AN: Alright folks, here's the next chapter and I hope you all like it. Now let's get on with this.

Disclaimer: Same as before. I also don't own Kyoka Azai, Kenji Takayama, Yukari Takayama, Kanako Takayama, Kazumi Takayama, or Han Zu Kang who all belong to GreyWolf4, though all but the last one are only going to be mentioned for now. Also don't own a certain manga series or a few certain games that are also making surprise crossovers (though two of them are more of a reference(I'll explain later so just be patient please).

Chapter 35: The Closing Curtain: Part 2: Coming Home

Robert Thorn casually strolled outside the American base towards the car waiting for him. The scientist was carrying a large file along with several disks containing the details on the project going on inside the base that he had come to check on.

As the driver of the car opened the door for him, Thorn glanced over at the driver.

"I believe that you know the next place I need to get to." He said simply.

"Of course, sir, I'll get you straight to Kamakura." The driver replied quickly and then realized something. "Shall I arrange for…?"

"I have a chopper waiting for me there to take me to the island, just get me to the launch pad." Thorn said.

"Alright, sir." The driver said and then proceeded to get into the front and drive.

With that, Thorn sat back in his seat and began to go over the file in his hands. As he did so, his thoughts went back to what he had seen inside the base.

(No question that that project brought about some powerful telepaths…I actually had to work a little to conceal my presence from either of those two…) Thorn's eyes then narrowed as he remembered something. (Still…the specimen Number 104…I could have sworn for a second that she found me, but…) Thorn glanced through the files and shook his head. (There's no way she could be that aware with these results…besides, Number 16 was proven to be the strongest anyway…)

The four members of the assassin team Weiss, Ran, Omi, Ken, and Youji, all wearing casual clothing, were sitting in the living room of Suzumi Aogiri's house. Ran was on the phone listening as both Tot and Yuhi told him about what had transpired at FOXHOUND HQ so far. The red haired assassin nodded as he spoke to them.

"So right now, all Riku needs to do is hand in the report on what happened on that boat and then you all will be back in Japan tomorrow?" Ran asked.

"Yeah, pretty much." Yuhi answered from the other line. "And about those two guys, Lee and Asamu…"

"Ever since we brought them in, those mercenaries from the Aogiris have kept them very well confined and under twenty four hour watch, so I doubt they'll be going anywhere any time soon." Ran replied. "Still, all four of us are glad to hear that everyone is alright, and I'm sure Suzumi-san will be glad to hear that from you."

"Oh, uh…" Yuhi gulped in nervousness as he remembered that he hadn't called Suzumi to tell her what had happened and had a feeling that she was going to grill him for not calling sooner and making her worry.

"I'll hold the phone while you go and get Suzumi, Ran." Youji spoke as he took the phone from his partner and then grinned at him. "Besides, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who you'll be calling on that cell phone of yours now that the mission's pretty much over."

"I don't know what you're talking about." Ran said simply as he handed Youji the phone, barely concealing a blush, before leaving the room.

After the team's leader left the room, Ken, Youji, and Omi fought to laugh at what they had just seen.

"I never thought I'd see Ran like that." Ken noted. "Still, I'm surprised you were able to figure out what Ran was going to do."

"Oh, it wasn't so hard to spot." Youji said with a grin. "Especially since Ran doesn't act so different from how you are with Yuriko. He's just trying to hide it, and doing a poor job at that."

The part time soccer coach blushed but said nothing. Meanwhile, Omi made a light sigh to himself.

(It looks like this is going to be routine now…) The young assassin thought to himself.

"I see…" Riku said simply, his voice a low and somber tone, after hearing what Michael had told both him and Nagi regarding the fate of Gladys Smithson. The young ninja's head was lowered and he almost seemed to be staring at the floor, yet the look in his eyes showed that he had paid attention to everything Michael had said. And as he heard them, Riku couldn't help but feel a wrenching feeling inside as he felt frustration at not being able to do anything more to have helped Gladys beforehand.

(Those manuals they have you read on how to deal with these sorts of things sound all official and effective, but right now they just sound like they're not worth crap!) Riku thought as he remembered before, during his training shortly after initiation into FOXHOUND on how to deal with civilians encountered during missions, in this case those who were the victims of rape by enemy, or just outside, forces. Though the ninja knew that was something he would have to come across sooner or later and have to deal with, this was something he knew he could never prepare for.

Meanwhile, Nagi had been silent the whole time except for a light sigh after he had heard the news. The psychic had been able to tell beforehand at the Mikage base without even having to sense Gladys' mental state, which he had, that the woman would not be in the best condition after the mission was over. Yet even though he thought he was prepared, Nagi still felt the same wrenching feeling that his friend was as he too wished he could have done more.

(This shouldn't be strange to me, I know these sorts of things happen…) Nagi thought and his eyes lowered. (It's ironic…that an assassin such as myself, who has killed many, is… by this…)

Michael regarded the expressions on the faces of the two young men sitting before him. Truth be told, it pained his heart to inform them of how Gladys, shortly after recovery from that explosion he had barely managed to save her from, had what could only be described as a mental breakdown at not just from the trauma of what Shade had done to her, but also at the loss of those C-Genome girls who she had cared for and the fact that Kagami Mikage, a man she had looked up to had simply left her behind in order to escape. Michael could do nothing but use his connections and position in FOXHOUND to make sure Gladys was taken to the best mental hospital he knew; Alexander O. Howell had even accompanied them. The two had only just gotten back the day before, and as a result Aya and co. knew what had happened.

"I know what the two of you are thinking." Michael spoke in a calming tone. "Just take my word for it and don't either of you beat yourselves up for not being able to do the impossible. If anything, it will only make things worse."

"I…" Riku glanced over at Nagi before continuing. "We know…we know what you're trying to say, but…I can't help but wish we could have done more to help her. I mean…you must have seen how she was at that time…"

"And sensing her emotions then…" Nagi suddenly spoke, his eyes almost having a distant look as he spoke. "I've told you I can sense strong emotions, and in Gladys-san's case it was almost like she was screaming…"

The two's thoughts and words were interrupted by a sudden sharp and loud rap from the desk Michael was sitting as he struck it. However, there was no anger or frustration in the FOXHOUNDer's face, he had simply done that to snap the two out of it and get their attention.

"I know…I know what you both are going through with this." Michael said. "It wasn't easy to deal with for me, and it never is for anyone, but…" Michael's eyes lowered. "At least you were able to save Gladys' life…I've seen far worse outcomes happen before. You were also able to save her from going through the same thing again, and you did everything you could to protect her and succeeded…" Michael then looked at the both of them sharply to make sure Riku and Nagi heard what he had to say next, which he said very firmly. "What I want to say is this…don't throw away what little you were able to do to help Gladys just because of what has happened and regard it as nothing. To do so would be an affront to her."

For a while, both Riku and Nagi said nothing until finally Riku broke the silence.

"So…there is a chance she can get better, right?" He asked, his tone a hopeful one. "It is possible for her to be able to live a normal life if she can…right?"

Michael was silent for a moment, not really because he wasn't sure how to answer that question, but in regarding both Riku and Nagi, who he saw had similar hopeful look in his eyes as Riku, and then considering Tot.

(It's no wonder that these three make such a good team…) He thought to himself. (All three are very experienced in their fields for their age, and their personalities and backgrounds are so different…yet they're still so alike in that they're still kids…)

"It is possible…" Michael said. "But…" Michael then stopped to consider something that he remembered talking about with Alec a short while ago. "You both said you wanted to do something more to help Miss Smithson, right?"

"Of course." Riku replied. "If there's anything that at least the three of us can do, we'll do it."

"And I can vouch for Tot, as well." Nagi added.

"Good…" Michael nodded. "Then later could you two come here with Tot? There's something I want to discuss with you three. Also bring Dr. Howell here as I know he would want to hear this."

"Alright." Riku nodded along with Nagi. "So…"

"I think that's enough for now, why don't you two go out and get some air." Michael said. "I can tell you'll need it."

As the two FOXHOUNDers left, Michael then lapsed into his own thoughts.

(People cannot overcome traumatic events in their lives alone…) He thought. (Maybe, just maybe…)

"Well, I'm glad to hear that you're doing well, Kenji." Kenshin Mori spoke through a cell phone. He was sitting in the lobby of the Japanese HQ for FOXHOUND where he would be staying for the night in one of the guest's quarters, which he was allowed to do due to the Hokage clan's alliance with FOXHOUND. Currently, Kenshin was talking with one of the members of his team, Hokage Ryu, which helped to pass the time while he awaited the arrival of Riku Hanabishi, Nagi Naoe, and Tot/Nanami Hibino and those who he heard would be with them. "Speaking of which, how has your family been doing?"

"Oh, just great, thanks for asking." An older Japanese male's voice spoke from the other end. "Anyway, Kenshin, the reason I'm calling is about that info you brought back about Gazth-Sonika…is it really that bad over there?"

"Unfortunately, yes, and that's only based on what I saw outside the demilitarized zone along with some data I managed to obtain on operations carried out by both the Royalist forces and Galza."

"Yeah, I had a look at them myself." Kenji replied. The two of them were having this conversation because Kenji had not been able to participate in a recent mission that their team had recently carried out in the country they were talking about. "Still, it's hard to believe that some crime group is having some kind of influence on it all. Do you think that…?"

"Please hold on a moment…" Kenshin said and looked around to make sure no one was listening in. "Where are you right now?"

"I'm actually taking a break from getting set for a family outing later today." Kenji answered. "I figured I'd call just to confirm things since it looks like we're bound to have another mission in Gazth-Sonika sooner or later."

"Yes, it does seem that way." Kenshin admitted. "Anyway, I think we should discuss the major details at the Uruha mansion…considering how 'they' are rumored to operate in terms of keeping their secrets, discussing this by phone is way too risky."

"Yeah, you've got a good point." Kenji agreed. "Well, on a lighter note, how's that girl and those friends of hers you met in Nafrece?"

"Oh Margaret's been doing well last I heard, and the same goes for Elenore and Vanessa." Kenshin said. "You know, if you get the chance, you and your family should take a vacation in that area. I'd gladly point out some nice places to check out, also I think your wife and daughters would get along well with Margaret, Elenore, and Vanessa."

"I suppose so." Kenji then gave a light chuckle. "Still, I think it would be more interesting to see that cousin of yours meet with Margaret. From what I hear they have a similar habit of being able to sleep just about anywhere at any time."

"I wouldn't say that it's the same thing, but I do agree it would be an interesting meeting." Kenshin said with a smile.

"Well, I guess that's it for now." Kenji said. "I'll talk with you later, Kenshin, and it was good talking with you."

"The feeling is mutual." Kenshin replied. "And give my regards to Yukari-san, Kanako-chan, and Kazumi-chan."

"Will do, you take care now." Kenji replied. "Ja ne."

As Kenshin put his cell phone away, he then lapsed into his own thoughts.

(Now that I think about it…there's always been something about that book of Margaret's that's bothered me.) He thought to himself. (I've been meaning to inform at least Grandma, Yukimura-san, or Kyoka about it, but for some reason I keep forgetting. Just what sort of language is it written in? I've never seen anything similar to it before. And that missing page…just what does the complete book say?) Kenshin then felt an odd chill as he thought about it that he couldn't explain. (And why…even though I have no idea what that book could say…why does it feel like the words would mean something unsettling?)

Kenshin thought about this for a moment before pushing those thoughts aside.

(I guess there's no point in wondering about it for now.) He thought. (Especially since I remember Elenore mentioning over the phone that Margaret recently hired a detective who specializes in finding rare books to look into it, so it may turn out to be nothing.) His thoughts then drifted in a different direction. (Still, since Kenji mentioned Gazth-Sonika, I wonder what you're doing right now, Madlax? Probably eating pasta…)

"So we'll be heading back to Japan around noon tomorrow?" Nagi asked Riku as the two of them walked down the hallway of FOXHOUND HQ.

"Yeah, after I hand in the mission report to General Drake and we see Michael." Riku answered and then remembered something. "By the way, could you check with Aya and the others and make sure Naomi gave them a good checkup and all? Same goes for Toya."

"Leave it to me." Nagi nodded. "Still, are you sure you'll be alright doing the editing on that report? I mean…"

"Don't worry, I'll be fine, but thanks." Riku said reassuringly. "If anything, I should be asking you that. You definitely didn't look really well when you talked about that bit with your telepathy, along with the fact that you're going to try to explain this to Nanami…"

"Thank you for the concern, but I'll be alright." Nagi replied gratefully and then reached into his pocket and took out a portable USB and handed it to Riku. "Here's a copy of the report I typed up."

