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13 July 2008 @ 10:55 pm
Dark Masquerade - Chapter 6 (Part 4 of 5)  
Author: Ice'is Blue
Title: Digimon 222: Dark Masquerade
Pairings: Taichi/Yamato, Ken/Daisuke, Jyou/Mimi, Koushiro/???
Summary for this Chapter: Hikari, Yamato, Koushiro, and Gennai are out to rescue Taichi from Kidou's men. Sora comes along, Miyako has fun, Ken is evil, and Takeru just might be worse than evil.
Rating: R (this chapter); NC-17 (overall)
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Warning(s): Foul language? Erratic updates? Small doses of het?
Word Count: 40,880 words for this chapter; 6,267 words in this post
Author's Notes: Life has been crazy, but chapter six is finally done. Mea maxima culpa. I feel good about this version, but con-crit is warmly welcomed. If something doesn't work for you, pipe up, ne?

Read from beginning of chapter
Read previous section (Part 3)



“Yagami, are you in here?” he asked, using Taichi’s other name on the chance that someone might be listening. “Are you conscious?”

As the silence following his words stretched, cold gripped Yamato’s heart.

He hoped Taichi was all right.

***


Salamon guided Gennai as best she could from her vantage point on his shoulder. Her feline eyes could see well in the dark, but this half-light, red as blood, threw her off. The shadows were all wrong and worry for her Chosen gnawed at her.

~Hikari? What’s your status?~

~Kou and I have reached the ship. He’s attempting to hack his way in, but it’s slow going, even with the equipment Lord Sora brought and the backdoor codes she showed him. I - Oh, shit.~

Salamon waited, agonizing seconds, not wanting to distract her Chosen if there was trouble. Hikari’s mind held worry, but no pain. Not yet.

***


Mimi followed Lord Jyou through the red-lit halls. She carried his pack for him while he held his weapon in one hand and her hand in the other. They were headed for the ship bay, he’d told her, and she’d guessed as much from the conversation he’d held with his brother.

Lord Shun, the twin who had helped her redecorate Lord Jyou’s rooms, frightened her less than Lord Shin, but he was still scary. Lord Jyou seemed to trust him though, and that was enough for Mimi.

They came to a wide dark area, the bay, and Lord Jyou turned back to her, finally dropping her hand. She ached at the loss of his touch.

He looked at her over the rims of his glasses, dark eyes worried, then raised his hand to let fingers fall through her hair and caress her cheek. She couldn’t stop the tremble of excitement as he pulled her to him and she opened herself under his lips. He claimed her with such intensity, such need, it brought tears to her eyes. He only kissed like this when he was saying goodbye.

Lord Jyou pulled away, eyes anguished. She did her best to smile up at him.

“It’s okay. You go. You need to go. I know that.”

She watched as he swallowed back pain and she ached for him.

“It’s all right,” she tried again, voice barely a whisper.

He clutched her to him. “If you stay, if you go, you’re not safe either way. I’m so sorry, my flower. This is all my fault.”

She bit her lip to keep from crying and found the courage somewhere inside to tease him at such a moment. “Yes, it’s entirely your fault people want to kill you, my Lord.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “I’ve never met a man as good as you are.”

“Mimi,” he breathed, pulling her even closer. He kissed her again, this time on the crown of her head. “This is your last chance to stay behind. It might be - “

“With you. Only with you. We don’t have time for doubts. Take me with you. Please. I need you.”

“I need you, too, little flower.” His embrace was tight. He was afraid. So afraid. Not for himself, but for her. “May Mother guide us.”

She could see him, so clearly in the flashing red lights... Mimi pushed up on her toes to kiss him breathless. “We’ll be okay. You can do this. I believe in you.”

He pressed a final kiss to her forehead and bopped her sternly on the nose. “Stay close behind me, little minx. No heroics.”

***


Jyou started for Zenpi, nearly stopping short as he saw two dark figures — guards, probably — duck away from the entrance to the ship. He didn’t think they were gone entirely, maybe just hiding, but time was ticking onward and he didn’t have much of it left. Shun had kept the distractions going for over four hours and security was thinner now than it had been, but his older brother could only keep the guards chasing shadows for so long. It was now or never.

