same as this one, it shouldn't prove to difficult." She felt herself smile. "You two can deal with our arriving visitors." Before Joe and Ken could say anything, Jun grabbed Frost and moved quickly up the ramp in the direction of the outer doors.
They almost jogged up the rising incline until they reached a set of horizontally placed metal slabs. As Jun looked over the controls off to the right of them, Frost's labored breathing came through clearly over the comm. She frowned. "This shouldn't take long."
"Anything... I can do to... help?"
Jun shook her head no, but then changed her mind. "Sure. Would you hold these for me?" She handed him the small tool kit from her backpack and opened it in his hands.
Jun had been concentrating on the panel before her when Frost's voice broke the silence. "It seems... like old times, doesn't it?"
"What do you mean?" She frowned, still concentrating on the work before her.
"Well, you and I are here, in a Galactor facility, alone in a deserted corridor, surrounded by softly glowing red lights."
Jun stopped what she was doing and looked about her. What Frost said was true. Because of the properties of the visor, she hadn't noticed the red lighting until now.
"And once again," he continued. "We're stuck working on a door. One which could make the difference between freedom or becoming lost forever."
Jun shook her head, goose bumps rising on her arms at the strange similarities. "I'm sure we'll be as successful here as we were there."
"I never doubted it." Was the prince's soft reply.
With a small smile, Jun returned to work.
Almost five minutes later, the giant slabs opened silently before them. A cold breeze poured in hungrily towards them as a bright field of stars was revealed above. With a satisfied smile, Jun reached up to change the setting on her communicator. "Ken, the doors are open."
"Great." His voice came through loud and clear. "We're still gathering the townspeople together. We'll start sending them up as soon as the majority arrive. Meanwhile, I'd like the two of you to check the area outside and make sure it's clear. Try and find a likely landing site for Ryu as well."
Jun retrieved her backpack and placed her tools back inside. Looking up, she found Frost at her side. "Are you up to this? I could go at it alone."
Frost bowed slowly in her direction. "Please lead on."
Jun would have preferred he'd replied otherwise, but didn't say anything. Instead she slowly scanned the area beyond the doors, glad that the visor kept him from seeing the concerned expression she knew she wore.
Seeing nothing unusual in the rocky, lifeless landscape, Jun stepped out into the open. Frost moved up silently beside her. They circled the immediate and finding it clear, moved on farther out.
"Ken, the best landing area seems to be right around the entrance itself," Jun spoke softly into her communicator. "The rest of the region is too cluttered for the God Phoenix."
"Any sign of any more guards?"
"Not yet, but this area is much rockier than what we ran across before. It'd be awfully easy to hide here if you didn't want to be seen." Jun's eyes never stopped roaming over the crag filled terrain.
"I'll call Ryu and have him land as close to the doors as possible," Ken said. "That should give the civilians some cover if something goes wrong. In the mean time, keep an eye out but don't take any risks. Meet us back at the entrance in fifteen."
"Roger." Jun glanced over her shoulder at Frost, and then frowned as she noticed his back was to her, his body tense. "Frost, what is it?"
"I'm not sure... I thought I saw something."Jun followed the direction of his gaze but could see nothing untoward. It didn't reassure her. "Let's stick to the shadows and start back."
Ken, Jinpei, and Joe stood before the rapidly growing crowd. Already, they'd recruited some of the civilians already there to usher the newcomers into lines. The ninjas kept the people up front from entering the wide ramp, not wanting to risk the eager escapees' safety until Ryu had arrived.
Joe tapped Ken on the shoulder. "Ryu's not answering."
Jinpei snorted. "I bet he's asleep, aniki."
"Short-stuff here is probably right. Can I give him a ‘wake-up' call?"
Before Ken could answer Joe, Jinpei took matters into his own hands. "RYU!"
"Jinpei!" Ken and Joe simultaneously tried to reach for the youngest member of the team as his scream still echoed in their ears.
"Oops! Sorry! I forgot about the earphones." Jinpei dodged like an eel out of their range to a safe distance. "I -"
Ryu's panicked voice drowned out the rest of Jinpei's response. "What's going on? Are you guys hurt? What's happening?"
Ken switched his communicator. "Ryu, we're all right! Jinpei just got a little carried away, that's all. We were trying to get in touch with you to let you know that we're ready for the God Phoenix."
"Oh." There was dead silence from the other for several seconds. "I was asleep, wasn't I..."
"We could hear your snores coming over clear as day."
While Jinpei was busy teasing Ryu, he didn't notice Joe sneaking up behind him. The Condor wrapped his arm about Jinpei's neck so he couldn't get away and pounded the top of his helmet. "We could always have Jun come back early and let her know just what you've been up to," he threatened.
"No, no, please don't!" Jinpei quit trying to get out of his hold. "I'll be good. I promise!"
Joe squeezed his arm against the boy's throat tightly for a second and then let him go. "You'd better."
"I - I'm sorry, Ken." Ruy's guilt laden voice whispered over the comm.
"Bring the Phoenix five degrees northwest from your present location," Ken commanded. "There should be a clearing about four miles from your present position. Land on the eastside, before the wide opening there."
"Roger." Ryu sounded unusually subdued.
Ken took a deep breath before raising his visor partway as he turned to face the crowd of nervous people before him. "Our transport is on its way. It'll be here in just a few minutes." He tried to sound as reassuring as possible. "This will all be over very soon. Please pass it on to those behind you."
The people closest to him replied with small, shy smiles. As Ken lowered his visor, a soft murmur ran through the crowd like a wave as the news was passed on.
"Joe, Jinpei, I'm going top side to wait for Ryu. I'll let you know when he gets here." Ken turned to go.
"Well, if you see Jun, maybe this would be a good time to talk to her."
"Joe." Ken's warning tone was very clear.
"It was just a thought - commander."
Ken ignored Joe's reply and moved on up the ramp.
Reaching the top, Ken carefully checked out the barren landscape, while trying hard to subdue the dull anger that burned inside him at his friend and at himself.
He'd known that he'd be a member of the Science Ninja Team since he was eight. There'd been nothing else for him since then. He'd wanted nothing else - he'd never looked beyond it. He'd never thought or wanted a personal life. The stakes were too high - there was too much to lose. And he wouldn't be the first to give up things for the greater good. Nambu had set his whole life aside for the sake of the world. He would do no less.
Still, he'd always had feelings for Jun -- that he'd never been quite able to deny. But he'd tried to stifle those distracting feelings as much as he could over the years. He'd always treated her as a teammate, a friend, keeping their relationship at a level he could deal with. Yet Jun's blossoming relationship with Frost had brought up so many feelings he'd hardly suspected he had and all of them he needed so desperately to ignore. What good would it do him if he gave in to them? As long as Galactor was a threat, he had a duty to perform. And he could die at any time because of it. He might be asked at any moment to give the ultimate sacrifice for their goals. What would Jun have then? And the team would need her more than ever. She wouldn't need the added distraction. He didn't want to leave her with only a legacy of pain and heartbreak.
Also, to be honest, he had no experience with this type of thing... He doubted he could ever be romantic. He didn't even think he could learn to if he tried. He wasn't rich. He had no family, no history. He had nothing to offer her. Yet he'd always known Jun had feelings for him. But why did she feel that way? And why did he for her? It was inconvenient and it made no sense. And he hated things that made no sense.
Ken's gaze traveled back and forth, his eyes moving as erratically as his thoughts. Abruptly a flicker of movement caught at his attention and all his musings stopped. For the first time, it dawned on him how rocky the area beyond the clearing really was - how much more cluttered it was than the rest of the surrounding area. With a cold feeling, it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps this wasn't natural, but designed.
Keeping his gaze locked on the spot where he'd sighted the movement, Ken sprinted to the nearest clump of rocks.
Moving slowly among them, he crept to the place he'd kept in constant sight. Upon reaching it, he found nothing. But looking a little further, Ken found what looked like a small path moving down a set of parallel jutting rocks. Silently, he followed the trail until it split. With great care, he climbed the small rock wall there, wanting to get a look at what lay beyond before deciding which of the two ways to take. Carefully taking a look over the edge, he froze as he spotted two dark figures sneaking in his direction.