"Thanks." Riku said as he put it in his pocket. As he did he remembered something. "Oh that's right, there is something I've been meaning to ask you, Nagi. It's about your powers…"

"Go on."

"When you killed one of those guards who attacked Gladys and when you used that big attack on Shade back on the boat…" Riku paused as he considered how to phrase what he had to say next before continuing. "I noticed that your eyes were glowing…they were glowing red... Do you…?"

"About that…I'm not really sure…" Nagi said as he paused to think about it. "I remember Crawford mentioning something about how it was easy to tell if I had any sort of hatred or dislike towards those I killed because he could see it in my eyes. Schuldich even joked about it…to be honest I didn't really think too much on it but…if that's what they meant then…" Nagi then paused. "Why are you asking me? If you don't mind."

"Garland's eyes become red when he enters Berserker Demon or True Dread state." Riku answered. "Just to let you know, the only reason I'm talking about all of this is curiosity. You see, shortly after I introduced you and Tot to Garland and you both trained under him, Garland thanked me for it. He said that thanks to your meeting, he managed to find a kindred spirit. So I was thinking that maybe the two of you were the same type…you know, in terms of how your abilities manifest."

"You may be right about that." Nagi agreed. "Garland had some very good and effective advice for me in terms of control of my ability. That and I could tell that he was speaking from experience. I don't know if you know this, but neither of us…"

"Had very good childhoods, yeah I know." Riku nodded. "Garland mentioned that to me when he gave me some advice at our being a team…"

Almost a month before, Riku was sitting outside the training hall next to Garland drinking down a bottle of water as the two had finished an intense training as well as sparring session. As they had left, Riku had been talking to Garland about how to effectively be a team leader as he was new at this as Nagi and Tot were his first partners. Riku had gone to Michael Hansen for advice, but the ninja also wanted to talk with other experienced members as well.

"Well, thanks for the advice, I just hope I can do it all right." Riku said with a sigh.

"You won't be able to do everything correctly at the very start, Riku." Garland replied. "Becoming a good leader is, like so many other things, a process of trial and error. You will end up making mistakes, which you will need to learn from. The advice that you're getting from Michael and me will just help make sure that the mistakes you make won't be fatal ones. Also, make sure to trust greatly in your companions. They will be the ones who will help mold you into a good leader better than any advice. You'll see and understand soon enough."

"Alright, thank you so much, Garland." Riku gave a light bow of his head in gratitude.

"There is one more thing." Garland added. "This is about your teammate Nagi."

'What about him? Is something wrong?" Riku asked with concern.

"No it's nothing like that." Garland answered. "I just wanted to tell you something important. You probably know that your friend didn't have a very happy life as a child, right?

"Yeah, I know. Nagi doesn't talk much about it, but…" Riku paused. "Does this have something to do with that?"

"Yes…let's just say Nagi and I aren't so different in that aspect." Garland paused and lowered his eyes for a moment before continuing. "Anyway, what I want to say is this. Nagi is someone who likely has had difficulty trusting someone as he's probably experienced a great deal rejection and probably even betrayal as well. As such, a real friendship is something that means a great deal to him, don't forget that."

"I won't, I promise." Riku said sincerely. "Upon my honor as a Hokage shinobi, I will not take a friendship like that for granted."

"And that's about it…" Riku finished, his face flushing a bit in embarrassment before quickly turning to leave. "A-anyway, I should get that report finished so we can get home soon tomorrow. Everyone's probably worried…"

With that the young ninja quickly headed for the library to get to work on the report. Nagi smiled as he watched his friend leave.

(I guess I made a good choice in teaming up with this guy after all.) The young psychic thought to himself before heading for the commons area to find Tot and the others. (I just hope I can explain Gladys' condition to Nanami…)

"As you can see everything is in order and the containment of all the diclonius in this facility is secure." A woman in her mid thirties with long black hair tied back and wearing glasses and a dark purple jacket over a dark colored dress explained to Robert Thorn as she walked with him into one of the meeting rooms. She then handed him a disc. "This contains a report that Chief Kakuzawa…"

"I did not come here for a report, Shirakawa, I came to make both a thorough inspection of this facility and to ask Chief Kakuzawa personally about the research and what results have been yielded from it all." Thorn said with an irritated tone. "I would like to speak with him now."

"I'm sorry, but the chief is currently-." Shirakawa was interrupted as the door to the room opened and a man in his mid thirties with short black hair, wearing a dark business suit and glasses.

"Excuse me, but I've been sent to meet with you in Chief Kakuzawa's place." The man spoke in a calm and formal tone. "The Chief sends his apologies that he could not meet with you today."

"Apologies, huh?" Thorn looked at the man and then recognized him. "Aren't you the Chief of Research for this facility, Director Kurama?"

"Yes, I am." Kurama answered simply. "As I am meeting you in the chief's place, whatever questions you have I will answer."

"Then perhaps you can answer these questions." Thorn replied, frustrated that Kakuzawa had not been at the facility to meet him. "First, I specifically requested this meeting and yet your chief is not here. Why? And second, why is it I am being restricted from certain parts of this facility?"

"To the first, I can only answer that Chief Kakuzawa had a sudden and important meeting and therefore sends his apologies for his absence." Kurama answered calmly. "As for your second question, I suppose it would depend on what areas that you wish to see."

"It's in seeing the certain test subjects, first the one given the name 'Lucy'." Thorn said. "I've noticed that Kakuzawa seems to have an interest in this particular specimen. I would like to know why and see for myself what it is about the specimen that interests him."

"I'm sorry to say that I cannot answer that question." Kurama replied. "The chief has kept both Shirakawa and myself in the dark on that subject."

(Why am I not surprised?) Thorn thought to himself as he used his telepathy to scan through both Kurama and Shirakawa's minds without their knowledge, but found no hint of deception behind their words or from their thoughts. (It seems that Kakuzawa has even kept even those with higher positions in his group on a tight leash…which makes his actions even more suspicious…)

"And I suppose that's the same reason why I am not allowed to see that "Third Generation" Silpelit, I forget its number…" Thorn then paused as he noticed a slight, barely noticeable, reaction from Kurama as he said this. "Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing's wrong, sir." Kurama replied, simply betraying no sign of what Thorn had noticed. "And regretfully I have to inform you that the reason for the restriction is because she is considered too dangerous by the Chief and only he has authorization to allow anyone inside the area she is confined in. I…" Kurama paused for a moment. "I'm afraid I am not allowed access to that area…"

"I see…" Thorn had to fight to hide his frustration, which was so much that he was greatly wishing he could do to Kakuzawa what he had just recently done to those members of the Mikage family and their guards.

"Very well, I suppose I just came at a bad time." Thorn said with a forced sigh. "And what of that other project that Kakuzawa was having worked on as per the Patriots' request? I know that I am at least allowed to have a look at that and see what results it has yielded."

"Yes, I'll have Dr. Takiyama notified, if you'll please follow Shirakawa." Kurama looked over at Shirakawa, who nodded in reply before turning to Thorn.

"If you will please follow me, sir." Shirakawa said, gesturing towards the door.

(At least this won't be a total waste…) Thorn thought to himself as he followed Shirakawa out.

"Man, this certainly took longer than I thought." Riku said to himself with a sigh of relief as he clicked on the 'save' icon. It had taken him over two hours to edit the mission report. "Now all that's left to do is have Aya and the others have a look to make sure that I haven't left anything out, and then give this to General Drake."

Just as Riku was about to click on the 'print' icon, he felt a strange, almost nagging, feeling come over him. The young ninja sighed and shook his head.

(Why is it every time I go over this it feels like I'm leaving something very important out?) He wondered to himself. (Maybe I still need some more sleep…)

(You do know that too much sleep isn't healthy, right Riku?) Yuki's voice spoke to him suddenly, startling Riku and almost causing him to fall out his chair.

(Yuki…) Riku then gave a light chuckle as he regained his balance before giving a sheepish smile. (Well, it looks like you managed to fix the tiredness problem for me, thanks.)

(I'm sorry if I startled you…) Yuki apologized.

(It's no bother, really.) Riku replied. (Besides, I wanted to speak with you anyway. I haven't heard you in a while, so I was starting to get a little worried…)

(Worried…you were worried about me?) Yuki asked.

(Well, uh, yeah…) Riku answered, something in the spirit's voice causing him to blush for a reason he couldn't say. (I mean, you hadn't said anything since back at the Mikage boat and I was worried that maybe that thing Shade did to me may have affected you somehow…I mean, well…)

(It's all right, I'm fine.) Yuki said. (Though I have to tell you that both the dragons and myself were worried when you were suddenly cut off from us like that. Especially since you were…)

"Hey Riku, what's up?" A female voice spoke out to Riku from behind, also surprising the young ninja, though this time he did not almost fall out of the chair he was sitting in. Riku turned and saw that the speaker was Mana Kirishima.

"Well, not very much aside from I just finished my mission's report." Riku answered.

"Talk about perfect timing." Mana said. "I was going to come get you since Naomi wanted to speak with you about something." Mana then remembered something. "Wait a minute, didn't General Drake order you to take a break today?"

"Yeah, but Nagi already had the report ready and all I needed to do was edit it. Not to mention I'm not entirely sure if I'm in the mood for a break right now." Riku answered with a sigh.

For a moment, Mana looked at Riku and then spoke.

"After hearing that come from you, it's obvious something is up, so what's wrong?" She asked.

"Well, to be honest…" Riku paused for a moment before continuing. "There's a part of the mission that I wish had turned out differently, but considering the circumstances, I realize that was impossible."

"Is it about that woman Michael was protecting during your mission?" Mana asked. "Sorry…I saw Michael and that blond doctor go with her to that hospital, and Michael told me a little about what happened when they got back here…"

"I see…" Riku said, not saying anything for a moment before continuing. "Just to let you know, I'm not blaming myself for what's happened, it's just that…somehow it just doesn't seem fair. The mission was successful and everyone we were protecting survived somehow, but…" Riku sighed. "To be honest I can't really explain this in words…"

"Maybe, but I know what you're trying to say." Mana replied, and paused for a few seconds before continuing. "I know there isn't much I can say to help, but I'll still at least listen to whatever you need to say so you can get it off your chest. That's what friends do, right?"

For a moment Riku said nothing, but then smiled gratefully and nodded.

"Thank you, Mana." He said and then reached over to start the report's printing before standing up. "Well, I guess I'll head over to talk with Naomi and see what she needs to talk with me about while waiting for this to finish printing."

"Are you sure you're alright?" Mana asked.

"Yeah, I think so." Riku answered. "And Michael did tell me that there was something Nagi, Tot, and I could do to help that he'll talk with us about later. Anyway, I'll be going now."

Shade stood leaning against the entrance to a cavern that went deep into the earth. He was in the countryside of Japan, close to Nagasaki, and patiently awaiting the one who had called him here.

Suddenly he felt something familiar and in the nick of time, whirled around to face the one approaching him from behind. The immortal mercenary's expression was annoyed as he looked at the man behind him.

"You're late." Shade said simply.

The man he was addressing was a man of Japanese descent who appeared to be in his mid twenties with dark brown hair and brown eyes. The man waved his hand in apology with a light smile.

"Do forgive me, Shingen, but I was… delayed." The man answered. "I hope that I haven't in any way inconvenienced you."

"That will depend on what this is about, old man." Shade replied. Not dropping his annoyed look. "So, what do you want, Kurando? Or should I call you Darkness?"

"Now, now, neither of us are working so please consider this a casual meeting." Kurando's expression or tone of voice did not change from the friendly one he was using. "In other words you may call me by name."

"Fine, Kurando then." Shade said. "Now, don't make me repeat myself."

"You'll see for yourself soon enough, my friend." Kurando replied. "I'll show you as soon as Tenzen arrives with the last one."

"Last one?" Shade asked. "Just what tasks have you given that mongrel lately?"

"Something far more significant than anything you've been doing lately, Koga trash." A man's voice spoke harshly from the side, causing Shade to glance over to see the speaker, Tenzen Yakushiji, walking out from the woods towards them. He was wearing the same outfit he had been wearing on the night when he had encountered Shade a few days earlier, and was carrying the beaten body of what appeared to be an old man over his shoulder.

Shade studied the person Tenzen was carrying and noticed that the man's features were European, while Kurando looked at Tenzen sharply.

"I thought I told you that we needed these things alive, Tenzen. This man looks like he's been beaten half to death." Kurando's tone of voice had lowered and now had irritation in it.