He shifted his grip on the blaster gun. He wouldn’t like it, but he could take out two men if he had to.

They crossed the decking quickly, Mimi amazing him with her speed and stealth. She was everything he’d ever dreamed of. Living without her wasn’t an option.

He approached the ship, but there was no sign of the guards. He waited with his back turned, weapon in his hand, but still they did not come. Finally, he began keying in the door code. A soft tap of a footstep was all the warning he had.

“Don’t move,” a man’s voice growled. The blaster was pulled from his grip.

“Don’t turn around. And no screaming,” a young woman’s voice added.

Jyou did as he was told. Screaming for help would just bring more guards.

“Good,” the man said. “Now finish opening the door and go inside.”

Mimi was behind him, between him and whoever had them in their sights. “Please don’t hurt her,” he begged.

“You’ll both be safe if you do as we say,” the woman said.

“Step through the doors,” the man ordered.

Jyou went, advancing far enough for them to follow him inside. He heard the door whoosh shut. A terrified whimper escaped from Mimi’s lips.

“Let me turn around, please,” he pleaded. He had to see. He had to see she was all right.

“I can see you’ve got a knife at your side. Set it down slowly, stand up even slower, then turn around even slower than that,” the man directed.

“All right. Of course. Just don’t hurt her.”

“Follow our orders and she’ll be fine,” the woman’s voice assured him.

Jyou’s mind was working at a furious pace. These couldn’t be Shin’s soldiers. They would’ve killed Mimi on sight. They wouldn’t be striking bargains with him. He did as he was told, then slowly turned around, eyes widening as he understood and didn’t all in the same breath.

It was impossible. He’d seen her only once before, years ago... but her face was unmistakable in Zenpi’s clear lighting. It was Lord Yagami’s daughter, a girl even younger than Mimi. He searched his mind for her name.

“You’re... Hikari?”

***


~Hikari, you and I are going to have a chat about the proper way to suddenly conclude a conversation. Especially when I can’t see what’s going on.~ Despite her annoyance, Salamon was glad her Chosen was safe. ~We’ll be at your position in a few minutes. Try not to get into any more trouble until I get there, okay?~

~Right. Don’t worry so much. They’re behaving themselves. Lord Jyou’s as whimpy as Taichi’s said and his slave’s got the initiative of a doll. I don’t think we’d have been able to take control of any other pair. But these two were just hopeless.~

~Well, keep alert. We don’t know why they were skulking around, do we?~ Hikari sent an affirmative. ~So keep a sharp lookout and have Koushiro run the flight checks. We may need to leave sooner than we thought if young Lord Jyou is in trouble too.~

~Roger that. You be careful too. I’ll update Lord Sora on our situation in the meantime.~

~Be safe, Hikari.~

Gennai was slowly crawling up the ladder. Salamon wasn’t sure how much of it was his attempt at caution and how much was his frailty. When they finally made it to the ship, a mental call to Hikari had the ship’s door opening.

Salamon jumped down from Gennai’s shoulder and bounded through the doorway and up into Hikari’s arms. Gennai followed her into the ship more slowly and Piyomon dove through an instant later.

They were rushing though flight preparations when the door opened again.

***


“Yagami?” the man’s voice asked again. It didn’t sound like one of the men from before.

Taichi’s arms were cuffed behind him and his lower limbs were bound into a kneeling position and attached to the floor. He stayed quiet. If something bad were going to happen, it would happen whether or not he spoke.

He chanted the reminder to say nothing over and over in his mind, steeling himself against whatever they were going to do. He expected more questions, but instead, he found himself closing his eyes and turning his head aside as he was engulfed in a horribly bright light.

“Yagami,” the man’s voice breathed.

A clatter, and then the dropped light illuminated a body clothed all in black. Just looking at the torso told Taichi who it was.

“Yamato,” Taichi whispered, though the sound did not pass through the metal lips. Yamato had come for him. Taichi tongued the keys that would allow his natural voice through. It had hurt, being unable to apologize earlier. “Yamato, I’m so sorry.”

The light was picked back up. “Are you being watched right now?”