It was only a moment before he recognized the two as Jun and Frost. He was about to call them, when Frost suddenly turned and fired at something off to the side. Jun turned with him and started firing as well.
Without hesitation, Ken leapt over the rock wall, his tranq gun in hand, even as a number of barely visible forms rose up from other piles of rocks to aim weapons at them.
Quickly firing at those he could see, Ken saw that Jun and Frost had yet to realize they were surrounded. With a burst of speed, he made his way towards them.
"Jun, behind you!"
She turned, something about the desperation in the familiar voice making her think it was already too late. In one smooth move, Jun raised her tranq gun even as her eyes locked onto the gun barrel that was pointed straight at her. Subconsciously, a part of her acknowledged the presence of the heavily camouflaged Galactor as his finger squeezed the trigger that would mean her death.
The flash from the submachine gun registered in her mind even as she was slammed into from the side. Unable to stop, she collided with Frost, and brought them both down. The sound of gunfire echoed in her ears as she hit the ground hard.
Jun didn't let herself think or even be surprised about Ken's unexpected presence there. Ignoring everything, Jun twisted on the ground and shot at the man who'd just fired at her before he could reaim.
"There's an outcrop close to our right," Frost said hurriedly. "Help me with him and let's make for it!"
Not sparing the time for a reply, Jun took one quick glance at Ken's prone form to find his arm, while still firing blindly about her. As Frost took hold of him as well, they both stood up and ran for cover as fast as they could with their burden.
Though not entirely sure, Jun thought she'd seen some of their attackers fall. She hoped she wasn't wrong.
As they made the safety of a jutting rock, pain filled gasps came clearly over the comm. Jun's concerned gaze moved first to Frost, and then more fearfully to Ken, not sure if what she was hearing belonged to just the one or both of them.
Frost sat down heavily, gently laying Ken out beside him, and began inspecting his wounds. Jun hugged the edge of their momentary haven, shooting anything that moved while at the same time concentrating on not thinking about the possible extent of Ken's injuries.
Frost's suspicions had proved right. There had been someone out there. But as they'd come to find out - they were terribly hard to spot. These guards weren't wearing the standard Galactor uniforms. Instead, they wore clothing that enabled them to blend in easily with the land around them. So much so, that the light intensifying capabilities of their visors hadn't helped. They hadn't even realized they'd been surrounded until Ken...
As Jun sent out a couple of darts to discourage two Galactors trying to inch towards them, her gun clicked empty. Reaching into the side pocket of her backpack, she drew out four more clips. Peeling off the backing on all but one of them, she placed them against her leg and they stayed. The last she promptly slapped home into the tranq gun after throwing the spent clip on the ground. As she finished, Jun found her gaze inadvertently wandering towards the two men with her, even as she heard Frost rip open part of Ken's bloodied suit. Her voice trembled slightly as she spoke. "How bad is it?"
Frost didn't look up at her question, but continued to gently prod at Ken's exposed flesh. "I can't really tell. I've found four entry points so far. Two went clean through. The other two penetrated the armor but don't appear to have gone in deep."
"Can you help him?" Jun was glad that her visor hid her face even as she did her utmost to sound calm.
Frost removed his backpack and rummaged inside it. "I can patch him up, stop any external bleeding."
"Please, do what you can. I'll keep the Galactors busy." With all her will, Jun forced herself to block out Ken's masked, bleeding form from her mind and turned her full attention back to the men who wanted to kill them.
Over the next several minutes, Jun was only able to down one of the Galactors. Chips of rock lay all about her from where they'd taken occasional pot shots at her and missed. Jun had to work hard to spot the enemy, their special uniforms letting them blend too well with the arid landscape. She lost all sight of them as the God Phoenix thundered overhead heading west.
"Frost, I think we're going to have to move," she said. "They're getting too close."
"All right, I'm almost ready."
Jun heard movement behind her followed by a loud hiss of pain. As she glanced inadvertently over her shoulder, she froze. Frost had turned Ken over and carefully removed his helmet. Ken's face was a mask of pain.
Jun bit her lip hard, her eyes filling with tears. Seeing his face destroyed the wall of seeming indifference she'd been trying so hard to maintain, and drove home the seriousness of their predicament and what it might ultimately mean for them.
Ken's partially glazed eyes opened and stared at her in the darkness. "Jun, call Joe... get to... the Phoenix..."
She stared at his pained, perspiring face, tears running freely down her cheeks and out the bottom of her visor to stain the dry ground beneath her. She didn't notice as Frost looked suddenly away. "Roger."
Jun turned from him, trying to recover her composure. She felt like a fool for not having thought about calling the others before. Slowly, she reached up to switch her communicator to its broader setting. "Joe, Jinpei, are you there?"
"Yes, we're here." Joe's voice came over strong. "Where are you guys? Ryu is here and it's time to go. Ken's also missing."
Jun bit her lip again. "Joe, we're in trouble. We've been ambushed by a Galactor patrol... Ken's been wounded."
"Aniki!" Joe and Jinpei almost overrode each other in their surprise. "How bad?"
Jun hesitated a moment, before forcing herself to answer the question as calmly as she could manage. "We're... we're not sure, but it doesn't look good. We need help. I think they're closing in on us."
"Where are you?" Joe's tone was almost impatient.
"East of the entrance - I'm not sure how far," Jun answered. "The Galactors are wearing special camouflage uniforms and are very hard to spot. We've tranqued a few of them, but I don't know how many are left."
"I'll be right there."
Joe suddenly overrode Jinpei's eagerness. "No, you'll stay here and help Ryu. He can't deal with all these people alone."
"But, aniki..." Her brother sounded ready to argue. They didn't have time for this!
"Jinpei, it's all right. Your job is important." Jun tried to inflect as much as she could into her words. "You have to guard those people. Joe can easily deal with this."
There was a long pause. "Okay, nee-chan, if you say so..." He didn't sound happy.
Jun sighed as she switched the communicator back to its default setting. She raised her visor as she knelt next to Ken. "Joe is coming. We'll get you out of here soon." She quickly lowered her visor again as she felt tears threatening the corner of her eyes. When she looked up, she found Frost's visor staring in her direction.
"We need to move," he said.
"Yes, we need to give Joe as much time as possible."
Silently, Frost handed her his extra clips of tranqs. Leaving his backpack where it lay, he knelt down carefully and placed his arms gently beneath Ken's shoulders and knees.
"Won't he be too much for you?"
"No, it's all right," he answered. "I have experience in this line, remember?" Frost slowly moved to stand with his burden. Ken moaned softly but did nothing else. "Where to first?"
Jun made herself look away from them and checked out the terrain around them. "There, by those boulders. They look more defensible than here."
"On a count of three, start off and I'll follow. I'm going to try and pick them off as they come up to fire."
Frost nodded again.
Jun felt her heart slamming hard in her chest. "Are you ready?"
"Okay then... one, two, three!"
Frost ran from the concealment of their current shelter, Ken's weight sitting heavily in his arms. Jun heard his labored breathing as she shot out right behind him, her eyes darting over everything but them.
For the first few seconds they encountered no resistance. After that, however, a number of figures popped up close to their just vacated haven and started coming after them. As fast as she was able, Jun fired at them, using her own body to shield Frost's if they decided to return fire.
One of the Galactors finally did, shooting ahead of them in an effort to cut them off. Jun itched for her yo-yo, her miniature explosives, anything that would help her rid them of these men in large numbers rather than having to pick them off one at a time.
Slowed by Frost's lack of speed due to his burden, the Galactors quickly gained up on them. With dull horror, Jun realized that they'd never make it to their new haven in time. "Frost, go on, save him! I'll join you when I can."
"Wha -- ?" He was trying to look behind him slowing down even more as he did so.
"Don't slow down! Just go! Trust me." Picking up speed, Jun swerved to the right and jumped into the air. She drove her foot at the nearest Galactor as she flipped in mid air, shooting another in the face. Not daring to hesitate, she gave in fully to her training, mentally urging Frost to safety. Jun kept herself in the midst of the Galactors, hoping they wouldn't fire in such close proximity for fear of shooting each other. She had to buy Frost time.