"My apologies master, but this man was stronger than most of the other Maram users." Tenzen said swiftly in apology. "I wasn't expecting to fight an actual Maram master, considering…"

"I suppose you have a point, I can feel quite a bit of strength in this one." Kurando agreed after looking closer at the man his servant was carrying. "Oh well, it shouldn't affect the ceremony; in fact it should help insure things go more smoothly."

"Alright, old man what's going on?" Shade asked. "What are you bothering with Maram masters and their like for? They're nothing but a bunch of weakling fanatics who answer only to their master. And from what I understand, some bunch from that Lotsuan organization defeated him about a year ago. Any Maram wielders now would be pretty weak as a result."

"Yes, yes, I know all about that." Kurando said offhandedly. "After all, I was personally observing the whole thing as those Lotus Masters defeated Darva. I was almost worried I would have step in, but somehow that bunch of children won."

"So what's the point of dealing with these Maram wielders, if you know that?" Shade continued. "Don't tell me you're trying to help that Lotsuan order? I don't think they'd be so quick to accept favors from people like us."

"Of course not, in fact have you read the latest newspapers?" Kurando asked simply.

Shade was silent for a moment and then his eyes narrowed as he realized what Kurando was telling him.

"Wait a minute, were all of those…?" Shade began but stopped as he could figure out the answer from Kurando's face. "You know that's quite the gamble on your part. Whatever we may think of that bunch of do-gooders, they are sort of necessary. Without them we'd have a large number of annoying pests to deal with."

"Don't worry, I only had Tenzen kill about half of each branch that he visited and also made sure that he did not go after any of those who assisted those two Neo-Masters." Kurando then paused as he glanced over at Tenzen with a smirk. "Though I had to do quite a bit of persuading so that he would not go after that Chinese girl master, though I can't blame him for wanting a go at that one. I myself would have found it a bit hard to resist…"

"Would you just get on with this?" Shade asked with irritation. "I did not come here for idle chatter, old man. Just answer my questions. Also you haven't given a proper explanation for why you gave Tenzen that task you just mentioned. Killing half of each branch of the Lotsuan Orders still doesn't seem like such a good idea. Even the Patriots have ordered them to be left alone, especially since they keep those infected by mara, and the mara itself, under control. Maram users aren't a threat to us, but they could become quite the nuisance if they became too widespread."

"You're in quite the bad mood today, my friend." Kurando noted. "Are you still sore about not being able to gain the power of the tennyo?"

Shade gritted his teeth as he heard that. To him, it was bad enough that such a great power had slipped from his grasp, but now that this man also knew about it made things even more aggravating.

"Oh don't worry, I have just the solution for that, so you can rest easy." Kurando said reassuringly. "Anyway, to answer your question, the mara problem should not be anything to worry about. I only had Tenzen carry out the killings because I did not want any of that bunch from the Lotsuan Order get a hint of what's about to happen. While they're busy recovering from this, we can do this ceremony without any worry of interference."

"That's assuming I'm interested in helping you with it. That is what you called me here for, right?" Shade asked in reply. "First tell me what you intend to do?"

Kurando then gave confident smile, and his expression suddenly seemed to change from the warm and friendly look it originally had to a sinister, and predatory look.

"It's simple really, my dear Shingen." He answered. "I intend to summon Darva and make him, and his power, a part of me…"

Riku was sitting on a chair inside FOXHOUND's medical exam room along with Nagi, Tot, Aya, Toya, Yuhi, Chidori, Aki, Maya, Shuro, and Alec. They were all listening to Naomi's diagnosis.

"So basically Aya, Chidori, Maya, and Shuro will need to be taking a regular dosage of nanomachines for a while, right?" Riku asked after Naomi had finished.

"Yes, mainly to make sure any strain or damage caused to the body from their transformations is healed properly." Naomi answered. "It shouldn't take longer than a year, and afterwards you shouldn't need to take the dosage anymore." Naomi paused as if considering something before continuing. "Still, I'd like a blood sample from each of you later on for comparisons to the ones I've taken just now so I can be certain that there have been improvements. We can't be too careful in this, considering that this is a largely unknown field."

"And what about Toya and Aki?" Nagi asked. "From what you told us, the process for them would be a little different, am I correct?"

"Yes, though the nanomachines distributed to each of them will differ and there are some differences that I need to point out." Naomi answered. "In your friend Aki's case, he will have to take a specially designed colony for quite a while in order to heal his body from the affects of taking in the hagoromo." She noticed Aya was about to ask a question and answered it for her. "I know that your brother looks alright now, but after taking a few X-rays after I noticed something odd in the blood sample he gave me. It turns out that the hagoromo apparently caused some extensive internal damage to his body and if not treated the effects would be fatal."

"So just how long will I have to be using these things?" Aki asked.

"I would say at least a year, but it could be a little while longer." Naomi replied. "It depends on how quickly the nanomachines are able to heal you." She then looked reassuringly at the group. "Don't worry, as long as the nanomachines are applied, Aki should fully recover."

"And Toya?" Aya asked.

"That's where things become a bit more complicated." Naomi said. "What has to be done in Toya's case would be creating a nanocolony that can act as a substitute for the hagoromo."

"You can do that right?" Yuhi asked her, and Naomi nodded.

"For the most part, yes." She replied. "I can make a colony that can keep Toya alive and he should be able to live normally. Though he will need both a checkup and replacement of each colony once every year." Naomi paused for a moment before continuing. "However, the colony cannot imitate the hagoromo in other ways. Mainly in the area of power for fighting."

"Would he be able to fight at all?" Riku asked.

"As long as it doesn't involve trying to use any of the more powerful abilities, he should be able to." Naomi answered. "To be more specific, I believe he should be able to call out and wield that knife from his body." She then turned to Toya. "As for anything beyond that, I can't really say, though for the moment I wouldn't take any chances if I were you."

"I understand, so don't worry." Toya replied. "I do not intend to enter combat any time soon if I can avoid it."

"Yeah, you'll be getting started in the 'family man' area, so good luck with that, man." Riku commented with a grin.

"Thank you." Toya replied and then turned to Naomi. "And thank you very much for doing all of this. I truly am grateful."

"We all are." Aya added. "You're doing so much so we can all live normally…"

"Well, you're all quite welcome, but it's not that much really." Naomi replied, almost bashfully. She then stopped as she remembered. "Oh yes, hold on just a minute."

Naomi then got up and came back later carrying a set of five large metal cases. She then handed one to Aya, Yuhi, Chidori, Shuro, and Maya respectfully.

"Inside of these are the right amount of nanomachines you should each be taking, according to my calculations." Naomi explained. "Each dose is to be taken every three months for the next year in order to replace the nanocolonies as they die out. After that, you should be fine." She then turned to Yuhi. "This one is for your sister just in case. I know she hasn't transformed into a celestial maiden, but I would rather not take any chances."

"Yeah, you have a good point, thanks." Yuhi said as he took the case.

"And what about the ones for Toya and Aki?" Aya asked, and then she remembered something. "And about these nanomachines…"

"Don't worry, while I was working on yours, I made sure that it would work without being any danger to your child." Naomi said reassuringly. "As for your first question, they should be ready tomorrow morning."

"Well, it looks like we've got everything in order then so we can go back home tomorrow." Riku said and then remembered something. "Oh by the way, you guys there's something I need to show you just to make sure of a few things…"

Shade looked at Kurando for a moment as he fully registered hearing what the man had just told him before breaking out into laughter.

"You can't be serious, you're actually going to try to summon 'the' Darva?" Shade asked. "A man who, several thousand years ago, betrayed his teacher Lotsuan, the creator of the Lotis, to create the Maram, the darkness words. In doing so, he became the next closest thing to a god."

"Yes, I know all of that, Shingen." Kurando answered simply. "And all of that is how this will work, yet I need your help in order to pull this off."

"Really?" Shade asked in reply, his voice skeptical but his eyes could not hide the fact that he was interested in what Kurando had to tell him. He then realized something and his eyes narrowed. "Hold on, though. Before you explain to me this 'plan' of yours, I'd like to know what's in it for me." Shade then gave a smirk. "Do you honestly think I'd help you get a power up like that for free? I can be generous if I feel like it, but I'm not stupid."

"And what makes you think you have the right to refuse what Kurando-sama wishes?" Tenzen asked.

"Simple, mongrel, because your 'beloved' master has made it clear that he needs me for this." Shade answered giving a mocking sneer at Tenzen, knowing full well how much the term 'mongrel' angered the man as it referred to the man being of both Koga and Iga parentage. He then turned back to Kurando. "So, what's your offer?"

Kurando simply smiled, his expression returning to the friendly one of before, except his eyes had a knowing look to them, as he knew what he had for Shade was something that the man could not refuse.

"You know those seals that were put on you so many years ago?" Kurando asked simply. "They gave you quite the loss of power if I remember correctly…"

"Are you saying you found one of them?" Shade said quickly and forcefully, though he already knew the answer. He then studied Kurando's face to make sure he was not lying and finally answered. "Fine. You have yourself a deal. Now tell me what you intend to do, how you plan to summon Darva, and how I fit into all of this?" Shade then noticed the unconscious body of the man Tenzen was carrying. "Also what do you need that man for?"

"All in good time, my dear Shingen, all in good time." Kurando replied with a smile and gestured at the entrance. "For now, follow me into this cavern, and I'll explain things as we go along…"

"So, what do you guys think?" Riku asked after showing Aya, Toya, Yuhi, Chidori, Maya, Aki, Shuro, and Alec the finished report on the mission. After they had left the medical area and Aya, Chidori, Maya, and Shuro had taken their shots of nanomachines, Riku had run over to the library to pick up the printed copy and had returned with it so that they all could read it. Nagi and Tot were also there to have a look at the report as well. "Is everything about it alright?"

"Yeah, it looks that way." Aya answered.

"Still, are you sure that this information is going into the right hands?" Toya asked. "Aya and everyone else told me about what was going on with the Patriots and all, along with Michael Hansen."

"He's got a point, you know." Yuhi said in agreement. "Are you sure this stuff won't fall into enemy hands?"

"I understand what you mean, so don't worry." Riku replied reassuringly. "But there's no need for concern. I'm putting this report directly into the hands of General Carter Drake himself, and trust me they couldn't be in safer hands."

"You're sure this man can be trusted?" Shuro asked. "I don't offense, I just need too be sure that you're sure."

"None taken, I understand." Riku answered. "I know the good General, as do most of us here at FOXHOUND. He's a good person, and I'd trust him with my life. He even helps us FOXHOUNDers with all that crap Reese puts up, and just a while ago he even promised me himself that the report will only be for the eyes of those he feels can be trusted with such information."

"Yeah, there's no need to worry since Drake-san is a good guy." Tot nodded in agreement.

"Though Tot and I are newcomers, I did not once sense anything troubling about the General, so I think Riku's right about this." Nagi added.

"Well, if you put it that way…" Alec spoke and then reached into a bag he was carrying and handed Riku a folder. "I think you should include this…"

"Hey, isn't this…?" Riku asked as he looked into the folder.

"Yes, those are the files containing the incriminating information on the Mikage family that I was given." Alec answered. "I figured that you would probably be able to make better use of it than I could…"

"Wait a second…" Riku spoke suddenly and then handed the folder back to Alec. "Instead, could you make a copy of all of this and you keep the original?"

"Well, yes, but why?" Alec asked in reply.

"Probably as a precaution just in case something should go wrong." Nagi answered, looking over at Riku, who nodded to confirm his guess. "I'd also recommend scanning all those documents and keeping a few copies saved in something portable like a USB, external hard drive, or disk."

"But I thought you said you trusted this General Drake?" Chidori asked.

"We do, but that isn't the reason we're concerned about this." Riku replied.

"It's because there's a good chance some bad guys could get these papers instead of the report, right?" Tot asked and Riku nodded.

"It stands to reason that the Patriots, and any other organizations who may be interested in C-Project, know at least something of what happened a few days ago by now." Nagi explained. "It won't be long until they'll make attempts to find out exactly what happened."

"You don't think they'll send anyone after us, do you?" Yuhi asked.

"For the moment, the possibility of that is slim." Riku said. "That's one of the good things about this mission's outcome."

"I see…so you mean that because of all that's happened recently, enemy groups might want to wait till the attention drawn to all of this has died down before making any bold moves." Aya surmised.

"That's probably true, Maya and I had a look at the news today and that explosion at the Mikage base is one of the headlines." Aki added.

"Also, early this morning they found the Mikage boat, sunk." Maya said. "They say that both are under intense investigation, but apparently both the island and the sunken ship are being cordoned off so all that's been shown are some distant pictures of both sites taken by air."