“Um. I don’t think so. I might’ve been, but not now with the power out. It got dark and Shin left almost as soon as he arrived. I’m sorry Yamato, for everything. Really."

The light flashed lower on Taichi’s body, lingering over the restraints, then Yamato let the instrument drop to the floor again. The reflected glow was just barely bright enough to make out Yamato’s carefully neutral expression.

Would Yamato free him? Was he part of a rescue? Was Koushiro here? Taichi didn’t dare ask. Yamato had come and Taichi savored the hope filling him, but because Yamato was here, Taichi had to make him believe. It was more important than escaping, more important than everything, and that scared him a bit. Still, his courage didn’t fail him.

“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” he tried. “I wanted to tell you the truth.”

“I didn’t come here to hear that.” Yamato stood over him, his frozen expression unchanging. “Are you hurt?”

Taichi knew he was risking his secret being exposed, but he tongued the lock and another sequence of buttons anyway. The metal casing split in half and Taichi looked up at his rescuer as the mask opened up around his face. “Yamato, I’m sorry.”

The mask was removed the rest of the way.

Yamato’s hands, sticky with something dark, came up and brushed against Taichi’s cheeks. Gentle fingertips, smelling of blood, glossed over his face, down the bridge of his nose, across his forehead, over the delicate skin of his throat, and back through his sweaty hair, almost as if the blond were checking to make sure Taichi was all there.

Yamato’s face and voice remained impassively masked. “Are you hurt?”

But that wasn’t really the question. Taichi was fine. It was Yamato who’d been hurt, who’d had to suffer for weeks. And he had still come to Taichi’s rescue.

“Yamato, I’m so—”

From the darkness, a pale fist made a sudden and painful impact into the side of Taichi’s face. “Are. You. Hurt?” Yamato asked again, spacing out the words. There was emotion in his voice now, but Taichi couldn’t tell which one.

“No. They didn’t hurt me,” Taichi said, not understanding. The sick fear that perhaps Yamato was there to hurt him, as Shin’s guest, crept into his mind. Then again, Yamato had the right to do whatever he wanted. Taichi owed him this much. He let his head fall down in submission. “What are you going to do?”

Yamato roughly plopped the mask back on Taichi’s head before stepping back. “Nothing, for the moment. You, though, are going to close that mask up before our pal, Lord Sora, comes in here.”

“Sora, here? How? “

“Hikari told her that there was a chance that Taichi was alive in order to allow us passage across her territory. Sora insisted on coming along.”

“But she’ll be expecting to see me, not Yagami.”

“Exactly. We didn’t tell her the secret. She’ll be pissed to see Yagami, but she won’t make a fuss until later... I hope.”

Sora. They’d been good friends, once, when they were younger. He trusted her, but Taichi was the one being rescued and the final decision wasn’t his.

“Yamato, you’ve seen her more recently. Do you trust her?” he asked.

“Me?”

“Yes.” He trusted Yamato’s judgement. “Do you think she’ll be able to handle this?”

Yamato was quiet for a moment. “I do. We wouldn’t have been able to get to you without her. I’m not sure how much time we have, though. If you tell her the whole truth, she’s going to want an explanation for all the years you’ve been gone.” He harshly forced Taichi’s chin up so that they were eye-to-eye. “Actually, I’ve been expecting one of those myself, you bastard. Everyone thought Yagami’s son was dead.”

Taichi winced. But the best he could do was tackle one hurdle at a time.

It had been so long since he’d seen Sora as himself. She loathed Yagami and had never stayed long in his presence. Probably in order to keep her temper in check and not, inadvertently, start a war. If she was the same as the girl he remembered from their childhood, he trusted her to carry his secret.

“Bring her in.”

***


“Sora,” Yamato’s voice called to her from the door behind her. “He’s here. His legs and arms are bound, though. Can you take care of it?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, her voice coming out much calmer than she felt. Her stomach was roiling with nerves. Taichi was alive!

He winced away as she let the light fall on his face. He was paler than she remembered, but who knew where he’d been since his death had been announced. She let the light drop to shine over the rest of him.

Yagami.