"Stop or I'll kill them where they stand!"
Jun glanced back towards the unfamiliar rough voice and froze.
Twenty feet away, Frost was poised to go over the crest of a small hill of rocks. He stood stock still as the barrel of a large submachine gun appeared from within the area they'd chosen as their next haven. Soon, Jun was able to make out the heavily dressed man wielding it.
"Drop you weapon - now," he ordered. "I've no qualms against killing these two."
Moving very slowly, Jun did as she'd been told. Keeping her voice low, she spoke into her microphone, hoping against hope that her teammate was close enough to hear. "Joe, hurry up. We're in deep trouble." She didn't receive a reply.
"Now raise your hands and move away from my men!"
Guns were aimed at her from every direction by the men still able to do so. Carefully raising her hands, Jun moved away from them and to the right.
"Now take off your helmet. And while you're at it, take off all the other gear you have on you as well." The Galactor leader sounded smug. "And no tricks, or they die."
Keeping her movements simple and non-threatening, Jun slipped off her backpack and removed the clips still attached to her leg. As they fell around her, she reached up very slowly to remove her helmet. Her gaze never wavered from Ken and Frost, even as the Galactor leader shoved them away from the hill of rocks.
As she lifted her helmet, drowning her sight in momentary darkeness, Frost was tripped to his knees. With the barrel of his gun pressed against the side of Ken's head, the Galactor used his free hand to remove Frost's tranq gun and helmet.
Jun let her helmet drop to the ground still trying to get her eyes to adjust to the night's darkness. The sky was clear, allowing the stars overhead to shed enough light to eventually allow her to vaguely make out the shapes of the people around her. Jun shook her head loosening her damp, coiled hair so that it fell about her. This elicited a number of excited murmurs from her captors.
"Well, well, well, isn't this interesting," their leader said. "A female wildcat. Things have just gotten a little brighter today."
Jun saw Frost shoot the man a cold stare that went totally unnoticed.
Jun glanced clinically about her, noticing that most of the guns were still aimed in her direction. A few of the men she had injured in the fight got up and walked around slowly, gathering their tranqued comrades.
"Now... you three are here and a ship has also landed nearby," he sidled up close. "I want you to tell me what's going on here."
Jun glanced at Frost, who held Ken protectively in his arms, and then spoke. "We're on maneuvers. Night practice for the Black Squad. We weren't aware that there was anyone else here." She lowered her voice as if embarrassed. "We originally mistook you for our assigned opponents in tonight's exercise."
The Galactor leader eyed her for a long time. "Nice story," he said. "Good try." He smiled nastily. "Don't worry though, we'll have plenty of time to sort this all out to my satisfaction." He then turned to look at Frost. "You, put him down."
Frost glanced up in confusion as the Galactor leader pointed at the unconscious Ken. "Why?"
The question got Frost a boot rammed into his side. Leaning forward in agony, Frost didn't release his hold on Ken.
"You're not here to question me! Just do as you're told!" A sadistic smile crossed the half masked face. "We have enough incapacitated men of our own. You and the girl are basically intact, however. We'll get the answers we need from you - we don't need the extra baggage." His face turned hard. "Now put him down."
Frost's expression turned stubborn. He didn't move. Jun felt her chest tighten in helplessness, knowing what would probably come next.
"Suit yourself, though I think you will find the process somewhat messy." He turned to two of his men. "Hold her." As they moved to comply, he approached Frost and kicked him again. As the prince gasped in pain, the leader brought the barrel of his submachine gun to Ken's temple.
Jun's face twisted in anguish as they took hold of her arms knowing there was nothing she could do. That if she even tried - she would die the same as Ken, leaving Frost on his own.
The leader grinned cruelly at them as his finger ever so slowly moved to squeeze the submachine gun's trigger. Suddenly, however, he looked up and behind him, his hand reaching for the back of his neck and then unexpectedly collapsed.
Jun didn't wait to try and find out what had happened, but instead used her guards' surprise at their leader's actions to escape their grip and attack. As soon as she had incapacitated the two of them, she dived into the midst of the other Galactors and attacked them en masse.
Something stung her arm, making it feel numb and then warm, even as shots rang out carelessly about her. Jun noticed something dark dart by just at the edge of her vision, but ignored it as it didn't immediately threaten the lives of those she was hoping to save.
A Galactor dropped in front of her even before she'd had a chance to lay a hand on him. Jumping out of the way, kicking another, her gaze locked on the fallen guard long enough to make out the shape of a familiar feather dart sticking out from the back of the man's neck. A tide of fresh energy flushed through her at the proof that help had definitely arrived.
After an interminable amount of time, Jun looked around for another target and found none. Joe's masked form turned towards her from ten feet away and raised two feather darts in salute. He raised his visor as he came near. "Like I've always said - never leave home without them."
Jun found herself helplessly returning Joe's smile.
"Hey, you're hurt!"
Jun stared at Joe in confusion as his expression changed from amusement to concern. He hurried to her side to inspect her arm. As Jun finally spotted the trickle of warm blood flowing from there, her thoughts snapped back to those whose safety she'd been so concerned with in the first place. "Frost! Ken!"
She turned to look at where she'd last seen them. Only the body of the dead Galactor leader was there. "Joe, they're gone!"
Her head abruptly started to throb making her vision blur. The pain in her arm finally made itself felt. Her heart beat rapidly inside her chest even as she tried to understand what she was seeing. This couldn't be! What had happened to them? If she'd lost them... "Michael!"
Her mind sweeping towards total panic, Jun rushed to where she'd last seen them, glancing frantically about. Joe came up behind her but she never noticed him at all.
Both their heads swiveled simultaneously in the direction of the barely heard call. Joe held Jun back as she tried to bolt forward, and snapped his visor back into place.
"Joe..." She tried to pull away from him.
"I can see with this. You can't," he said, the helmet muting his voice. "It could be more trouble."
Jun bit her lip and then scrambled back as he let her go, to retrieve her own helmet. Joe crouched down as he left her behind to silently go over the rocky hill and move to the outcroppings farther on where the voice had come from.
Jun quickly found her helmet and donned it with shakings hands; then moved to follow after him.
As she came down the small hill's other side, she saw that there was no one there. Jun partially raised her visor. "Frost?"
Joe snapped up one of his feather darts as gravel trickled down from the rocks above. A black boot now protruded from a shadow enshrouded cleft.
"We're up here..." Frost's voice whispered down to them from above. "I'm going to need some help."
Without hesitation, Joe and Jun climbed up to either side of the cleft.
"You're... going to have to pull us out... I guess I didn't consider how I would get out before I got us in here." Frost's semi-embarrassed tone made Jun instantly feel more at ease. He was all right! That quickly changed, however, after they'd pulled them out and Jun caught sight of his face. Frost's pallor was almost as pale as Ken's.
Before she could say anything though, she saw his eyes go wide.
"Beautiful One, you've been injured!" His gray eyes rose to meet her in obvious concern.
"It's nothing forget it." How could he be worried about her right now? "How are you and Ken?"
His expression sobered. "I'm all right, but we really need to get your commander some medical attention."
"Here. Let me take him." Joe moved to take Ken from Frost's arms.
Joe pulled his arms back in surprise, not having expected the savagery in Frost's response.
The prince's gaze abruptly avoided their own. "There... there must be other Galactors out there," he said guiltily. "You'd be too burdened with him to react. I'll take him."
Joe's visor stared at Frost long and hard before silently moving out of the way so that the prince could start to come down. Jun watched him in confusion, knowing from the small taught lines on his face that he was in pain. She almost suggested that he let her carry Ken, but didn't, half afraid of what his response would be.
Though her arm was now beginning to hurt in earnest, she reached out to steady Frost on his way down. Jun watched him in silence as he grimaced when he stood up, taking the full burden on Ken's weight. If Frost faltered, she made up her mind right there and there that she'd take Ken away from him by force if need be. Why did he always have to be so stubborn?
"Jinpei, Ryu, is everything ready yet?"
At Joe's question, both their voices poured from the ear pieces their words jumbled together as they each tried to make themselves heard over the other.