"That's probably to keep things hushed up so that this will die down quicker, and also so they can clean up whatever evidence is on that ship and possibly even the whole entire ship itself without incident." Nagi said. "Since it's likeliest that the Patriots are doing the covering up, this is also probably to make sure no other groups who may be against them could try to get anything out of this."

"Like that group called NESTS?" Chidori asked.

"Yeah, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were others…" Riku replied, drifting into his own thoughts.

(That reminds me, Kenshin has talked about that crime organization, Enfant, a few times after he came back.) He thought to himself. (In fact, just before Nagi, Tot, and I were given this mission, Kenshin said he wanted to discuss something about that group with the three of us…) Riku then began to consider a possibility. (Enfant…a crime organization infamous to those who have to deal with international crime, yet despite that infamy there is little known about the organization. Nothing on its leaders, the infrastructure of the group, possible members…nothing at all. Could they also be interested in the goings on of C-Project, or am I just being paranoid?)

"Riku, hey Riku!" Aya's voice brought Riku back to reality.

"Wha…oh, sorry about that." Riku apologized, rubbing his head slightly. "I must have let my mind wander a little bit."

"You looked pretty serious for that just now." Aki noted. "Is something wrong?"

"No, not really." Riku replied. "It's something, but…I'll tell you guys after I've confirmed something when we get back to Japan."

"Alright then." Tot spoke and turned to Nagi. "So Nagi-kun why don't you continue? You looked like you had more to say."

"Well, what my point is, is that since whatever enemy groups there are cannot make any direct moves until all this dies down, they'll probably try to find more subtle ways of finding what they need." Nagi continued. "The report on the mission itself will be kept safe here, and the Patriots likely have most of the data by the Mikage on C-Project. However, this information Alec is providing may need to be more widespread in order for General Drake to give at least a summary of things. And since groups such as NESTS may want to find any sort of information related to C-Project, that may be what they'll find. Also…" Nagi paused and glanced over at Riku. "I'm sure you've considered the possibility that a spy or double agent could infiltrate this group…"

"Yeah, though I hope that isn't the case, I trust everyone here, minus Reese of course." Riku said and then stopped as he remembered something. "Though there was one case…"

"What do you mean, Riku?" Chidori asked.

"Well, there was only one recruit I could never get to liking or trusting. His name was Han Zu Kang. If there ever was a recruit I would have suspected of betraying FOXHOUND, it would have been him." Riku answered, and looked over at Nagi and Tot. "This guy was in the group before you guys joined."

"And I can assume since no one here talks about him, that this Han was not very popular, right?" Nagi asked.

"Yeah, not even some of our more patient operatives could stand the guy." Riku replied. "To say the least he had a big ego and always acted all high and mighty around practically everyone. I can't remember a single conversation where he wasn't being condescending towards whoever he was speaking with, me included. Not surprisingly, the guy was also Reese's favorite recruit."

"I guess that means you two didn't get along very well, did you?" Yuhi assumed.

"Too true, I'm afraid." Riku nodded in answer. "That guy always seemed to have a high opinion of himself, and always prattled on and on about individualism. Both of which got on practically everyone's nerves. It didn't help that he also didn't care anything about the safety of his comrades or anyone else." Riku sighed. "To be honest, at first I did everything I could to avoid that guy since I could tell he was bad news from the day he joined. I figured he'd do something that would get him kicked out of FOXHOUND sooner or later…"

"No such luck, huh?" Tot guessed.

"I'm afraid so." Riku then gave a light smile. "I guess we FOXHOUNDers cash in too much of our luck during missions." He paused before continuing. "Anyway, back to what I was talking about. Eventually, I kind of had to do something that sort of set things off with our disliking each other."

"What happened?" Aya asked.

"Remember how I said that Han was the condescending type? Well, one way he showed it was by walking into training sessions for the rookie recruits, the ones who were still training before being allowed to do more serious field missions." Riku explained. "Han basically used that as a way to demonstrate his skills to show off and to humiliate the recruits who were trying to get some training done. He even ended up beating some of them up just to prove a point, and those beatings went too far even for some of the more intense training sessions."

"Wouldn't some of the veterans who were training these recruits have had anything to say about that?" Nagi asked.

"Yes, but unfortunately, the instructors can't be there all the time, especially since there are times when there are so many missions that even the instructors themselves have to go out into the field. Which means that only a few instructors are handy and they can't watch over every single recruit during training." Riku answered. "Han took advantage of those times and tended to slip away when an instructor was coming. And when the instructors themselves tried making objections, Reese dismissed everything and Han got off the hook."

"That doesn't sound very fair." Chidori commented.

"Yeah, that Han guy sounds like a real bully!" Tot added. " I bet if Ryoko-san, Aoi-san, Megumi-san, Asuka-san, and Xiaoxing-san met him they'd have set him straight really good!"

"True, and I admit that would be something I'd definitely like to see." Riku agreed, giving a light chuckle at the thought.

(Almost enough to wish the little bastard was still in this world so I could see that happen.) He mentally added to himself, trying hard not to fantasize about seeing the recruit he had hated getting a beat down from the Shinsengumi. There would be time for that later.

"So what did you do about it, Riku?" Shuro asked.

"Well, to tell you the truth, it wasn't entirely something I did…" Riku admitted, rubbing his head with sheepish grin. "But, it did sort of start with me. I had heard about what happened and thought maybe I could talk the guy out of it…"

September 2011…

"Are you actually serious, Hanabishi?" Han asked Riku. "Are you actually telling me what to do?"

"I'm only saying you should take it easier with the newer recruits." Riku answered.

The two of them were standing outside the training area in the locker area. No one else was around to hear their conversation.

"I don't see what's wrong with what I'm doing." Han said simply. "I'm just helping to toughen them up a little and give them some extra training. This way they can see what a REAL soldier is supposed to be."

(Damn, I've forgotten how difficult this guy can be.) Riku thought to himself. (No wonder he's Reese's favorite…)

"Maybe so, but if that's your intention you shouldn't do it the way that you're doing so now." He said. "The way you're doing it makes it look like you're just showing off and flaunting your skills in their faces. I mean…these guys are going to be our teammates sooner or later, so we should make a good impression on them. The way you're doing it will…"

"Like I need a sorry bunch like that for teammates." Han said with distaste in his voice and then looked at Riku with disgust. "So what, are you saying I should act all nice and give this bunch a nice little coddling? Ha! What a joke! Though I wouldn't mind doing that with some of those female recruits…"

"No, that's not what I'm saying!" Riku replied, trying to hide his growing irritation. "I know training is supposed to be hard, but…"

"Oh please, like you're one to talk." Han cut him off. "The only reason you accomplish your mission is probably because you're always hiding behind guys like Hansen and Durev. You're probably just saying all this so you'll have more people to hide behind during the rest of your missions." Han snickered. " 'Dragon', heh, maybe you should've picked 'dragon-fly' as your codename instead." Han greatly accentuated the word 'fly' as he said that.

(And maybe you should have picked 'cockroach' or 'dung beetle' for your codename!) Riku thought. Despite this, he managed to keep from showing anything less than irritation at Han.

"I don't hide behind anyone, I fight alongside my comrades." Riku told the recruit simply. "We call that 'teamwork', you should try it sometime."

"Whatever, now are you going to keep talking nonsense, or can I leave now? I have a busy schedule to keep." Han then paused and sneered at Riku. "Of course if you want to discuss this further with Reese, then by all means let's. I'm sure he can work things out."

Riku looked at Han for a second and then sighed.

"No, no, that's fine, do whatever you want." The ninja said simply, causing Han to grin in satisfaction.

"Good, I'm glad you see things the right way." Han said before turning and leaving the room.

Riku then gave a shrug.

(Well, I guess I should have known this wouldn't work…) He thought. (I guess I'd better go with the other option…)

"So he did the same thing as before and hid behind this Lieutenant Reese just to avoid trouble?" Aki asked, not believing what he was hearing. "I can't believe someone like that was in your group. So what did you do about it?"

"Well, I went to Michael, Garland, and Seishiro-san and told them what was happening and asked if they knew any way to solve this." Riku answered and smiled, almost fighting the urge to chuckle as he remembered. "And they took care of things."

"What did they do?" Tot asked.

"Well, all three of them along with Marcus Blackthorne suddenly showed up during one of Han's 'training sessions' a few days later and then and began a session of their own." Riku then smiled. "I didn't do much except arrive a little earlier than they did, so I could stall Han until they arrived so the guy couldn't slip away from this. After, that I just sat back and watched."

"Couldn't you be just a bit more specific on this, Riku?" Nagi asked his friend with a sigh. "Everyone here seems pretty curious about what exactly you watched, you know."

"Including you, it seems." Riku noted with grin. "Otherwise, why would you have asked me to continue?"

"Well, that's…" Nagi stammered, not able to think of an excuse.

"Nagi-kun, you should be a bit more honest about these things." Tot spoke.

"It's not that I'm not being honest, Tot." Nagi said, trying to find some way to explain.

"Now, now, you two." Shuro spoke.

"Uh, is it okay if I continue now?" Riku asked hopefully, and then stopped to consider something. "Though I'm not that good a storyteller, and I think Michael, Garland, Seishiro-san, or Marcus could tell it better…"

"Don't worry about that, Riku, besides you've done a good job telling things already." Maya said.

"Well, thank you." Riku replied, blushing a little at the compliment. "Anyway, what happened next was more like a lecture than anything else. Basically, Michael, Garland, Seishiro-san, and Marcus did demonstrations on how to deal with certain situations one could encounter on a mission, how to deal with certain types of enemies one is likely to encounter, and other such things that the recruits should know for when they do field operations." Riku then grinned. "And Han was basically the one used as an example for every single demonstration. Unfortunately for him, he was actually pretty inept when it came to almost all of the demonstrations that were performed and had to do it over and over again until he got it right."

"Oh my…" Shuro commented as she could imagine the results.

"Good, the guy got a taste of his own medicine." Aya nodded in satisfaction.

It was obvious that everyone else in the room had similar feelings on this.

"It gets better." Riku said, sounding almost gleeful. "Since some of the rookies missed the first session, they had a second one for the ones who had missed the first. I'm afraid Han didn't do much better in that session either. But I'm afraid he wasn't a complete idiot; he was able to figure out who had brought this about…"

September 2011…

"You! You conniving Japanese bastard, you set this up!" Han shouted at Riku.

Once again, the two members of FOXHOUND were standing in the locker room. Han had just gotten out of the showers after the 'session' he had gone through. The look he was giving Riku was one of intense hatred as he knew the ninja was responsible for the humiliation he had suffered along with the aches and pains all over his body, which was sore from all the training.

"Now, now, Han, there's no need to be angry, I was only trying to help you." Riku said in a friendly, and innocent seeming (in other words obviously feigned), tone.

"Help me?" Han asked.

"Why yes. I remembered from our conversation a few days ago about how 'dedicated' you were to seeing our rookie recruits properly trained." Riku answered. "But then I realized that that was far too great a task for one person so I asked Michael and the others to help in this 'great endeavor' of yours."

"Help?! All they did was humiliate me in front of the rookie recruits! Twice!" Han shouted.

"Careful now, if you shout so much; your voice may crack." Riku said calmly. "Anyway, about that, don't take it so hard. I'm sure we were all surprised. I don't think there was anyone in the room that realized that you needed to have some training too. A good thing you were selected to be the example guy, this way you kill two birds with one stone. Everyone got the training that they needed."

Han could tell from Riku's tone of voice that the ninja was mocking him. He badly wanted to slug his enemy right where he was and then tackle and beat him until his face was unrecognizable. Unfortunately, the aches and pains all over his body from the double session made him unable to do this. It was really a miracle he had been able to get dressed.

"Quit your bullshitting!" Han snarled. "How could this possibly be considered training?! I ache all over thanks to you!"

"I don't see what's wrong in what we did." Riku said innocently, fighting the urge to laugh as he continued what he was going to say to Han. "We were just helping to toughen you up a little, and give you some extra training. This way you could see what a REAL soldier is supposed to be."

That statement did it for Han. To him it was bad enough that he had been humiliated in front of the rookie recruits twice, but now Riku was making him eat his own words.

Han then flung himself at Riku, which the young ninja was expecting and simply jumped back a little to dodge. As a result, the enraged Chinese recruit crashed face first into the floor.

"Uh, are you alright?" Riku asked, and was greeted by a flurry of Chinese swearing directed at him and all his relations all the way back to his ancestors. "I guess not, but really now, Han, do you even know what some of those words mean?"