Taichi was dressed like Yagami. She brought the harsh penlight back up, not caring that Taichi closed his eyes in pain at the brightness. He was wearing Yagami’s mask, the sides of it parted and open to show his face.

“Sora,” he said, squinting through barely-cracked lashes, “I can explain, but now’s not the best time. Please?”

Memories from a childhood long ago mingled with the fresher past. How long had this been going on? The information was there for her to demand. Taichi was at her mercy.

But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He was at her mercy. He needed her help.

She let her hand rest on his temple. “Are you okay?”

For some reason, this made Taichi chuckle, but he sobered quickly. “I’m fine.”

“I missed your laugh, Taichi.” The man said nothing and Sora left him to his silence. Maybe his throat was tight like hers. “Hold still,” she said, voice thicker than she’d like. “I’m going to get your legs free.”

“Guys?” Hikari’s soft voice crackled through Sora’s headset, breaking her concentration as she worked on the electronic lock. “We’re in trouble here.”

Trouble came in different degrees. What kind of trouble had found Hikari’s team? Sora needed facts before the situation worsened.

“Status. What’s your position?”

Yamato ducked back into the room, picking up on the alarm in her words. His dark shape was backlit by the red glow from the door. “What’s going on?”

Sora waved him off. The girl was taking too long to answer. “Report. Are you injured?”

“Ohhhh, it’s nothing too life-threatening, I imagine,” a strong male voice spoke.

Yamato must have caught the look on her face, for now he looked anxious. “What’s happening to Hikari?” he demanded, barely remembering to keep his volume low.

“You brought my sister here?!” Taichi growled, twitching around and struggling against his restraints. “What’s going on? Tell me what’s happened!”

Sora clapped a hand over Taichi’s mouth and glared Yamato into silence.

“I do suggest,” the voice continued, “whoever you are, if you want to collect this little one alive, you come to my ship, Zenpi, in the southern docking bay. You have fifteen minutes. Good bye.”

Sora swallowed. “Hikari’s found the twins’ ship, but someone else’s there too. From the smug attitude, I’d say one of the twins. I don’t know about the others. He said we had fifteen minutes to get there.”

Yamato swore. “They were supposed to be careful!”

Taichi’s breath was heavy and panicked. “Shin has Hikari? No. Gods, no!” He renewed his struggles. “Get me out of these! Now!”

“Hold still, then,” Sora urged, holding her own composure. Panic and fear were liabilities no one could afford in a crisis. Taichi ignored her and tried to snap the metal by forcing his legs apart. He might have been able to do it, but success would be dangerous, if not deadly.

“Stop struggling, Taichi, unless you want to lose your legs. I have to disarm the mechanism before the bands can be severed.”

“Well, hurry it up. Hikari’s in trouble.” The growled order came from Yamato, not Taichi.

Sora held her tongue and worked until she bypassed the lock’s circuitry.

“There. Now, calmly, we need to get to that hangar bay. Thinking up another plan along the way would be nice, if anybody feels up to it.”

Clearly, she had no idea what she was getting herself into when she’d agreed to come along.

Someone owed her a big explanation when this was all over.

... if they were still alive.

***


After the quietest argument Taichi had ever participated in, they agreed to enter Zenpi together. Taichi, in the Yagami mask, entered first as the bodysuit offered him the most physical protection and psychological advantage. But if the Kidou twin was surprised to see Yagami, he kept it hidden.

“Welcome to the party, High Lord.”

Taichi’s borrowed weapon was up and aimed before he could consciously think about it.

“Easy now,” the twin cautioned. He had one arm around Hikari, who he brought in front of him as a shield with an arm about her waist. His other hand held a gun pointed at Koushiro.

Sora and Yamato stepped in behind him, weapons also at the ready. In a corner, Lord Jyou quickly moved to block them from a slave girl. “You won’t hurt her,” he said. The words came out more like a plea than a firm command, but Taichi gave him credit for the sentiment. He kept the weapon aimed at the twin.

“I don’t care what you do with your slut. I want my daughter.” There was enough malice into his voice to make Hikari look at him in alarm. She didn’t see him in action as Yagami very often. He hoped she would keep a level head. She and Koushiro were still in great danger.

