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.
End of Part 2