Whether this was a response to his question or not, Riku had no idea as more curses were shouted at him. Some of these were hard even for Riku to interpret, despite the fact that he could speak and understand standard Mandarin dialect and a little bit of the Wu and Cantonese dialects.

"I guess I'll take that as a yes." Riku said to no one in particular and looked down at Han. "Don't worry, I'll call someone and have you brought to the infirmary as soon as possible. Please don't…well, actually… can you move at all?"

Another string of unintelligible curses answered his question.

"Alright, I'll go." Riku said quickly. "Remember what I said about your voice cracking, now…"

"And as you can guess, we didn't get along at all after that." Riku finished. "In fact, I consider what I just told you the best conversation I ever had with the guy."

"Was he that bad?" Nagi asked.

"Bad enough that he let another FOXHOUNDer, a late friend of mine named Carlos Santiago, die just to make sure things went according to Reese's orders." Riku answered. "That guy didn't even show any semblance of remorse at all, and just said that 'he should have followed orders'. Even when it was brought up that the guy had a family, a wife and two daughters, it didn't change his opinion."

"You can't be serious, that guy didn't have anything to say at all?" Yuhi asked in disbelief. "Wasn't he even punished for this?"

"As usual, Han hid behind Reese and got off the hook without even a slap on the wrist." Riku answered, and his eyes lowered, something about them seeming to darken. "As for what he had to say…his only reply in regards to his family was 'then he should have known better than to disobey orders'. Then he began talking about how family men make the worst soldiers, but he didn't get very far."

"I'm hoping that means you did something about that." Aya said, not liking where this was going. Having lost her own father, she could sympathize with how Santiago's family must have felt, and to hear that someone had the nerve to bad mouth the man at all angered her greatly.

"Would punching him in the face count?" Riku asked in reply.

"Did you hit him more than once?" Chidori asked hopefully, as she had similar thoughts as Aya on this.

"Quite a few times, and in various places, Han wasn't as good a fighter as he thought he was." Riku answered. "Even though I had to spend over a week in solitary confinement afterwards."

"Sounds like it was worth it though." Aki said.

"I guess so…" Riku replied.

Sensing that his friend seemed a little uncomfortable with this particular subject, Nagi decided to change it.

"So this Han Zu Kang, what happened to him afterwards?" He asked. "I haven't seen or even heard about him, so I can assume he's not in this group now."

"Thankfully, yes." Riku answered. "Anyway to answer your question…one of the most memorable things that happened to Han before he left us rather suddenly was a bit later when Reese assigned him to do a mission with my friends and fellow FOXHOUNDers Gregory Kinezono, Linn Aramaki, and James Masterson. Han decided to follow Reese's orders to the letter no matter how ridiculous they were and took it upon himself to make sure everyone else followed them."

"Let me guess, he even decided to use that as an opportunity to throw his weight around, right?" Yuhi asked, which got a nod from Riku.

"He didn't even stop to consider the safety of his teammates?" Toya asked.

"From what Linn told me of what happened, the thought did not even cross his mind." Riku answered. "Well, as you can imagine, that didn't sit too well with Greg, Linn, or James, and in the end Greg had the guy handcuffed and left in a warehouse while the three of them completed the mission. Suffice to say, Han ended up with a pretty nasty cold as a result."

"You said that this was before he 'left rather suddenly', what did you mean?" Tot asked.

"Not too long after, Han was assigned to do a mission with Maggie, James, and Garland, also at the last minute as per Reese's request." Riku replied. "From what I understand, things became complicated during the operation thanks to Han, and then Reese gave another set of bad orders that really set things off."

"What happened?" Nagi asked.

"Maggie disagreed with those orders, but Han was completely adamant about making sure they were followed. This time he took things a step too far." Riku's expression for a second seemed to darken as he continued. "That backstabber, without a moment's hesitation, shot at and injured Maggie for not following Reese's orders."

"He shot one of his own teammates?!" Yuhi exclaimed. "Just for that?!"

"Unfortunately yes." Riku then smiled bitterly. "Fortunately, Garland and Michael showed up just in time and they both shot Han, who fell into the gears of some machines below, which proceeded to grind him into hamburger meat. Definite proof of karma if you ask me."

"Was that recruit, Maggie, alright afterwards?" Aya asked.

"Yeah, she recovered as the wound wasn't serious." Riku smiled in appreciation of his friend's concern. "Fortunately, Han wasn't as good a shot as he thought he was either." He then stopped as he remembered something. "It's too bad she's on a mission right now, I would have loved to introduce you guys to her. Maggie's a good and interesting person to know, I'm sure you'd all like her."

"So what do we do now?" Yuhi asked. "If you have the report ready and all, then there's not much more to do right?"

"Hmm, you've got a point there." Riku agreed, and then looked over at Aya. "Have you, Toya, Aki, Maya, Shuro, and Alec gotten a tour of this place."

"Yeah, your friend Michael showed us around while you guys were out a couple of days ago." Aya answered.

"Well then, how about this." Riku suggested. "How about the three of us show you around Washington D.C.? There are some pretty interesting sites around here, and besides, it's not every day you get a free trip to America you know."

"Are you sure that's alright?" Shuro asked. "We weren't sure if we were allowed to leave, so…"

"I don't think it should be a problem as long as you stick with us." Nagi said and then turned to Riku. "You should probably ask, though."

"I'll take care of that then, and if they say it's alright I'll exchange some of the yen I have for some American money." Riku replied and then glanced at his watch. "Actually, we may have enough time to take a train to Philadelphia…" Riku then smiled. "There's this tasty American sandwich you guys need to try, it's called a 'cheese steak', and it's made from actual steak. It's amazing how much cheaper beef is over here. Anyway, I'll be back in few minutes."

"He's right that it's good, but it's not very healthy." Tot said with an almost regretful look on her face.

"Oh well, I think we'll somehow survive." Chidori said and glanced over at Aya. "And a certain someone doesn't have to worry about 'that' for a while."

"Hey, that may be true, but after the baby's born I'm going to have to exercise to get back into shape." Aya replied.

"Somehow I doubt that's going to cause much of a change." Aki commented jokingly.

"And just what does that mean?" Aya demanded of her twin with a slightly miffed expression.

"I guess things are starting to get back to normal for everyone, huh Nagi-kin?" Tot asked, turning to Nagi.

"It certainly is, Tot." Nagi nodded in agreement.

(And let's hope that it stays that way for as long as possible.) The young psychic thought to himself.

"How far down does this passage go, old man?" Shade asked as he followed Kurando through the underground tunnel, with Tenzen right behind him. "What was this place anyway? I can see some signs that there have been people here a long time ago."

"This leads into what used to be a gathering place for Christians a couple of centuries ago." Kurando answered casually. "Eventually they found some other hiding place, so this place hasn't had any occupants for quite some time."

"So you're going to use what used to be a makeshift pulpit to summon an incarnation of darkness, how ironic." Shade commented half jokingly and half sarcastically. "Anyway, explain this whole thing to me again. What exactly do you need the guy Tenzen is carrying for?"

"It isn't really 'that' that we need, but rather the great amount of mara he has within him and wields." Kurando replied. "You see, I've been having Tenzen for the past few months seek out and capture Maram masters or wielders and bringing them to me for the success of the ceremony to summon Darva. It's because all Maram wielders have a connection to their master. In other words Maram wielders call Darva, and Darva calls Maram wielders."

"So a whole entire mass of them is guaranteed to summon him?" Shade asked, skepticism in his voice. "Somehow I don't think it's that simple. Otherwise why would Maram masters go through so much trouble each time Darva tries to incarnate himself into this world to insure that the process can be successful, which as far as I know has never been?"

"That's what the ceremony is for." Kurando answered. "It takes a great amount of negative emotion and feeling to create a sort of 'doorway' and 'platform' for Darva to show up, and even more for when he actually is supposed to begin incarnating. Also, the 'host' has to be present and willing for Darva to assimilate with him or her, at least initially. After all, that host's very being is devoured by him."

"You've left out the fact that the host is 'chosen' by Darva as well." Shade added. "What makes you think you'd even be on the list?"

"As usual you underestimate the Mas-." Tenzen began.

"Shut up! I wasn't talking to you." Shade growled.

"Now, now…" Kurando said. "Anyway, to answer your question, this ceremony is meant to act as a sort of 'forced' acceptance."

"And how exactly…?" Shade began but stopped as the three of them entered the cavern. What the mercenary saw answered his question.

The cavern opened up into a massive, and roughly oval shaped, room. From the center outward were a series of glowing red circles with symbols etched into them, many of which Shade recognized. And throughout this series of circles were the bodies of at least two hundred people, each on of them laid out to be a part of their respective circles, and each one had some sort of blade driven into their chest or stomach and through to the ground below.

"Impressive that you were able to take so many without anyone noticing." Shade commented as observed all of this. "But I don't see how…" Shade then paused as he took a closer look and noticed that all of the bodies were faintly stirring. "They're still alive?"

"Yes, and it took quite a complicated spell to keep this lot on the brink of expiring." Kurando replied. "When ones such as these are on the brink of death, despair at their ending lives is one of the strongest feelings they have, and since the mara within them feeds on negative feelings and emotions it will strengthen things greatly."

"Obviously." Shade said and then noticed that a number of the ones that were women, ranging from teens to middle age, were wearing the tattered remains of whatever clothing they had originally been wearing, if any at all. Shade could also tell from the obvious signs of abuse on their bodies what had happened to them beforehand. "It looks like you and Tenzen have been having quite a bit of fun."

"Yes, that happens to be one of the perks of this. Quite a few of them were very good after the first five or six goes." Kurando gave smirk as he looked over at Shade. "If you want I could heal and let you have as many as you want for a while. That would be pretty helpful. We have as much mara coming from this lot now, but a little more wouldn't hurt."

"As Kurando-sama told you, because negative emotions increase the potency of mara, this is actually one of the best, not to mention enjoyable, ways to do so." Tenzen commented in agreement.

"Thanks but no thanks." Shade replied. "I prefer fresh women; I'm not interested in your leftovers. Especially knowing that they were shared between the two of you."

"Suit yourself." Kurando shrugged.

"Anyway, tell me, what exactly is it that you need for me to do?" Shade asked.

"We need your powers of the Orochi mainly." Kurando answered. "Tenzen will be busy maintaining the field while the two of us work on the actual summoning. Since most of my energy afterwards will be spent on integrating with Darva and at the same time ensuring he won't absorb me, your task will be to restrain and subdue Darva with your Orochi power and whatever other power you wish to use."

"Alright, that shouldn't be a problem." Shade then noticed something in the centermost circle. A closer inspection showed four metal skewers with the head of a monster stuck to each one.

"These are…" Shade studied each head, recognizing each monster, before turning to Kurando. "Seraphim, Hinogakutsuchi, Takemikazuchi, and Baal; quite a selection, especially considering that monsters like these have become very hard to find these days, at least in this world. So what exactly are their heads supposed to do?"

"As you know, monsters are more…durable than humans, meaning they can survive quite a few things that humans cannot, beheading being one of them." Kurando then gestured at the heads, causing Shade to look at them again and notice that they were practically struggling on the skewers they were stuck on. "These particular monsters are capable of seeing beyond this world and can pull things out from them, in a way."

"And that's how you intend to net Darva and pull him into this world, huh?" Shade surmised. "Hmm, this should be interesting, though…" Shade then stopped as he realized something. "Hold on, there's more to this than just that, isn't there? You'd only need two monsters, but…" Shade's eyes narrowed. "What else are you trying to get out of this, old man?"

"Perceptive as always, that's what I've always liked about you, Shingen." Kurando smiled. "Anyway, remember how I said that I intended to make Darva's power a part of me? By that I meant everything. I will not leave any external remains of his power in a world where he resides. With those extra monster heads I will also be calling out and absorbing those various types of demons and death gods that reside within the 'inner heart'. Everything that is Darva's will become mine in that aspect."

"Any reason why you picked these monsters in particular?" Shade asked.

"The Baal type monsters are connected to negative emotions and so it is to act as a catalyst for the mara." Kurando explained. "The other three are there for their ability to devour souls. Those creatures from the 'inner heart' will be devoured by them, which will cause them to gain immense power…"

"Which you'll absorb from them into yourself, huh?" Shade surmised. "You've certainly put quite a bit of work into this…"

"Indeed." Kurando paused for a moment before continuing. "Well then, shall we get things started now?"

"Why not?" Shade shrugged. "So how long will this take?"