The threat — Lord Shun or Lord Shin, Taichi couldn’t tell which — was in the middle of the cabin. Hikari didn’t seem to be in any pain, but her position as the twin’s captive assured that her well-being could change in a fraction of a second. Koushiro was across the room, his weapon on the floor a long distance away. Koushiro hadn’t spared their arrival more than a fleeting glance, he kept his attention on Hikari and the twin.

“Daughter? Well, well,” the Kidou Lord said. “These two I didn’t recognize, but these three I do. High Lord Yagami, the prodigal Lord Yamato, and — quite the surprise — the vivacious Lady Sora.”

“That’s Lord Sora, to you,” she said, voice cool.

The twin favored her with a courtly smile. “As you wish, Lord. I can almost figure out this strange puzzle. Was it you was my brother playing with? But then why would High Lord Yagami come to your aid? And Lord Yamato... I had heard rumor that you were, shall we say, absent from your father’s presence. I find myself curious. How do Lord Yagami’s boots taste?”

Yamato rose to the challenge and took a menacing step forwards, but stayed calm. “Let her go, Shun. Your brother and his pet are good for nothing. You’re outnumbered.”

“So arrogant,” the twin chided. “How do you know that I was not already in audio contact with my men before you arrived?”

“Because you’re nervous,” Yamato returned. “I’ve seen you at your game enough to know all about your little eye-twitch.” Taichi looked and so it was... a slight periodic jump in the Lord’s right eyebrow.

This twin didn’t seem quite as insane as Shin had been when Taichi had seen him briefly during the failed interrogation. If it really was Shun, they had a chance.

“I don’t know why you didn’t call in a security team,” Yamato continued, “but they had plenty of time to get here before we did. Which makes me think, for some unfathomable reason, they’re not coming. You’re on your own.”

Shun seemed disinclined to respond to Yamato’s theory and so a trigger-choking silence stretched...

Someone needed to make a move, but Taichi had been adamant in their rapid planning session that the others do nothing that might cause harm to Hikari. That meant he would need to be the one to take action. There was time for one shot, but, it would have to be made without the benefit of the weapon’s sight guide. And he couldn’t risk it. His weapon had been set to stun, but certainly, the twin’s wasn’t.

The tense standoff was broken by the grinding sound of the outer hull door opening and a male’s loud, annoyed voice.

“Where the hell do you think you left it?”

“I think -” A uniformed man — the one Taichi had bought years ago, the one who had given him water only hours ago on the ship — swung around the corner of the cabin entrance. He took one look at them and bellowed, “Hun-TER!”

A second person — the kidnaping force’s leader, a man Taichi had also purchased as a slave — immediately appeared, weapon drawn. He looked to the Kidou men. “Lords,” he acknowledged tensely, shifting his aim to fall on Yamato when he realized he’d been aiming at those vastly superior.

In the moment’s distraction, Koushiro had rolled across the floor and reclaimed his lost blaster. “You,” he growled at the newcomers. “Greene. Hunter. The two of you were behind all this.”

“Sorry, sir,” the younger fighter said. “Just following orders.”

“His orders?” Koushiro asked with a nod to Shun. “What about my orders? We took a chance on you both and you betrayed us. I should shoot you where you stand.”

Taichi shivered, grateful the suit shielded his reaction to Koushiro’s coldly murderous intent.

Hunter, the squad leader, changed his aim to target Koushiro. “Greene didn’t have a choice, Sir. Neither of us did.”

“Oh, you had a choice, all right,” Koushiro retorted, eyes burning. Taichi had never seen his friend like this before — angry and seeking revenge. Granted, nobody had ever abducted him before. And Koushiro was loyal. “You had a choice,” he repeated. “Just like I have one now.”

Enough.

“In this moment, you have a choice,” Taichi spoke up in Yagami’s dark voice, “to follow my orders, or to leave my service... which, I do not recommend as the results would be very, very messy and I doubt the Kidou siblings would want the floors of this magnificent craft ruined.”

Koushiro’s eyes tracked over to him.

“Lower your weapon,” Taichi commanded as Yagami.

“Respectfully, High Lord, I’ll stand down when Lady Hikari is safe.” He shifted his aim to Lord Shun. “Let her go.”