Joe cut them off. "Will you two chill out? We should be joining you in just a few minutes. Joe out." The condor took the lead, his head moving from side to side as he scanned the area. On his signal, Frost followed after him with his burden in hand. Jun stared worriedly after him, bringing up the rear.
As they came close to the Galactor entrace, Joe ventured on farther ahead and signaled to them as soon as he'd deemed the area safe. Moving as quickly as their situation allowed, they closed in on the God Phoenix. The ramp on the ship was down, an anxious Jinpei moving back and forth before it. As soon as he spotted them he gave out a welcoming yell and waved for them to come over. Joe had him lead the way inside quickly as the small party reached the ramp without incident.
Joe and Jinpei opened a path for Frost through the crowd of refugees gathered in the hold. Frightened, unsure faces stared at the four of them as Ken was carried towards the elevator.
"Ryu, we're in," Joe spoke into his communicator. "How about getting us the hell out of here?" He held the elevator door open as Frost gingerly moved to get in.
The God Phoenix vibrated around them as the engines were brought to life. Within moments, they felt the pull of gravity as the ship rose into the air. Jun stared at her brother as he slowly raised his visor, his eyes never leaving Ken's unconscious face. She could see tears forming in his eyes, and felt some gathering around her own in sympathy. Trying not to let it get any further, she quickly squeezed his shoulder in reassurance.
Frost half stumbled as they reached the ship's small infirmary and deposited Ken into the nearest bed. Joe stopped and removed his helmet, and ran his fingers through his hair. Jun removed her own, as she hovered by the recessed bed Ken had been deposited into, her brows wrinkled in concern.
"There are all kinds of supplies in here. Use whatever you need. Just make him hold on till we get back to your place." Joe's expression was hard, his voice steady. Only the dead look in his eyes expressed that he was expecting the worst.
Frost's gaze rose to meet his. "I'll do what I can. Just get us back as fast as possible."
Joe nodded. Taking hold of Jinpei's thin shoulder, he turned to leave. Jinpei sent a querying glance in Jun's direction, but she never noticed it. Her gaze was fixed on the two men before her. Joe dragged Jinpei out without another word.
Jun stood in silence as Frost checked out and then turned on the beds monitoring untis. Stiffly, he rose from the side of the bed and searched through the sealed cabinets along its side.
Jun didn't miss the pain that crossed his face as he moved to reach into the drawers above the bed. "Let me get that for you." Not waiting for a reply, she reached past him to bring down the package of bandages he'd been about to grab. Placing the package at Ken's side, Jun moved to open a closet by the infirmary's door. She removed a small stool that lay hidden inside it. "Here, sit. I can get what you need," she said. "I know this place better than you do. Tell me what you want and I'll find it."
As she spoke, Jun found herself slightly distracted by the pallor of Ken's face. Her stomach knotted up inside her as her mind quickly pointed out how close Frost's own color resembled their current patients'.
"Won't they need you on the bridge?" Frost's gaze didn't meet her own as he spoke.
Jun bit her lip, realizing that it sounded as if he wanted to get rid of her. Why would he want to do that? "No, they'll call me if they do. Right now, the two of you need me more."
Frost turned away from her as he slowly sighed. "Where... where is your drug cabinet?"
Jun gave the prince a long questioning look before reaching below the edge of the bed and popping open a secret compartment there. "Each bed has its own supply. There isn't much to work with, but..."
Even as she spoke, Frost leaned gingerly over the open drawer and quickly scanned its contents. Jun heard him sigh again as he removed a can of disinfectant and four packets of aspirin. Ripping open two of them, he swallowed the aspirin dry.
"Help me turn him over." He still wouldn't look at her. "I need to change his bandages."
Jun hesitated, her eyes moving from Ken's unconscious form to Frost's tense face. Then she moved up against the side of the bed and placing her hands at Ken's shoulder and thigh, she carefully helped Frost turn her wounded friend over. Her breath caught in her throat as she noticed the dark stains that had soaked through the bandages Frost had placed on him earlier.
Working quickly, Frost removed each bandage, cleaned and sprayed disinfectant all over each wound before covering it up again. With Jun's help, he turned Ken back over onto his back.
Jun sent him a worried glance as she saw that his hands were shaking with exhaustion as he removed a pair of scissors from the drawer. When she realized what he meant to do with them, she took them from him. Frost didn't try to stop her.
She quickly cut away enough of Ken's uniform so that they could remove the rest of it and Frost was able to search for any wounds he might have missed before.
"Could you bring some more blankets?" Frost asked quietly. "We need to keep him as warm as possible or he's liable to try and go into shock."
Tearing her gaze away from the shallow rise and fall of Ken's chest, Jun quickly scavenged every blanket in sight and brought them over to him. "How is he?"
Frost didn't answer the question immediately as he had Jun unfold three of the blankets and had her spread them over Ken's exposed form.
"Well, I haven't found any evidence that he's bleeding internally, which is good. And since we stopped his bleeding early, he hasn't lost too much blood." His voice grew quiet. "He seems to be holding his own... despite all the interruptions." Frost's gaze moved to meet her own. "I think he's going to make it."
Jun searched his face, looking for any sign that he didn't believe what he'd just told her. A dizzying wave of relief cut through her as she found none. "I'm so glad you've been here to help him," she said gratefully. "I doubt any of us could have done as well. Your help has meant a lot to me, to all of us. I'm sure Ken will be very grateful too, especially after all the trouble you went through to protect him."
Frosts' eyes slightly clouded over. He made no reply to her praise.
"Is there anything else I can do?" Jun was almost forced to ask her question again, at first getting no response.
"Yes... actually... there is one thing..." Frost slowly rose to his feet and pointed at the vacated stool. "Sit."
"I said sit."
Jun stared at him in confusion for a moment and then moved to do as he'd bid her. Frost knelt down beside her and stared in silence at her puzzled face. After a long moment, he tore his gaze away, gently turning the stool she sat on until she faced away from him.
"Michael?" Jun started to turn back around, his silence making her suddenly nervous.
"Be still. I want to look at your arm."
Though it had been throbbing in the background all this time, it was only now that he'd mentioned it that she remembered the wound was there. "It's nothing, really. It's just a scratch," she reassured him. "There's no need for you to bother."
Frost gave her an odd look, not saying anything, before reaching for the small pair of scissors still sitting at the edge of the bed. With painstaking care, he cut away part of the sleeve on her left arm. "Oh, but I have to bother, Beautiful One. I'd never be able to forgive myself if you were ever seriously injured because of me."
Jun heard something in Frost's voice that she was hard pressed to identify. She grimaced slightly as he carefully pulled the blood soaked cloth away from the coagulated wound. "It's my own fault," she insisted. "I should have been more careful. It's a consequence of the job we've all come to grips with..." Jun's gaze strayed guiltily towards Ken's face as she spoke.
"We were very lucky things didn't end up worse."
Jun snapped her gaze towards Frost and found his features veiled and uninformative. "But they didn't. We were successful."
Frost lavishly sprayed disinfectant after he'd cleaned her wound. Jun flinched a little as it burned into her skin.
"Yes... we were..." Frost's tone belied his agreement.
Jun opened her mouth to say more, but stopped. Something was obviously bothering him, but she wasn't sure what it could be. Taking a chance, she said what first came to mind. "It's not your fault, you know. No one's blaming you."
Frost's gray gaze looked up at her in surprise, his hands still busy bandaging her arm. His expression appeared dark for a moment, but it quickly changed as he suddenly smiled. "I know."
He finished bandaging her arm.
Jun stood up slowly, watching Frost struggle to his feet. "We have two other beds. Why don't you rest in one of them for a while. I'll keep an eye on Ken." Jun didn't look directly at him, not sure how he would take her suggestion.
"I'm glad you volunteered," he said. "I was about to ask you."
Jun breathed a sigh of relief, amazed that it had been so easy.
Frost looked over at her. "But I wasn't planning on resting quite yet."
"Your team's work is over. It's time for mine to begin." Frost gingerly moved towards the infirmary door.
Jun felt her cheeks grow hot. "I don't know what you've got in mind, but you're in no condition to do it!" She forced herself to spit the rest of it out. "You're almost in as bad a condition as Ken."