"About twenty four hours…by tomorrow things are going to get very interesting indeed…" Kurando smiled. "So, my friend, let's take our positions. Be ready to call upon the Orochi at my signal."

"So do you have everything?" Nagi asked Riku as he and Tot watched him finish up with making a final check on the report for General Drake. They were in the quarters area for the FOXHOUND recruits, having woken up and had breakfast a couple of hours ago, and had just gotten back from meeting with Michael and Alec.

"Yeah, pretty much." Riku answered.

"So we'll go and get Aya and the others, pick up the nanomachines for Toya-san and Aki-san, and then wait outside General Drake's office, right?" Tot asked.

"Yeah, since he'll have a few questions for everyone." Riku nodded. "After that it's back to Japan we go."

"It's too bad Michael can't come back with us, though." Tot said with some regret.

"Well, it can't really be helped, Tot." Nagi said. "Michael was given an urgent assignment while we were out yesterday with everyone and he's scheduled to leave for it tomorrow."

"No rest for the weary." Riku quoted the old adage. "Well, at least everyone had a good time yesterday with all the places we showed them."

"True enough." Nagi agreed. "Well, let's get going then."

General Carter Drake's Office…

It had taken Riku a little over an hour to give the details of the mission that he, Nagi, Tot, and Michael had completed with the help Ran, Ken, Youji, and Omi of Weiss and of course Aya, Toya, Yuhi, Chidori, Aki, Maya, Shuro, and Alec. General Carter Drake had sat at his desk and listened to what the ninja had to say and had occasionally asked questions. Drake had also read through the report that Riku had handed to him

"…And after that mercenary, Shade, retreated we were picked up by the FOXHOUND chopper." Riku finished before pausing to take a drink from a glass of water. "And that's basically what happened, sir."

"I see…" Drake paused as he considered all that he had just heard from Riku and what was written in the report. "Well, Drakken, I have to say…"

"This is inexcusable!" Reese's voice shouted from behind, causing Riku to turn to see Lieutenant Reese walk into the office carrying a few folders. "I'm sorry, General, but I could not help but overhear what Hanabishi has just told you." After unceremoniously dropping the folders onto Drake's desk, the lieutenant turned to Riku. "So let me get this straight, not only did you manage to let a valuable prisoner be killed by the enemy, you endangered everyone on your team and under your protection by engaging an enemy who had bombs strapped to him and letting him set them off before you could take him prisoner. To top that off, you ended up giving vital information to the enemy without even putting up a fight!"

"Lieutenant, the first couldn't be avoided as Kagami Mikage wanted to talk to me about something important alone." Riku said. "I will admit that it was a bad decision on my part, but something told me at the time that the information he had was valuable enough for me to make that decision."

"Well, thanks to you that information was lost since according to you, just when that man was about to speak this killer named Viper did him in." Reese replied smugly.

"Like I said I…" Riku paused for a moment.

(Again…why does something not feel right about this…) Riku wondered as he thought back on how he had said and written down that Kagami had asked to speak with only him about some important information, but before the man could say anything Black Arts Viper had arrived and killed him. (Why…?)

"Hey, Hanabishi, are you even listening to me?!" Reese half shouted, getting Riku's attention.

"Sorry, you were speaking too fast for me to understand you, sir." Riku replied, making it sound like he simply hadn't understood the lieutenant's English, something he knew annoyed Reese to no end.

"As I was saying…why did you engage an enemy with a bomb strapped to him and endanger your team unnecessarily?" Reese asked with irritation in his voice.

"That could not be avoided either as we were in an enclosed space." Riku answered. "Also, we did not know the enemy had a bomb on him, as the bomb was implanted inside his body."

"Do you honestly expect us to believe such a ridiculous story?" Reese asked mockingly. " Really, a bomb implanted inside an enemy soldier? How ludicrous, almost as ludicrous as that obviously made up story about fighting some 'immortal' mercenary…I think you've been watching too many movies or too many of those ridiculous cartoons that you people are somehow able to make money off of." Reese then sneered. "Anyway, we'll get to the truth of the matter later, now what about your just giving a disc containing valuable information to the enemy?"

"There was no choice, the enemy would have killed the people we were protecting if…" Riku began.

"Need I remind you of the policy of not negotiating with terrorists?" Reese asked.

"Doesn't that just apply to governments?" Riku asked in reply. "Besides, those guys were assassins, not terrorists."

"Like there's any difference." Reese snorted. "Now why did you not put up a fight?"

"Because they would have killed the people we were protecting if we had." Riku's answer was simple.

"A group of eleven people was intimidated by only three?" Reese asked scornfully. "I'm sure you should have been able to do something…"

"Of those eleven people, only four were capable of fighting at that point and none of those four were in the best of physical conditions at that point. The rest were either not in any condition to fight or were not trained to fight such people. Also we had been caught completely off guard, meaning those guys were fully prepared to attack if we tried anything." Riku answered.

"Hmph, and I was expecting a better excuse, what an incompetent team you've formed, Hanabishi." Reese scoffed. "In any case…"

"Oh neither of my nakama are to blame, Lieutenant, they were prepared to fight those guys if necessary." Riku interrupted him, and then smiled. "I guess you didn't hear my report to General Drake well enough so I'll repeat myself. The disc was given to those three assassins under my orders as the team leader."

There was dead silence for a moment as Riku's words registered in Reese's mind.

"You did…WHAT?!" Reese exploded.

"Once again, Lieutenant, I was the one who gave the order for the disc containing the Metal Gear data to be handed over to the assassin group Schwarz." Riku stated simply, and then tilted his head slightly and made an obviously fake expression of concern. "Pardon my saying this, but has your hearing been alright as of late? I hope those wouldn't happen to be side effects from that injury that you suffered back in Russia when you came to survey how that mission with WOTAN turned out."

"You…" Reese gritted his teeth, and a couple of veins could be seen practically popping out of his forehead in his anger at Riku not just at the obvious insult behind the mock concern, but also at the ninja's having brought up how he had been humiliated after Michael Hansen had struck him in the aftermath of that mission for his incompetence. "I've had it with you! General Drake, I want this man arrested and…"

"I think you've said enough, Lieutenant Reese." Carter Drake spoke, his tone of voice a cold and harsh one. "The only reason I haven't interrupted you so far is because I could not believe that even you would go this far…"

Reese stiffened up in nervousness as he realized Drake's tone of voice was directed at him.

"B-but sir, you've been listening haven't you?" Reese asked. "The one who should be punished is…"

"Lieutenant Reese, I have been going over this whole mission with Drakken so I know what happened during its course." Drake replied. "I find absolutely no wrongdoing in any of his actions or any actions taken by his teammates during the course of the mission."

"But sir, you can't just write off Hanabishi's giving that disc over to the enemy, that's…" Reese began.

"Because the Mikage metal gear, ARK, was not designed to be a weapon then the data would not have been very useful anyway, that is one reason." Drake said. "Also, I agree with Drakken that the protection of the people they were assigned to protect was a higher priority." Drake then paused before continuing. "Now tell me, Reese, just how much of Drakken's report did you hear?"

"When I arrived to give you the last documents I had concerning this operation I heard Drakken talking about how he allowed…I mean how the prisoner Kagami Mikage was killed by the enemy." Reese answered. "Now surely, sir…"

"Did I not tell you that you were no longer to have any part with this mission, Reese?" Drake asked. "Think very carefully about your next answer, Lieutenant, because you may very well be facing charges of disobeying orders along with conduct unbecoming of an officer."

"I, I only heard this by accident, sir, I…" Reese was now sweating with nervousness. "Look, what does it matter? Drakken and his bunch…"

"Completed the mission successfully without any losses on their side, and that is the end of it." Drake finished firmly. "It seems to me that the only problems they experienced over the course of the mission came from two sources. The enemy, as can be expected, and the other from a source that should not be the source of any problems during a mission, that team's very headquarters. Now tell me, Reese, why is that?"

"W-well…" Reese stammered as he could not think of a good excuse.

"Perhaps you should have come earlier so we could have conveniently reviewed a few certain points of events during Drakken's mission, but seeing as you're here now, we can do so." Drake then turned through the pages of the report Riku gave him. "First, in the case of shortly after Drakken's team began their mission. During the rescue of Chidori and Shota Kuruma, Chidori Kurma was shot and seriously injured. Drakken called requesting permission for a chopper to take her to the Japanese HQ of FOXHOUND for emergency medical treatment, but you denied it. Why?"

"Th-this mission was deemed a classified operation, sir, so I only assumed…" Reese began.

"Then apparently you forgot that the mission's current objective at the time was the rescue and safe return of both Kuruma siblings, which took priority over any form of secrecy." Drake said.

"But that girl was Drakken and his team's responsibility, so any injury was their fault because of their own carelessness." Reese argued.

"Even if that were true, you were still the one who denied the request for medical assistance, Reese, and for no justifiable reason." Drake reminded him. "If Drakken had not had back up plan, there is a good chance Miss Kuruma may have died. If that had occurred, Reese, I would have made sure that you would face, at the very least, a court martial and also face charges of negligent homicide."

"G-general, I assure you that was not my intention!" Reese said quickly.

"Yes, I realize that." Drake replied with some sarcasm. "But while we're on the subject concerning your actions during this mission, I believe that we should also go over how close you are to being charged with conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Disregarding your past actions in this group, your actions over the course of this past mission could suffice. Aside from your negligence that you so obviously displayed at the start of the mission, you have also proven to have displayed disorderly conduct while on duty as you were in the medical ward yesterday, not to mention your conduct just now with your barging in unannounced and beginning your ranting at Drakken, and then there is the subject of your behavior while Drakken brought Chidori Kuruma and Yuhi Aogiri to this base."

Reese looked like he wanted to say something in his defense, but Drake cut him off.

"Are you aware, Reese, why conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman is considered to be a serious offense?" He asked. "It is because of how badly it affects the overall moral of soldiers as those who abuse their positions of authority cannot expect to be respected by their men, who could very well become badly influenced by such action which would lead to complete disorder."

Riku tried to hide the fact that he was enjoying this, but decided it would probably be best to leave the room as he did not want to bother Drake.

"Excuse me, General." Riku spoke up. "But, would it be alright if I waited outside until you are ready to speak with everyone else? Since it appears you're dealing with a very significant 'problem'," Riku emphasized on the word 'problem' while glancing briefly at Reese, "I think it would be best for me to wait until you've cleared this up. I wouldn't want my presence to trouble you, after all."

"I thank you for your concern, Mr. Hanabishi." Drake nodded at Riku with a grateful smile. "Yes, it probably would be a good idea that you wait outside then."

Riku saluted Drake and then left the room, leaving Reese to be chewed out once again by Drake.

"As you can probably tell, things are going pretty well." Riku said as he walked into the waiting room where Nagi, Tot, Aya, Toya, Yuhi, Chidori, Aki, Maya, Shuro, and Alec were waiting.

"Would that be in how the General received the report or how Reese managed to get himself into even more trouble?" Nagi asked even though he knew the answer.

"Both at the same time." Riku answered.

"So I guess this means we're going to have to wait for a little bit until we need to speak with this General Drake?" Maya guessed.

"I don't see anything wrong with that." Yuhi said, as he obviously wasn't going to mind hearing Drake chewing out Reese.

"You've got my vote there." Chidori said in agreement.

"How long do you think this is going to take?" Shuro asked, looking over at Nagi.

"You mean our waiting, or General Drake's interviewing you all?" Nagi asked in reply.

"Both of them."

"Well, the General strikes me as a sensible man and leader so I don't think the bit with Reese will take too long." Nagi paused as he heard a little bit more if what Drake had to say in his berating Reese. "As you can hear, he's getting straight to the point on things. As for the latter, well, I doubt it should be too long if the report has been read. The General probably just wants to confirm a few things…"

It had taken a little less than half an hour for General Drake to finish dealing with Reese, after which the latter had abruptly left the office in a hurry. Reese had shot the group a look of great contempt as he had left.

"Now if only the smell of those cheap cigars he smokes could leave that fast." Riku commented with a look of revulsion. It had been obvious ever since the lieutenant had entered General Drake's office that the man had smoked quite a few just before coming in.

"Maybe the lung cancer will get him." Tot suggested.

"We can only hope." Nagi agreed and turned to Riku. "Do you actually think he'll write those things?"

"I'm not so sure I want to accept an apology from someone like that." Chidori said.

While berating Reese for his actions during the recently passed mission, General Carter Drake had also ordered Reese to give a formal apology not just to Chidori, but to the Aogiri family as well for his behavior. Drake obviously didn't want to risk Reese's actions causing problems between FOXHOUND and the Aogiri family.