“I admire you as a leader,” Hunter said, targeting Koushiro, “but I cannot allow you to harm Lord Kidou. Greene.”

Reluctantly, the younger man moved into a flanking position and took aim at Sora. Taichi was quickly losing control of the situation. By rights, Yagami should have fired upon Koushiro for his disobedience, and shifting to cover Sora, like Taichi wanted to do, was out of the question entirely. Sora solved that matter, though, by slipping out a much smaller weapon and aiming it at Greene with her off-hand, even while keeping her main weapon pointed at Shun.

Hikari’s quiet laughter spilled out into the small space. All eyes turned towards her, though nobody shifted their weapon from their target. Taichi’s heart was pounding in his chest. If someone fired at her, there was no way for him to shield her in time. She apparently wanted everyone’s attention. Now that she had it, he could only hope his sister knew what she was doing.

“Can everyone please put the guns down?” Hikari asked. Her expression shifted to one he frequently saw when she was lecturing him. “You all do realize how silly this looks, right? You all know each other and none of you really wants to shoot. There are better ways to solve this.”

Glances were exchanged.

Greene slowly grinned back at her. “Right you are, Lady Hikari,” he said, using his hand to lower his partner’s muzzle. Sora followed suit, followed by a grudging Koushiro, and shortly thereafter by an intrigued Lord Kidou. The Kidou twin set her free, but retained her hand, which he raised to his lips for a courtly kiss.

“Lord Shun of Kidou at your service. No hard feelings I hope, m’ Lady,” he murmured against her skin. His touch lingered on her for far too long before he finally released her and turned a piercing look on Taichi. “Lord Yagami, whatever possessed you to bring your lovely young daughter on such an unofficial trip?”

That comment roused the protective older brother in him and he nearly raised his weapon again. “My daughter is my own business, boy. You would be fortunate to remember that.”

Shun smirked. “I’ve forgotten myself, Lord. Do forgive me.” His eyes flicked over their small group. “I have also seemed to have forgotten why, exactly, your presence graces us.”

Taichi smiled behind the mask. Shun’s tone was mocking, but not entirely — there was still a modicum of fear and respect. Yagami was, after all, a cruel bastard and old enough to be Shun’s father. There was still a chance they’d get out of this yet.

Shun wasn’t part of the Yagami kidnaping plot. Of that much, Taichi was sure. He might not have noticed the man’s nervous tick over the years, but he had noticed that while the younger of the Kidou twins spoke the pleasant courtly lies, he did not do so when unnecessary. He certainly would never feign total ignorance. The operation leader, Hunter, had confirmed Taichi’s guesses with his expression when he first entered the cabin. Lordling Jyou’s involvement was also out of the question. Although... the youngest Kidou was playing quite the gallant defender in front of his pet. It was possible he truly cared for the slave girl.

All this took mere seconds for Taichi’s alert mind to process. Lord Shun’s question remained. The part of his brain in charge of the Yagami persona smoothly fed the words to his mouth.

“I merely wished to reclaim my rightful property,” Taichi said, putting a proprietary arm about Yamato’s waist and praying that the blond didn’t try to kill him. To his immense surprise, Yamato straightened and actually shifted half a step closer, fixing the elder Kidou with a look of smug threat. “As you can see,” Taichi continued, grateful for the voice modulator that had been calibrated to countermand stress-induced voice changes, “Your brother’s attempt to exploit a seemingly weak link has failed.”

“Is that so?” Shun mused, his eyes darting to the two uniformed men in the doorway.

“Yes, Lord. Lord Shin bade us capture him and bring him here for questioning,” the younger of the pair answered. Hunter nodded his agreement to the lie by omission. Taichi had judged them correctly, then.

Sora stepped forward.

“It is a grievous insult for one High House to attack another, Lord Shun. I am here to bear witness for High Lord Yagami in my mother’s absence. It would be in your best interests to allow us to leave quietly. This ship, which you and your brothers share, has just been serviced and is of worthy caliber to return us to our homes. After which, the ship would be returned to you.” She raised her eyebrow. “Not alone, of course. The airways can be dangerous and yours is too valuable a ship. It would have an escort of... a Halcyon-class Takenouchi cruiser? I trust you could find some use for the vehicle if you did not wish to keep it for yourself.”