Frost stopped at the doorway. His shoulders sagged as he sighed. "Beautiful One... I have to do this. There's a hold full of frightened people down there, who are even now questioning the wisdom of having come with us. I need to talk to them."
Jun saw the truth of what he was saying, but didn't like it. "I can do that for you. Please stay here and rest. You need it." She felt her anger stir as he slowly moved his head from side to side.
"This is my job. I'll take care of it."
"Why are you so stubborn?"
Frost looked back at her over his shoulder wearing a small, wicked grin.
It made Jun's anger spark into a raging bonfire. "You're not going anywhere and that's final! I'll stop you if I have to."
The grin on the prince's face softened even as a flash of color flushed into his cheeks. "It's true, you could stop me - but you won't. You know I have to do this." Without waiting for a reply, he turned away and left the room.
Jun stared angrily at the empty doorway. After a few moments, she sighed and collapsed back onto the stool letting her anger go. Her eyes roamed between Ken's unconscious and seemingly peaceful expression and the readings on the wall beside him.
"Nee-chan?" Jun glanced over her shoulder to find her brother peeking in through the doorway. "Is aniki going to be all right?"
"He's holding on," she answered. "I'm sure he'll be all right once we get him to Linthinium." Jun tried to give Jinpei a reassuring smile, but wasn't sure if she was successful. "Has Joe called on ahead?"
Jinpei's gaze strayed from the occupied bed back to his sister. "Uh, yeah, he spoke to Colten. They're gonna have doctors waiting for us when we get there."
"Do we have an ETA yet?"
Her brother took several guarded steps into the room, his eyes never leaving the bed.
"Huh?" He looked over at her as if snapping out of a trance. "Oh... ah... yeah, less than two hours. Ryu's got the throttle pushed all the way and Joe-aniki has his hand over his helping him."
Jun noticed how his eyes stayed glued to the figure covered in blankets not ten feet from him. "Jinpei... would you like to sit with me for a while?"
Joe slipped silently into the infirmary, studying Jun as she stood vigil over their unconscious commander. "How is he?"
Jun looked up in surprise. It was obvious she hadn't realized that anyone was there. "A... a little better I think. His signs are stable. Frost's checked on him a few times and thought so too."
Joe moved closer to the bed, his blank expression hiding the concern eating inside at him. None of them had ever been hurt this bad before. Sometimes he'd half come to believed they couldn't be hurt. He stopped beside Jun, gazing at his best friend's face in silence.
"Where is his highness anyway?" he asked a few minutes later.
Jun shook her head and sighed. "He's with the refugees, giving them peace of mind." She frowned a little. "You wouldn't believe how scared those people are. Frost would come in here to check up on Ken and in less than a minute several of them would have tracked him up here looking for him. At least half of them are convinced they've fallen into some kind of Galactor trap. They're just waiting for the axe to fall."
"I see." Joe looked at her for a moment. "I take it then that he hasn't rested at all?"
Jun shook her head again. "I threatened to stop him, but he called my bluff."
Joe's brow rose. "You should have called me. I would have taken care of it."
"Why, Joe! I'm flattered."
They both turned around at the familiar voice. Frost stared at them with a slight smile as he leaned against the infirmary's doorway. "Are we almost there?"
"Yeah, we just crossed the border," Joe answered. "We should reach the castle in another ten minutes."
Frost sighed, his smile growing. "Excellent." He carefully pushed himself away from the door and walked into the room. "How is our patient doing?"
Jun stood up, offering him the stool. Her eyes never left his drawn face. "Ken's the same... and you?"
"Fine." Frost didn't look at either of them as he answered. He stopped before the recessed bed and leaned down to look at the readings on the wall. When he moved to straighten up, he swayed where he stood before toppling over.
Joe reached out for him and a pain filled gasp filled the room as he grabbed him by the side. "Fool! You've pushed yourself too far!" He dragged a gasping and unresisting prince to the bed next to Ken's. Joe set him inside it and then roughly threw a blanket over him.
"Thank you... I think," he hesitated, still trying to get his breath back. "Has anyone ever told you, you have a most gracious bedside manner?" Frost smiled sarcastically as he struggled to sit up.
Joe's eyes turned hard, a threatening look on his face. "Lie down!"
"My, my! So this is the look that sends Galactors running for their lives." Frost's smile widened as Joe's scowl deepened.
"That's enough out of you, I think."
Both men turned towards Jun, neither sure of which one of them she was referring to.
Jun hardened her resolve as she noticed the prince's too brightly lit eyes and the thin sheen of perspiration covering his pale face. "Frost, you're going to lay there and be quiet." He opened his mouth to say something, she cut him off. "No arguments." She set her fists on her hips a set look on her face. "You've been so busy with everything and everyone that you've neglected yourself and its taking its toll. I humored you for a while, but I won't anymore. Colten is expecting to get you back reasonably close to the condition you left in when he last saw you and I expect to give him just that."
Frost's brow rose in defiance. "And if I don't?"
"I'll have Joe sit on you until we land."
Frost stared at her serious expression and the sudden, eager grin spreading on Joe's face. "Is this really necessary?"
Joe's grin grew to extreme proportions. "No."
Frost gave them both a final look, frowned and then laid back down.
Within minutes, the God Phoenix slowly eased itself into the waiting ship's bay of Linthinium's royal castle.
No sooner had the ship's engines come to a stop that people started pouring out into the bay towards it. Cursing beneath his breath, a worried Colten limped after them as they left him behind.
The God Phoenix's ramp lowered, a flock of refugees standing about its rim in undisguised apprehension. Those outside the ship called to them with smiles and greetings, asking them to come on out. A bent old man and his wife meekly took the lead and shuffled down the ramp towards those waiting below. As they weren't gunned down but instead greeted with hugs, food, and flowers, those still inside took courage and followed after them.
Colten paced as he watched the outflow of refugees, a cosmetic smile on his face. Couldn't they hurry? As soon as the last of them had come down, he rushed up the ramp a medical team coming up behind him.
Joe, Jun, Jinpei, and Ryu all stood together at the back of the now crowded infirmary as Colten fussed over Frost and the medical team quickly checked Ken's condition before trying to move him. In minutes, both men had been loaded onto stretchers and carried out. No one paid Frost any attention as the prince heartily protested that he could leave the ship on his own.
Once out of the bay, everyone boarded a waiting transport and headed after others that were already on the way to the underground city.
When the group reached the hospital, Ken was immediately carted off towards an operating room. Trying to follow after him, the rest of the Gatchaman team were cut off as several doctors and nurses unceremoniously dragged each of them towards different examination rooms. Frost waved at all of them as he too was carted away.
After about a half hour, Jun found herself and the others released, so they gathered outside Ken's operating room to wait for news. It wasn't long before Colten joined them.
"How's Frost?" Jun asked him.
"The prince is shall we say, testy, at the moment," the old man looked as if he might chuckle. "The doctors have forbidden him to leave his bed. If we are fortunate, he won't think to disobey them until after the sleeping draught that was slipped him has had a chance to take effect." Colten was having a hard time keeping a mischievous smile off his face.
Jun was just about to ask more about Frost's condition and Colten's sneaking way of getting him to cooperate when the operating room's doors opened.
One of the doctors that had met them at the ship walked towards them removing his surgical mask and gloves as he neared.
"How is he, doc?" Jinpei was the first to ask what was on all their minds.
"You have an extremely lucky young friend there." The doctor smiled. "The main body wounds were all shallow thanks to the vest. No major organs were hit. There is some muscle damage in the legs, but with therapy, that can be overcome... A truly lucky young man..."
"So he -" Jun couldn't quite bring herself to say it.
"Yes," the doctor said. "He's going to be all right."
The cheer that followed echoed loudly down the nearby halls.
Ken floated in a haze, pieces of thoughts floating by in meaningless jumbles. After an eternity of time, as if from far away, bits of sounds penetrated into the nothingness around him. A part of him tried to ignore them at first but they became more and more insistent - as if they were coming closer. After an indeterminate interval, another part of him informed the rest that the intrusion was somehow familiar.