"I think you'll get something in the mail; General Drake did give Reese the orders and I doubt that guy will want to get into anymore trouble by disobeying them." Riku answered Nagi's question. "Still, I doubt it will be Reese who writes it. He's probably going to hand the job over to a secretary and leave it at that."

"Yes, I'm afraid that would be like him, I'm sorry to say." General Drake's voice spoke, causing everyone to turn to see the General walk into the room. He smiled a little and shook his head as Riku, Nagi, and Tot were about to get up. "At ease, you three, there's no need for that right now." Drake then turned to Aya, Toya, Yuhi, Chidori, Aki, Maya, Shuro, and Alec.

"Well, I must say that it's a pleasure to meet all of you." Drake then paused and then gave a polite smile. "Oh, do excuse my manners, I should introduce myself first. I am General Carter Drake. I've heard quite a bit about all of you from both Drakken and Venom, both of which have had some pretty good things to say about you all."

As introductions were exchanged, Tot glanced over at Nagi and Riku.

"It sure is nice to see that Aya and the others are meeting and getting along so well with our friends in FOXHOUND, right guys?" She asked cheerfully.

"It certainly is, Nanami." Nagi said as he nodded in agreement, while Riku smiled and did the same.

(It's also nice to have friends to meet each other…) The young psychic thought to himself.

It had taken a little over an hour for Drake to finish speaking with Aya, Toya, Yuhi, Chidori, Aki, Maya, Shuro, and Alec. After that the group had proceeded to grab their things and then head for the plane that would be departing soon from FOXHOUND HQ so it could take them back to Japan.

As they got on the plane, the group then began talking to one another.

"Well, that General Drake sure was a pleasant fellow." Shuro commented as everyone was taking their seats.

"He certainly does display fine qualities as a leader so I can see why he's so highly regarded in your group." Toya commented in agreement.

"Yeah, your friends Michael and Seishiro-san had some pretty good things to say about him too." Aya said.

"Well, that's the kind of leader he is, you guys." Riku grinned as he said this. "General Drake is a bit strict when it comes to military discipline, but he's a leader we FOXHOUNDers can count on."

"He has given that impression, I must admit." Nagi agreed. "And like you said, he does also come across as a leader whose subordinates can see him as 'one of them' and not the distant kind."

"Well, that in itself helps to show effective leadership." Shuro commented. "From my understanding, aren't soldiers likelier to respect a leader who is a definite part of the group than a leader who commands from a safe distance?"

"True enough, Shuro, in fact I…" Riku suddenly stopped for s second as he seemed to suddenly realize something but then shook his head a little. "Well, anyway, did you guys want to know anything else about General Drake?"

"Actually, I think there's something very important that we're overlooking." Chidori spoke and looked over at Aya and Toya. "Isn't it about time you two finally tied the knot?"

"W-well…" Aya blushed some as she thought of how to answer.

"I think you've brought up a good point there, Chidori." Shuro noted. "Considering that everything with the Mikage has been resolved, I think now's as good a time as any."

"Can I be a flower girl?" Tot asked eagerly.

"Now hold on a second…!" Aya started.

"Hey, Aya, let me ask you something." Aki spoke. "You and Toya do want to get married, right?"

"Of course we do, it's just…" Aya paused for a second before continuing. "It's just that it's not like we can do this overnight. I mean the money Toya and I have saved up could barely cover a small ceremony."

"Aya does have a point, and I also need to get my old job as Dr. Kurozuka's assistant back." Toya added, and then remembered and looked over at Aya. "Also…"

"Yeah, we also need to save up money for when the baby's born and after." Aya nodded.

"Hey if money is the only problem then…" Yuhi began, but Aya stopped him.

"Yuhi, I know what you're about to suggest, and I have to say no thank you." She said firmly. "I can't just let you and Suzumi pay that much. You two have done so much for me and Toya already…"

"Well, in that case…" Riku spoke up.

"I'm sorry, Riku, but I'd have to say the same to you too." Aya said. "It's not that I don't appreciate either of you guys wanting to help us, but…"

"Aya, my family wouldn't mind you know." Riku said and turned to Toya. "Since you're not saying anything, I assume you have the same opinion."

"Yes, I do." Toya nodded. "Also I can understand what Aya means. I believe I would have a similar feeling if Dr. Kurozuka had made a similar offer."

"Man, it looks like Aya really has had her affect on you." Yuhi said, half mumbling.

"Well, I guess I see your point…" Riku said to Aya and Toya in agreement. "Also I guess I was being a bit hasty, I was offering what really wasn't mine to offer. So how about this? I've got quite a bit saved up from my FOXHOUND salary so…"

"Riku, before you finish that…you do realize that's going to be even harder to accept than the last ones." Nagi commented.

"Huh?" Riku stopped to try to think on how that would be.

"Well, it's money that you've obviously worked hard to get so I wouldn't blame someone for feeling guilty taking it." Shuro explained.

"That and if you consider that you risked your life in getting it…" Maya began but stopped as everyone noticed Riku's head seemed to hang as he seemed to sink slightly into his chair.

"Now for some reason I feel guilty for making the offer." Riku said in a now gloomy tone of voice.

"Look you guys it's alright, I've got some money saved up." Aya said quickly. "Toya and I just need to save up some more and that should do it."

Meanwhile, Aki was looking at Aya and was obviously trying not to make it obvious he was smiling.

(She really has grown up from all of this…) Aki thought to himself, feeling proud of his twin for what she was saying. (I just hope she accepts this…)

"Aya would you have any problems if you knew if there was family money set aside for you to use?" Aki asked.

"Well, I guess not but Mom's still in the hospital and I don't think anyone in the family who has a lot of money would be willing to…" Aya then stopped as she realized something and then looked at her brother. "Wait a minute…are you…?"

"The last time I checked, I am still the head of the Mikage family." Aki smiled confidently. "With Kagami gone, I should be able to have access to more than enough money for to pay for a wedding."

There was a silence in the plane cabin as realization dawned on everyone else, with the exceptions of Toya, who had figured this out a while ago but had just forgotten to mention this to anyone, and Nagi as he assumed everyone else had been aware of that beforehand.

"Then…" Alec began.

"…that means…" Tot said.

"…WE'RE IN THE PRESENCE OF A BILLIONAIRE!" The chorused voices of Riku, Tot, Yuhi, Chidori, Maya, Shuro, and Alec echoed throughout the cabin. In Riku's mind, Yuki's voice echoed the same thing as even she was amazed at this revelation.

"N-no wait a minute." Chidori realized something and looked at Yuhi quickly. "Yuhi, the Mikage is a big conglomerate, right?"

"Well yeah, but I don't think it has very big prospects now." Yuhi replied.

"Then that could mean…" Chidori turned to look back at Riku and co., obviously only hearing Yuhi's 'yes' answer.

"Aki could very well be a trillionaire." Riku said in an amazed tone of voice as he looked over at Aki.

"That's amazing…" Tot said.

Nagi glanced over at Riku before speaking.

"I'm curious, Riku, why are you so amazed at this?" The young psychic asked his friend. "Doesn't your uncle Kurei have about that much money?"

"Yeah, but this makes Aki the second billionaire that I know." Riku answered. "That doesn't happen too often you know…"

Nagi sweatdropped at his friend's answer and sighed.

"You amaze me sometimes, you know that…" The young psychic said.

"But it certainly must be daunting to suddenly have so much money like that." Alec spoke up. "I know that's how it would be for me if I were in your shoes, Aki…"

"Thanks Alec." Aki said to his friend as he appreciated Alec's concern.

(Well, it's good that everyone's reacting pretty much normally…) He thought to himself and was about to say something, but Alec spoke first and what he said pretty much canceled out Aki's thought.

"…I mean…ALL THE ANIME YOU COULD OWN!" Alec's voice seemed to shake the plane as he seemed to be gazing off into the distance at something only he could see.

"You could get the special edition versions and DVD collections for the greatest anime series ever released, no for EVERY anime ever released." The Scottish otaku continued. "And then the manga versions for every single one of them, the ones that have manga versions anyway. And let's not forget all the games too, every fighting game, every action game, every RPG, every bishoujo game…" Alec's eyes seemed to shine in a dreamy manner. "And when you go to a Con, you can get all the doujinshi you want, all the artbooks too, and the posters, the models, and the cosplay accessories…"

Everyone sweatdropped at the sight of Alec's spectacle, but could only watch as Alec continued on. They knew they had no chance of being able to stop him.

(I wonder if Otacon would act like this if he were in this situation…) Riku thought to himself.

It took about an hour then for Alec to snap out of it and by then the plane had taken off.

"Sorry about that." Alec said sheepishly in apology.

"Hey, it's alright." Aki said.

"Yeah, in fact I'm sure quite a few of us understand, me included." Riku added, and paused to consider something. "Now that I think about it, the prospect of having so many anime and games does sound pretty appealing. Especially…"

"Riku, please don't you start too." Nagi said in an almost pleading tone, as the mental image of his partner going on a tirade similar to Alec's was not something he wanted to see in reality.

"Anyway, just to let you all know, I'm planning on having most of the Mikage family money to be used to help the families of all those people who were affected by C-Project and lost family members as a result." Aki said and then turned to Aya. "I will have some money set aside for Mom to help her, and of course the money set aside to pay for you and Toya getting married."

"What about you, Aki?" Toya asked.

"I know what you're thinking Toya, and yes I'll set aside a little bit of money for myself but just enough to get by on for a while and pay for school." Aki answered. "I never wanted to be the head of the family, that's just something the old man decided on. I want to find my own path in life."

For a moment no one said anything as they couldn't find a good response to what Aki had just said. Finally, Aya broke the silence.

"Aki…" She began, her expression unreadable, before suddenly throwing her arms around her twin brother and hugging him. "Doing all of those things Toya and me, and for everyone…you really are a great brother! Thank you so much onii-chan!"

Normally, if Aki had heard Aya say this to him, his first assumption would be that his sister was teasing him. Two things, however, made it that this was not such a case. First, in the fact that a river of tears of joy seemed to be pouring out of Aya's eyes as she said this, and second, and perhaps most obvious, was that the hug that his twin was giving him was almost crushing him.

"Aya…can't…breathe…" Aki's voice croaked out, causing Aya to quickly let go of him.

"Whoops…sorry about that." Aya said with a slightly embarrassed smile, her expression now returned to normal.

(SHE JUST SUDDENLY COMPLETELY CHANGED EXPRESSIONS!) Riku, Nagi, and Tot thought the exact same thing as they looked in a mixture of amazement and shock.

"Don't worry, you'll get used to this." Yuhi said with sympathy in his voice as he patted Riku and Nagi on the shoulder.

"It may take a while though." Chidori admitted.

"Or maybe not." Shuro spoke. "It didn't take that long with me."

"I think that's just because you're you, Shuro-san." Maya commented with a sweatdrop.

"Hey, just to let you know I can hear everything you guys are saying." Aya spoke, turning to her friends.

(On second thought, I completely take back what I was thinking.) Aki thought to himself as he finished catching his breath. (She hasn't changed at all…)

"Still, what's with the 'onii-chan' all of a sudden?" Aki asked. "You haven't called me that since we were little. It's always been 'aniki' since then."

"I guess it must have just slipped out, sorry about that aniki." Aya admitted.

"Oh don't worry, I understand." Aki said with a smile. "It is a little early, but I understand…"

"A little early? What do you mean?" Aya asked, now suspicious because she could she something behind Aki's expression.

"Don't worry, Aya, we'll still love you no matter how weird your mood swings get." Aki answered her in a sympathetic tone of voice.

"Mood swings?" Aya's right eyebrow started to twitch at that.

"Oh yeah, Toya, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to put Aya in charge of what food will be served at the wedding." Aki pretended to ignore his twin's expression. "She'll probably order some pretty weird stuff, since the cravings will probably be setting in by then."

"Is it really that serious?" Toya asked, not realizing that this was a joke. "I have read about these symptoms in medical journals and textbooks, but they don't dwell too much on them. Isn't it just a natural thing?"

"Yeah, but let's just say Aya's a 'special' case." Aki replied. It was then that Toya noticed the looming figure of Aya behind Aki and he knew his future wife well enough to know what was about to happen next.

"Oh dear…" Shuro said as she, as well as everyone in the cabin, could tell what was going to happen as well.

"I think I'll get some rest now." Riku spoke suddenly as he lay back into his chair.

"Do you actually think you'll be able to sleep through…you know." Yuhi gestured back at Aya.