Taichi’s breath caught. The ship they were currently on was very expensive, an elite class affordable only by Lords. Halcyon armored cruisers were worth three times as much and were categorically not for sale.

Shun’s eyes glittered.

No one questioned Lord Sora’s offer. Even in a tense situation such as this, if a Lord offered a ship in exchange for cooperation, a ship would be delivered.

Honor among thieves, Taichi thought with twisted humor.

“My brother here,” Shun motioned towards Jyou, “was planning on a vacation. Your proposal would be acceptable if he and his pet are dropped off at the location of his choice.”

Sora remained quiet, deferring to Taichi’s supposed seniority.

“Done,” Taichi said, brushing Yamato aside and stepping forward to shake hands with Lord Shun, taking care to place himself between Shun and Hikari. He nodded towards the pair of uniformed men. “These two can pilot the ships back, if you prefer.”

Hesitation and not a few meaning-laden glances ruled and Taichi got the feeling that he’d missed something important. Then Hunter spoke sharply, breaking the tension.

“With respect, High Lord, that is not possible. We are Lord Shin’s men. It would be inappropriate for us to carry out such a task.”

“Like hell,” the younger man said. He stepped forward to address Shun. “Lord, your brother holds our comrades and their families as token for our continued obedience.”

Hunter firmly pulled him back. “Be silent! The Lord is in no position to guarantee their safety.”

“What is their location?” Shun asked.

Hunter maintained a stony countenance. The man next to him shrugged helplessly. It made sense. Greene had been purchased first, he probably did not know where the group was being kept.

Everyone was surprised when Lord Jyou stepped away from his pet. “Where are they being held, soldier?"

“This room holds several powerful people,” Lord Sora observed. “A smart man would cautiously accept help when it is offered.”

Greene touched his leader’s arm. “Please, Hunter.”

Hunter looked close to breaking, but then his resolve firmed and he shook his head. He addressed Taichi. “There are numerous other choices, Lord Yagami. Why do you want us?”

Why? Because they’d treated him fairly when he’d been held prisoner. However, Lord Shun was operating under the theory that Yamato had been Shin’s target.

“You showed talented restraint in your attack on the Yagami fortress,” Koushiro answered, speaking from the pilot’s seat. “You extracted your target without taking a single life, when it would have been easier to do otherwise. Your skills should be rewarded.”

Taichi nodded Yagami’s agreement. He wanted to talk to the men, even more so now that he’d learned of their surgical strike. The nightmares that plagued him with images of a ruined fortress would not dissolve easily, but at least he had knowledge of his people’s safety to comfort him.

“If these facts are true, your abilities are indeed impressive,” Shun said. “Would you consider working for me? I would aid in the transfer of your group from wherever they’re being held to an undisclosed location of your choosing. I do not need to threaten women and children to hold the respect of the men I command.”

“Hunter, please?"

The older man shrugged off his comrade. “Those of my people who wish to remain with me will stay on as the Halcyon’s crew.”

Lord Shun raised a brow. “Your people have the experience necessary to fly her?”

“There’s a reason Lord Shin went to great lengths to keep us as his dogs,” the younger man said. “We’re the best.”

“Ensure that my younger brother reaches his destination safely, return with the ships, and I’ll have a test mission ready for you. Execute it perfectly and you may stay with the Halcyon.”

“What sort of mission?” Hunter asked, ignoring his enthusiastic, bouncing teammate.

Lord Shun smiled. “You won’t tell me where your people are being held. The natural solution is for you to extract them yourselves.”

“The team I had with me to fly Zenpi isn’t large enough to crew a Halcyon during battle.”

“I’ll see that you have what you need. The details can be worked out upon your return.”

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?”

Shun smiled. “My dear brother thinks too highly of himself. Taking away his toy soldiers is an adequate punishment for him and a bonus to me if they are as well-trained as has been claimed.”

“A message sent to Takenouchi or Yagami,” Sora added, “should clear any of Lord Shun’s memory problems if they arise.”