The familiarity of the sounds increased, and with it a sense of comfort so powerful that he almost allowed himself to be dragged back down into oblivion. Yet before he could do so, one of the sounds caught at his attention more than any of the others. Relief washed through him as he heard it yet again.
Why this would make him feel this way he had no idea, he couldn't remember. But now that he'd had a taste of it, he found that he wanted more. Grabbed by a strange sense of urgency and need, Ken moved away from the darkness.
"...doctor say aniki would wake up?"
"It should be soon, Jinpei. Don't worry."
His eyes opened to little more than slits and his gaze tried to focus on the fuzzy figures he discovered standing around him.
"I'm not worried, nee-chan. Aniki is as tough as a rock!"
"Yeah, and his head is sure full of them. Pulling off a stunt like that..."
Ken's attention riveted on the form that stood taller than the rest. He frowned as he tried to comprehend the things that his mind told him he already knew.
"He sure would have jumped our case if it'd been one of us. It should be fun watching what Nambu has to say about it once he gets all the details."
Joe! His muddled mind cried. That one was Joe! And the others - he knew them too. They were Ryu, Jinpei, and... Jun! "J - Jun." Ken;s gaze finally focused as he spotted her sitting nearby. In fogged amazement, he watched her turn towards him as she heard him call her name.
"Aniki! You're awake!" Jinpei almost jumped into the bed as he spoke.
"I think he knows that."
Joe missed Jinpei's gard glare as Ryu excitedly moved between them to get a better look at their newly awakened friend. "We've been real worried about you. How do you feel?"
Staring with a dazed look from one to the other of them came the shocking realization that they were real. Somehow, he was still alive. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as his gaze drifted towards Jun again. "You're... all right?"
"I'm fine," she said, her face bright. "We're all fine."
He didn't even feel it as she took his hand in hers, his eyes and senses completely captivated by her relieved smile.
"Joe helped rescue us in the nick of time. No one else was seriously hurt."
Ken nodded faintly.
"How do you feel?" Her eyes trapped his own. At the moment, he wanted nothing else. Still, it took him time to force his mind to think about an answer.
"Numb. Numb and heavy... How bad is it?" He found that the cobwebs in his brain were starting to disappear.
"Not bad. And damn lucky for you too!" Joe answered the question before Jun had a chance. "You should have know better, you idiot." Joe's eyes flashed with indignation but with something else as well. "You should have thought things through before running out there like a lunatic. How many times have you lectured us on that one, commander? Don't you practice what you preach?"
"You're absolutely right... I shouldn't have... I'm sorry." Ken saw Joe frown as his answer wasn't at all what his friend had been expecting. But he had been foolish, hadn't he.
"Don't listen to him, aniki," Jinpei grabbed at Ken's attention. "From what nee-chan said, if you hadn't done what you did, she and Frost might be dead now!"
"Oh, so you like him running blindly into the paths of bullets, do you?"
Jinpei turned in surprise at Joe's vehemence. His face quickly darkened with anger. "That's not what I meant and you know it!" Jinpei turned back around, his concern over what Ken might now think of his previous statement plain on his face. "It really wasn't what I meant, aniki!"
Ken couldn't help smiling.
Jun came to her brother's rescue. "He knows that, Jinpei. Just ignore Joe. He's just jealous he wasn't the one who got to rush out into a path of bullets."
As she finished her statement, everyone in the room turned to look at Joe. He met their stares head on with a harsh, disgusted glare, inadvertently giving substance to Jun's words.
Before he could stop himself, Ken burst out laughing, Joe's disgusted look overcoming him. The rest were quick to follow. His sides hurt terribly but he couldn't stop. Joe's soured expression slowly crumbled into a half-exasperated grin.
Struggling to catch his breath, Ken lay helpless as a doctor and nurse stormed into the room and quickly hustled out his friends. He could hear their protests at the treatment all the way from hall, even as the nurse insisted they'd have to wait until tomorrow to see him again. Enough of an exception had already been granted to them as it was - and Ken needed his rest.
The doctor, meanwhile, introduced himself, and once the nurse had returned checked him over before leaving him alone. In his newly gained solitude, Ken felt exhaustion sweep over him. He hadn't realized he was so tired before. Not fighting it, he let it drag him down towards sleep.
A soft thump somewhere to his left brought him back around a few hours later. Expecting it to be one of the team sneaking back in to see him, his eyes widened slightly as he spotted a red robed figure quietly closing the door. He recognized who stood before him even before the other had turned around. "Frost."
Startled gray eyes met his own. "I'm sorry. I hadn't meant to wake you."
"That's all right," Ken said, his mind furiously trying to come up with a reason for the visit. "I would have woken up soon anyway." He stared at the prince, who was leaning heavily against a cherry wood cane. Again he wondered what had brought him here.
"Do you mind if I sit down?" Frost asked. "My ribs have unanimously decided to give me hell this morning."
"No, please, go right ahead."
Frost nodded his thanks and slowly moved forward to occupy the chair next to Ken's bed. As he sat down, his robe parted, exposing the tight set of bandages wrapped about the prince's midriff.
"Is that from before?"
Frost looked momentarily lost as he tried placing Ken's question. "Oh, what, this? No, not entirely. It was a parting gift from our Galactor hosts."
That was all Frost gave as an explanation. Ken didn't ask him to elaborate, more curious about what had brought the prince on this unexpected visit.
The silence stretched between them, Frost's gaze never leaving Ken's own. With a tinge of nervousness he hoped didn't show, Ken looked away.
"I'm sure that you've learned by now that the mission was a success."
Ken glanced back at Frost's suddenly expressionless face.
"I owe that and more to your team." His voice was low. "I am very grateful for all that you have done for us."
Ken wasn't sure what to make of it. The expression on his face and the sentiment in his voice just didn't match. "We were happy to help. It's our job."
A sad half-smile appeared on Frost's lips. "You can't refute your virtues that easily, commander. I doubt that your illustrious Dr. Nambu could have found better candidates from which to form his team." He sat back, his gaze never wavering. "I may not completely agree with your methods, but I have come to see some of the reasons for them."
Ken said nothing. Instead, he watched Frost, painstakingly studying him from where he lay. And watching him, he could find nothing he didn't like. Frost had proved himself many times over in the last few days. And from the acceptance he'd received from the others, Ken knew they liked him as well. With a small pang of surprise, he came to the realization that if Jun chose to spend the rest of her life with this man, he could live with it. More than likely, it would be the best decision Jun would ever make. Who was he to stand in her way?
Ken turned his face away, not wanting to betray something he had no wish to share.
"I personally owe you a great debt," Frost said softly. "A debt earned by deeds above and beyond the call of duty. I am not blind. I know more than you think."
Startled, Ken turned back to Frost's calm, gray gaze. The latter leaned on his cane as he gingerly used it to help him rise to his feet.
"Commander... I always pay my debts..." He headed towards the door.
What had he meant by that comment? Ken forced himself to speak. "I don't know what you're talking about. You owe me nothing." What had he meant? "I would have done it for anyone."
Frost half turned and gave Ken a one sided smile. "But it wasn't just anyone, and it wasn't just me."
Before Ken could think on how to answer that, Frost slipped through the door.
The next few days passed quickly amid hives of activity. The people of Linthinium took in the refugees as if they were all long lost relatives. All their wants and needs were seen to even as they were given places to live within the city and were made to feel at home as much as possible. Stories made the rounds about the team's adventures and the details of the new comers' amazing escape.
Ken learned about all this and more, for he was often visited by his teammates, who came filled with the latest news. Of the odd conversation he'd had with their host, he never said a word - not even after Jun and Joe had filled him in on the details of all he'd missed once he'd gotten himself shot. Everything he heard only helped confirm to him that he was making the right decision where Jun was concerned. Still, everyday, his heart would skip a beat or two whenever she came into the room, sure that today would be the day that she'd give him the inevitable news.
"Nambu called again," Joe said. "He wants us to come home as soon as you're fit enough." His friend was alone in the room with him, leaning up against the wall his arms crossed over his chest. "He says there's some rumors of Galactor activity that he wants us to check out. He's already got Braun working on therapy programs so you can get back up to speed in case anything does show up."
Ken slowly lifted himself to a more comfortable position on his raised mattress. He could feel the stitches in his side pulling painfully as he did.
"So, when do you think you'll be up for it?" Joe asked.
Ken shrugged. "I'm ready now, but I'm not sure the rest of the team is."
A dark look crossed Joe's face. "If you're up to it, then we should go ahead and go. We've done all we were supposed to here. There's no reason to stay any longer. It's already been too long as it is."
Ken sighed. He didn't look at his friend, knowing only too well what Joe had meant by that remark. "It's her life... Her decision..."
"Her decision?" Joe almost screamed it at him. "How is she supposed to make one when she doesn't know all the choices?"
"It's what's best for her." Ken's hand knotted into a fist. He hadn't really wanted this to come up again. He could already feel the heat of Joe's anger radiating at him from across the room.
"So now you're her keeper as well as her commander?" Joe growled.
Ken snapped back. "Do you want me to get up so we can beat each other up for nothing again?"
Joe stopped short, already having taken several steps towards his injured teammate.
"It's been too late for some time, Joe. Nothing will change what's going to happen." Ken tried not to sound resigned, but he did. "Perhaps it'd be best if we just went home and got this over with. Please ask the doctor if I can be released."
"Ken." Joe's voice was low, his face contorted by a number of conflicting emotions. "You're a fool."
Ken let his head hang down, his dark hair falling about his face and said nothing.
Joe stalked out of the room before the urge to strangle his friend returned and forced him to do something he might possibly regret later.
With the doctor's consent for Ken's release, the team's departure was scheduled for the next day. Colten personally took charge of all the preparations. He insisted that they permit him to do so, that they should leave everything to him so that they could enjoy their last full day in Linthinium.
Other preparations that had been going on in secret were then revealed as a city wide celebration came into being. Giant tents were set up at all the major street intersections each filled with food and drink. Colorful streamers were hung from one building to the next and bright balloons decorated all the street lamps. A large platform was erected by the city's main doors and the festivity's six guests of honor was whisked away to adorn it.
Ken had been carted away from his room in a wheelchair lavishly decorated with rainbow colored paper and taken to join Frost and the rest of the team. Thousands of people paraded before them, hailing and blessing the surprised and embarrassed group as they passed by. Though quickly exhausted by the unceasing fanfare, Ken made no complaint. Once they'd overcome their original surprise, his friends basked in the appreciation flowing towards them. At home, they'd never had a celebration as personal as this. A celebration in which they need not fear the threat of snipers or Galactor attack, one in which they were being themselves and not their usual costumed alter egos.
Still, even with so much happening around him, Ken noticed little of it. His attention remained throughout riveted mostly on their host. It would be here. The place was perfect. Here, before all his people, Frost would ask Jun to join him, to become his queen as he too would soon become king. Ken's chest felt tight as he waited for the inevitable. Yet the announcement never came. Frost stood with them throughout, looking a little stiff, but a bright smile always on his lips. He never strayed far from Jun, though he wasn't too obvious about it.
Ken was tempted to try and resume the strange conversation Frost had started those few nights ago, as it looked more and more as the prince wasn't going to do as he'd expected, but he could never get a moment alone with him long enough to try. He'd decided he wanted to tell him, to let him know that he approved of his interest in Jun. He wanted to tell him again how Frost didn't owe him anything.
At times, Ken found himself studying Jun, a dull ache filling his heart as he watched her smile and laugh with those around her, sure that soon he would never see her do so again. When was Frost going to get this over with?
Jinpei and Ryu ate everything that was brought to them, pacing the platform in their overflowing excitement. Joe gave the appearance of being as merry as the rest, even making passes at a few of the locals, but it didn't escape Ken that he was purposely keeping his distance from him.
An hour before midnight, Ken could no longer deny that he'd had enough. Having sat in the wheelchair throughout, his legs felt stiff and his wounds burned from the constant jostling on the platform. Feeling deeply tired and achy, he called to Jinpei.
"You okay, aniki?" The boy's angular face came close to his so they could hear each other over the crowd.
"I'm tired. Will you take me back?"
He nodded quickly. "Sure. Do you want to say good night to the others before we go?"
Ken looked about the noisy platform and dismissed the idea. "No, let's not bother anyone."
Jinpei took charge of the wheelchair and zigzagging through the crowd on the platform, gingerly took them down the ramp in the back and wove through the crowded streets. Wherever they went, people offered them food and drink along with more thanks and blessings.
Feeling even more tired than when they started, Ken gave a grateful sigh as Jinpei was finally able to roll the chair into the hospital lobby. As they moved along the halls, the pervading silence seemed eerie in contrast to the life filled nose outside. Ken felt his exhaustion drape itself over him like a blanket, his body numb.
"Hm?" Ken opened his eyes, which had been drooping.
"Did you want me to help you and stuff?"
Ken blinked in surprise as he realized that they'd already reached his room. "No, that's okay. I'll manage." He wiped at his eyes. "Go on back, have some more fun."
Jinpei's face lit up. "Thanks, aniki!" He flashed Ken a lopsided smile and then headed for the door. As he opened it, he stopped and turned to look back at him. "Aniki? Do you think we might ever come back here again? I like it here."
Ken felt his throat go suddenly dry. He heard Joe's prediction whispering once more through his mind. He was suddenly, horribly sure that if Jun chose to stay - as he was all too certain she would - that Jinpei would choose to stay with her. "I... I don't know. There's always a chance...."
"Well, I hope so! Good night, aniki. See ya!"
Ken stared at the closed door for a long time after Jinpei had gone. A chill made its way unwanted down his spine as the same thought spun round and round in his head - his rule for non-involvement might just destroy the very things that it had been made to protect.
Forcing himself out of the mental loop, Ken turned his wheelchair around and moved it up to the bed. There was one way he could win, one way that wouldn't break the rules. He could use guilt to make them stay. All he'd have to do was let Jun know how her decision would deprive the Earth of its only true effective means to defend itself against Galactor. He knew they both would be only too aware of how hard it would be for Nambu to find replacements. But if he did this, would it be for the Earth or for himself? Disgusted at the thought, Ken thrust the idea away. He could never place that kind of burden on her. Frost and Jun both deserved better. He'd already made it up his mind, it was too late to change it now!
The rest of the night, his sleep was filled with restless dreams. When he awoke and had been brought breakfast, he found it tasteless. He could feel himself slowly tensing inside as he always did before a difficult mission. Except this wasn't a mission - it would be one of the hardest things he'd ever have to let happen in his life.
Ken dressed alone, slowly and awkwardly. He knew his teammates would be coming for him soon and he couldn't stop from wondering what it was that they would say to him. Surely Frost had made his move already. He didn't understand why he hadn't done it last night, but it didn't matter. Had Jun accepted? Of course she had. Would she tell him herself or would she have one of the others do it for her? He wasn't sure which would be worse.
Time passed and Ken grew more and more restless. He desperately wanted to get up and pace the room, and would have if he'd thought his legs would put up with the abuse for even a moment.
Trying to gain some semblance of calm before he went mad, Ken submerged himself in meditation. It eased his tension somewhat, even though it didn't entirely vanish his troubled thoughts. After a time, his eyes snapped open as he heard the door open behind him. Quickly covering his face with an easy, pleasant expression, he turned the wheelchair around to face the worst. His mask wavered for a moment as he didn't find any of the ones he'd been expecting at the door.
"Good morning. I hope you slept well."
Ken stared at Frost's lithe form, the latter's expression as lively and full of cheer as it had been the night before. "I slept fine... thank you. And you?"
"Never better, my friend. Never better."
Ken cringed inside, knowing the reason for his host's good slumber.
"I hope you don't mind, but I insisted that the others allow me the pleasure of escorting you to your ship."
Ken was barely able to keep himself from raising a startled brow. What was Frost up to? Had Jun decided that it'd be best if he heard of her decision from him?
His bright smile never faltering, Frost moved across the room and took a position behind Ken's wheelchair. He leaned over slightly as he moved to take hold of the handles there. "I'm sorry that your stay wasn't more enjoyable. It's a shame you couldn't stay longer. I was so looking forward to getting to know all of you better..." Frost paused for a moment. "Yes, I would have truly enjoyed that."