“Then we are agreed, Sir,” Hunter said, snapping a salute. His partner mimicked him, a large grin on his face.

Lord Shun returned the gesture solemnly, then glanced at his chronometer.

“I’ll have this vessel cleared for flight in half an hour.”

In the wake of the Lord’s departure, an uneasy quiet filled the ship. Hunter searched their faces, then focused on Taichi, perceiving High Lord Yagami to be the power to address.

“With your permission, Greene and I will remain here and await Lord Shun’s signal.”

“Acceptable. My security chief will also stay to monitor your progress.”

Taichi motioned for Koushiro to stay and waved the rest of the crowd out of the cockpit. Hikari stayed behind, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. He tongued the mask’s volume to a lower level, cautious of their unknown surroundings, and addressed the two mercenaries.

“I want to thank you for your discretion earlier.”

The older man was unreadable, but the younger had sharp, knowing eyes.

“Most men have secrets,” Greene said slowly. “You, more than most.”

“If you have need of anything, name it,” Taichi offered.

Hunter glared reprovingly at his partner. “What kind of idiot tries to blackmail a High Lord?”

Greene smiled impishly. “I don’t know. What kind?”

“A dead one,” Hunter ground out. “My apologies, Lord Yagami. He did not mean to threaten you.”

Greene paled. “But I wasn’t trying — I was just... stating the obvious.”

“No harm done,” Taichi broke in, amused. “I didn’t perceive it as a threat. Explaining how I came to be the target, not Yamato, would have been most inconvenient. My offer of assistance to you both still stands.”

Hunter looked him in the eyes. Taichi could only imagine what the man thought he was seeing as the mask was completely expressionless and the mirrored eyeports could reveal nothing.

But Hunter nodded anyway, as if having something confirmed. “If you’re the kind of man I think you are, then just keep on doing what you’re doing. That’ll be payment enough.”

It would have been a profound moment, but Greene interrupted with his pouting. “But!" he broke off the forming complaint and whispered rapidly into Hunter’s ear.

Hunter snorted. “It’s on your head.” He left and sat in the secondary control chair, busying himself with the instrument panel.

“I take it you want something?” Taichi asked.

“Two things?” Greene was all innocent smiles. “I’ll need Sir Koushiro’s help on this.”

Taichi snorted too, inside the mask, but he said nothing. He was becoming curious about this Hunter. How the older man had fallen under the sway of his much more exuberant younger partner seemed to be an interesting story. Koushiro approached at Taichi’s signal.

“So, there’s a bet going on among the guards,” Greene began. “You, uh, know about that already, right?”

Taichi looked to Koushiro. The red-head shrugged and asked, “Which one?”

“The Kemari pot. Can you let me know who wins? You don’t need to send any money, but I’d like to know what happens.”

“Give Koushiro your contact information and he’ll see you get beamed the results. And the second thing?”

Saberslash’s fourteenth level has been taking forever. I’ve never seen that game anywhere else before joining the guards and it’s brilliant. Can you track it down and send it to me once it’s released?”

Taichi snickered inside the mask. Koushiro was the creative genius behind the computer game. He’d fallen behind on developing more of it because he was convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, people didn’t like it. Taichi let his friend field this one.

“It might take a while, but I think that can be arranged,” Koushiro said, visibly irked.

“We might even be able to send you out level fifteen when it’s ready, too,” Taichi put in.

Koushiro looked at him murderously, but then realized who Taichi was supposed to be and where they were. “Of course, Lord,” he amended smoothly. “As you command. I will see to the ship’s security measures now.”

With a pride-stiffened spine, Koushiro stalked back to the pilot's seat and began making preparations. Taichi laid a hand on his shoulder.

"See to it that whatever happens on this flight remains private. Let me know when you've disabled all the necessary security systems."

"Understood, High Lord."

Taichi nodded and left the three men to their work, Hikari at his heels.

The cabin door closed behind them and he wrapped her up in his arms. She burrowed into his hold and he was struck by the thought of how close he'd come to losing her, of how close she'd been to losing him.

The cameras probably weren't disabled yet and everybody in the main room could see them, but it didn't matter. He didn't care what anybody thought or what it would look like. He held his sister close.



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