Ken glanced back at Frost and saw that his smile was almost dazzling. He didn't know what to make of it at all.
Frost pushed the chair towards the door. "Much as I may want to, I won't be traveling for a while," the prince's voice held a note of regret. "Colten has plans that will keep me very busy. It may be some time before I find myself in Utoland again."
Ken had a strong urge to glance behind him even as Frost pushed the wheelchair down the hall towards the elevator. He held himself in check, not wanting the prince to see any part of his ongoing inner conflict.
Frost didn't speak to him during the ride down, but instead exchanged some pleasantries with a couple of orderlies that rode down with them. He sounded at ease and all right with the world. Ken just felt as if he might explode. When was he going to get this over with?
Once on the ground floor, Frost wheeled Ken to the front desk where he was formally discharged. After that, they went outside and Frost pushed him up a ramp into the transport waiting for them there. Leaving Ken by the door, Frost set the chair's breaks before taking his own seat. With a tingling sensation crawling up the back of his neck, Ken wondered if the prince had purposely chosen to sit out of his direct line of sight. Though he could have turned his head easily to look back at him if he'd chosen to, Ken didn't.
As they rode on, Ken felt his hands starting to perspire, the tension building inside him almost a palpable thing. He knew Frost was working himself up to the inevitable. Couldn't he just get on with it though? What was he waiting for?
"You made the way quite easy for me. And in some ways I appreciate that." Frost voice was low. "Yet it bothers me that you gave up so easily. You don't seem to think very much of yourself."
Ken felt the transport slow down towards a stop, but ignored it. All of his attention was centered on the voice whispering at him from behind.
"She is dearly precious to all of us... But much more so, I think, to the two of us."
Ken felt himself go cold all over.
The transport's door slid open.
"If not for your actions, I might have been lost - and she, definitely so. My debt to you is two fold. For not only did you save my life, but you saved the life of the one who is most precious to me." Frost released the chair's brakes from behind and slowly pushed it towards the open doorway.
"Don't interrupt!" The retort was sharp, but still no louder than a whisper. "I want, and believe I could, convince her to stay her with me... But I won't. Because of what you've done for us, I'm going to give you the chance you've yet to allow yourself."
Ken opened his mouth to argue, but closed it back again.
"Because I owe you this, I will let her leave. Her feelings for you, the others, and her dedication to your cause will keep her from staying here without a direct invitation from me.
"But be warned, I will only hold myself back for so long.... My people will keep me only so busy..." His voice was close. "Make your move. Take the chance I've given you. Do with it what you will... But if you do nothing, or if certain things come to pass, I will come to take her from you. And then it'll be too late for you.
"Don't disappoint me Gatchaman... I am expecting a number of things from you..."
Ken didn't see the door to the hangar bay open up before him, his mind too busy trying to figure out all the implications of Frost's words. As he passed through it, he finally looked behind him. His eyes widened in surprise when he spotted Colten there instead of Frost. "Colten, stop, take me back. I have to talk to him!"
"I'm sorry, sir, I can't do that." The vassal's face was unreadable. "This is hard enough on the young prince as it is."
Ken couldn't see past him to see if Frost was somewhere behind them. Colten never slowed, despite Ken's protests, but continued to push the chair towards the waiting God Phoenix. His teammates were waiting for him by the ramp. He noticed Jun waving back at someone behind them. She then moved down the ramp towards him as the others went on inside.
"Hi, Ken," she said. "Everything's almost ready. Ryu just wants to check on things himself before we go."
Ken couldn't help but notice how she seemed distracted, her eyes flickering to look behind him across the bay. "That's fine."
"I... I guess I'll see you in a few minutes then. There's something I have to take care of before we go."
Ken opened his mouth to speak but found that he couldn't. As far as he was concerned, Frost didn't owe him anything. Yet, the prince had stated his feelings for Jun and was still letting her go. Ken wanted to tell her this - tell her so that she could thwart his plans. But a part of him rebelled at this. A part of him didn't want to throw away the opportunity he'd been given. There were so many things about himself and Jun he hadn't realized before their visit here. He needed time to think about them. And time to do something, if there was anything he could do. He'd been given a second chance - the team had been saved. He couldn't just give it up. So instead, he watched her go, saying nothing, even as Colten guided him up the ramp again.
A broad smile greeted Jun as she came out of the bay into the hallway beyond. An odd sensation thrummed through her as she found herself eagerly returning it. "I looked for you everywhere," she gave Frost her best chiding tone. "No one seemed to have an idea of where you'd gone. I started to think that maybe you wouldn't come see us off." And looked for him she had. She'd desperately felt the need to talk to him on this their final day - though what it was exactly that she wanted to talk to him about she'd not been so sure.
"Beautiful One, you couldn't have kept me away."
Jun lowered her eyes, suddenly finding Frost's gray gaze too intent to meet any longer. "I wish we could stay longer, but..."
"I understand... It's you duty." Frost reached out and briefly caressed her arm. "Without it, I doubt that I'd be standing here today. You've done much to brighten up my life."
Jun felt her cheeks grow warm. "I, I didn't do much and you know it."
Frost smiled in response. "I would suggest you take a look in your hold once you get home. Colten decided that there were certain culinary delights that the five of you might wish to try again."
Her eyes rose to meet his. "That's wonderful! Jinpei and Ryu will be ecstatic. Being the food connoisseurs that they are. They'll be very grateful." Because it would remind her of Frost and his country, Jun was very grateful as well.
"I did take the liberty of adding one more thing..." His eyes were bright, almost dancing.
"Yes. You'll find your dress wrapped in a box in the back."
"My dress?" Jun stared at Frost confused for a moment. When she realized what dress he meant, her eyes widened in surprise. "But, no, I - I can't! That dress... I didn't, I couldn't..."
He took her hands in his. "You must take it." His eyes locked with hers. "Don't refuse my gift."
Jun felt a thrilling chill flow through her. That marvelous dress!
"Besides, it's not my size." A grin tugged at his mouth as he spoke.
They both laughed softly, their eyes never leaving each other.
"There's on more thing I'd like to give to you." Still looking into her eyes, Frost reached slowly behind his neck. Pulling a long chain up over his head, he carefully removed the medallion Jun had seen him wearing a few times before. It was the same one he'd been wearing on the day he'd first shown up at the Snack J. "This once belonged to my father, and to his father before him. Always keep it near you to remind you of me."
Jun felt warm tears suddenly gather in her eyes. Though through it all she had not thought it possible, Frost was letting her go. Ever since the night of the dance, she thought, she'd thought that... But it would be for the best, wouldn't it? Hadn't she lain awake the last few nights trying to figure out what she would or would not do if the question ever came? "Frost... there's something I'd like to say..." The words kept catching in her throat. Did she know what she was doing? "I think, I think I..."
Frost gently laid his fingers across her lips, an odd smile on his face. "Don't. I know how you feel about what you do. Go home, finish it. And when it's over, look at your life and taste your freedom. Do something with it. And then, only then, if you want to come back to me... Come. I'll be waiting."
Jun could hold back the tears no longer. They made warm streams down her face. "Michael, I -"
Before she could finish, Frost pulled her towards him and firmly planted his lips over hers. An almost desperate passion passed from him to her even as Jun found herself just as eagerly returning the kiss. Tears that might not be her own wetted her face, but she couldn't find the courage to open her eyes to be sure.
She felt something being placed in her hand even as Frost pulled abruptly away.
"Good bye for now, Beautiful One."
Opening her eyes, Jun caught one last fleeting glimpse of Frost as he turned a corner.
"Nee-chan! Ryu says we can go now!" Jinpei's voice called to her from the ship.
Jun hovered by the doorway in indecision, looking first towards the God Phoenix and her brother's small form and then back in the direction Frost had taken.
"Nee-chan! Didn't you hear me?"
"Just a second!" Quickly drying her tears with the back of her hand, Jun pressed the one holding Frost's medallion tightly against her chest. Looking one last time down the hallway, and feeling strangely relieved and sad at the same time, she slowly turned and made her way to the waiting ship.
With rapidly quickening steps, she moved to rejoin her odd family, the promise of a future safely tucked into her heart.