"Yuhi, if I can sleep through the sound of bombs and/or guns going off I should be able to sleep through this." Riku replied and looked at Aya once again as she was about to descend on her brother. "I think…maybe…"

Shade gritted his teeth in an effort to remain calm. It wasn't because of fear at what was going on the chamber that he, Kurando, and Tenzen were in, but something completely different. It was to control the growing excitement that was coming as a result of what he could feel was about to happen.

Everything was going just as Kurando had predicted. The impaled bodies of those with mara in them had long since stopped struggling and had gone limp as their mara simply began to flow out of them and gather into a large dark mist.

(It doesn't look like there will be much left of them once this is through.) Shade thought to himself as he saw that every single one of the maram wielders had long since gone limp with their eyes staring sightlessly out as the mara leaked out of their mouths, ears, and even from the pores of their skin. As a result a few of the bodies looked as if they were starting to decompose or fall apart.

Shade's attention then turned to the monster heads that Kurando had stuck in the middle of the chamber. The Baal's head was emanating a strong red aura that seemed to flow up into the black cloud of mara above it. Meanwhile, the heads of the Seraphim, Hinogakutsuchi, and Takemikazuchi were also glowing with a red aura, but in this case, the aura was not connecting with the black cloud.

(It looks like the malice within each monster has activated…) Shade thought and then noticed that something seemed to be flowing into the mouths of each monster's head. A closer look showed a variety of black white shapes compressed together being pulled into the monsters' mouths and as this was happening flesh seemed to growing out from beneath the monsters' necks. Shade then noticed something else and smirked at what he saw. (That old fool…he's thought of everything. Because mara and malice both are connected to negative feelings and emotions, he was counting on the mara to help activate and strengthen the malice within the monsters so they would have the strength to devour as many of those creatures of 'inner heart' as there are. He of course knew the monsters would start to regenerate from that and so he had seals prepared to keep the monsters in place. Not bad at all…)

"Shingen, prepare yourself!" Kurando's voice called out to Shade, interrupting the mercenary's thoughts. "He is coming!"

Shade grinned in anticipation as he could feel the approaching power. It felt overwhelming to him, but Shade almost felt like laughing with delight. For the first time in centuries, he would finally be able to do battle using his Orochi power against something that could actually compete with it. Shade then proceeded to take the trenchcoat he was wearing off and tossing it aside as he knew it would just get in the way in the battle.

Shade watched as the black cloud suddenly seemed to solidify and then something within it seemed to open and out through it emerged a tall black robed figure. The cowl of the robe was arranged so that it hid its wearer's face. Still, long braided white hair came out from the cowl and it was arranged so that it went over the figure's shoulders and down its back where the hair was tied together.

Shade was about to call on the power of the Orochi, when he suddenly noticed something was wrong.

"Hey old man, that's…" Shade began.

"Yes I know what came out is simply a projection." Kurando shouted back quickly. "That's all I need to pull Darva in, as soon as you see him, Shingen…that is when you must begin."

Shade gazed into the black cloud which now, through Kurando's planning, had become a gate through which their prey was emerging. For a moment, the mercenary saw nothing, but then suddenly he felt something move within the gate, and gazed deeper into it. Shade's eyes widened at what he saw.

The creature that was Darva was enormous; almost as tall as a skyscraper. A gigantic winged and fanged creature that seemed to match many stories' descriptions of what a devil would look like. Obviously, Darva had long since lost his original human form, as Shade could tell this was the real body as he could feel the immense power coming from it. There could be no other source.

Shade glanced over at Kurando, who nodded at him to signal it was time. The mercenary needed no second bidding and leapt forward at the gateway, grinning as he began to call upon the power of the Orochi.

It was then that time seemed to slow down around Shade as he immediately realized something was wrong.

(The…the Orochi's power, it's…it's coming too fast!) Shade thought, sudden alarm creeping towards up in the back of his mind. The Orochi's power was suddenly coming to him and rising at a rate too fast for him to control, and none of his attempts to slow it down were working.

(This is impossible! How can I be losing control?!) Shade wondered. (I've long since mastered the power of the Orochi, so why is it…?!)

Shade then looked forward at the monstrous form of Darva and then realized what was going on. It was then that he could hear the sound of a word being spoken over and over within that gate.

(I…I underestimated the Maram Words, damn it!) Shade cursed himself for this mistake. Darva was a lot stronger than he had anticipated and was using his power to make Shade's go out of control. (I've gotten too used to the idea of Maram masters being weaklings, that I didn't take into account the possibility that the creator of it all, someone older than the old fool himself, would be a threat!)

And now another thought came to Shade's mind, a possibility he had never considered before as he was certain it no longer applied to him, came to mind.

(If this keeps up I'll either end up going into a Blood Riot like those other Orochi clan weaklings, or something close enough, or…) An even more troubling possibility came to Shade's mind. (…if I lose control, the Orochi itself may take over me completely, and if that happens, then…)

Almost as soon as the thought registered in Shade's mind, the mercenary felt anger build up at the thought and mentally smashed it aside.

(NO! I will not accept this! I will not accept another humiliation!) Shade mentally cursed himself for that brief moment of weakness. (I will not be defeated so easily!)

Shade then gave a snarl and simply stopped every attempt to impede the Orchi power's progress.

(If you're so eager to come out, then come out as fast as you want!) Shade thought, no longer caring if the power was moving too fast for him to control. (I claimed this power for myself centuries ago, I can do it again!)

As soon as that thought passed through Shade's mind, he suddenly felt the Orochi power overwhelm him, almost like a large wave of water in the ocean had washed over him.

At that exact moment, time suddenly seemed to stop for Shade. Everything seemed to hang in suspended animation in front of him.

(Who are you?) A woman's voice spoke in Shade's mind, causing the mercenary's eyes to widen in recognition, as it was a voice he recognized and knew well.

(You, but…!) He thought.

(Are you Shingen Koga?) The woman's voice asked, as if she hadn't heard Shade's reaction. (Or are you Shade? Are you a ninja or a mercenary? Are you one who would protect or one who would destroy? Are you the master of your power or is your power the master of you?)

"I…I am…" Shade said, half in answer, half to himself. Suddenly, as it looked like he was considering the answer, Shade gritted his teeth, and, closing his eyes, shouted. "Why are you asking me this when you already know me for who I am?!"

Suddenly there was a sound almost like shattering glass, and Shade's eyes snapped open. He then felt the Orochi power inside of him had settled down and was now completely under his control once again.

"Now…" Shade muttered to himself.

Immediately, the immense power seemed to burst out from Shade's body as it was released. The mercenary uttered a harsh cry that was almost a howl as the Orochi power raced throughout his entire body, causing it to change. Shade's hair lengthened slightly as it turned from black to white and the circular symbol of the Orochi appeared on his chest, as the muscles throughout his body began to expand until he was a foot taller than his original height.

Shade had just completed the transformation when he reached Darva and the impact created by the clash of their powers blew straight through the walls of the chamber surrounding them.

Meanwhile, at a high school several miles away, two girls were in the school's archery club building. Classes had just ended and they were working on cleaning the building along with a few other students.

The first girl had short brown hair and was about a year younger than the second girl, who had long wavy blonde hair, and were both wearing the uniforms required for archery practice. The two of them also happened to be sisters, and currently they were checking the conditions of the bows to make sure that none of them were on the verge of breaking or if the bowstring was loose or about break before returning them to the supply room.

"Are you sure you want to be doing this, sis?" The first girl asked. "I mean, clean up duty is usually handled by the underclassmen."

"It's not a problem, Alice." The second girl, Mayura Seno, answered her younger sister, Alice Seno. "Someone had to sub for that member who's out sick, and besides this gives us some time to talk."

"Okay, so…what should we talk about?" Alice asked.

"Well, for starters how about how things have been going for you here in the archery club." Mayura suggested. "I mean besides the obvious, since you've been doing pretty well in the area of archery; you showed that during the tournaments we had a few months ago with the archery clubs from other schools."

"Well, I'm not so sure about that, I didn't even make it close to the top ten." Alice replied with a half embarrassed smile. "Besides, you, Kyo, and a lot of the other senior members placed way better than I did."

"Maybe, but that's just because of experience; a little more practice and you'll definitely start catching up to us." Mayura said encouragingly and then gave a sly smile. "Anyway, speaking of Kyo, how about telling your older sister how you two have been doing?"

"Sis!" Alice blushed a little. "I thought we were talking about the archery club!"

"We're still on the subject, we're just focusing on two specific members." Mayura replied, her smile not fading in the least.

While Alice did have an embarrassed expression as she thought of what to say in reply, inwardly she was glad of the conversation they were having. Ever since Mayura had recovered and been able to go back to school, she had made it perfectly clear that she was fine with Alice and Kyo's relationship and had even been supportive to them. However, unfortunately for Alice this meant that quite a bit of teasing from her older sister came with the support.

('It's the duty of the older sister to make sure that the younger sister is on the right track in the area of romance.') Mayura's reason for doing this, sounding just as matter of fact-ly as it had when she had said this before, echoed in Alice's mind.

"Well…" Alice began, and then discovered a way out. "Oh yeah that's right! I need to go and help with collecting the arrows from the field! Well, I'll go and take care of those and come right back!"

(And maybe I can come up with something by then…) Alice thought to herself.

"That's okay." Mayura said simply, and as Alice took a step out of the door to the room she called after her. "There's always time for us to talk about this when you get back from your date with Kyo tonight."

Alice froze in her tracks and her head drooped slightly.

"That isn't fair, Sis…" Alice replied in a gloomy tone before heading over to the practice range.

Mayura laughed to herself as her sister left, inwardly feeling relief as well. Though she was hiding it as she didn't want Alice to worry about her, Mayura couldn't help but feel a great sense of remorse over what had happened a year ago when she had literally been manipulated into being Darva's minion and eventually that dark being's host. Though she couldn't remember in detail all the things she had done during that time, there were still a few she could remember, like a series of nightmares she could not forget. Yet despite the fact that she had done those things, despite the fact that she had done so much to hurt Alice, Kyo, and even their family and friends, the both of them had still forgiven her for what happened.

Mayura could still remember how she had burst into tears and wept in a mixture of regret and at the same time happiness when Alice and Kyo had told her that, that they forgave her and that they both cared about her. Alice's support, along with the support of their parents, as ironically their familial ties had been strengthened by those events, had helped her in the process of getting over those memories, even though it would still be a while until she completely got past it.

(That's when I promised myself that no matter what, I'd help Alice like she helped me.) Mayura thought to herself. (Though it's not much, I'll at least help her in the area of romance for now. Now if there were only a way to get Kyo to be a bit more forward with her…)

Deciding to put that aside and focus on checking the bows while Alice was helping with clearing the archery range, Mayura proceeded to do so.

After about twelve minutes, Mayura had managed to find a couple of bows on the verge of breaking and had set them aside. She had found more cases in which the bowstrings were starting to wear and had set those aside in a different pile. It was then that it happened.

Out of nowhere, a sudden and overpowering feeling of pain came to Mayura's head, causing her to cry out and she almost fell over, but was able to stop by leaning against one of the lockers. The pain was an intense one, almost as if something were pounding a hot piece of metal into her head, and it wasn't subsiding. If anything it seemed to intensify and was starting to spread from her head down to the rest of her body. As this was happening, Mayura suddenly realized what was happening as she recognized the force behind the pain.

And suddenly, without warning, the pain just vanished as suddenly as it had come. That was the last thing Mayura felt before she collapsed onto the floor, not feeling the impact at all, and then lapsing into unconsciousness.

Riku's eyes snapped open as something woke him up. He looked around the plane's cabin and saw that everyone except for Nagi was asleep. The psychic noticed Riku was awake and turned to him.

"Did you just feel anything…strange just now?" Riku asked.

"What do you mean?" Nagi asked in reply.

"Did you feel anything like a poke or prod against you or anything like that, and did it wake you up?" Riku's expression seemed a little bothered. "Only it wasn't any of those things, it just felt like it…"

"Now that you mention, I think I did feel something brush against me and woke up, but…" Nagi was interrupted as Tot, who had her head resting on Nagi's shoulder fast asleep, stirred a little in her sleep but didn't wake up. The young psychic blushed as that pretty much explained what he was going to say.

"I guess it must have been my imagination then." Riku shrugged and then lay back to try to fall asleep again.

As he did, Nagi remembered something and turned to Riku.

"While we were talking a while back about General Drake, you stopped and then changed the subject, why?" Nagi asked.

"Oh that?" Riku paused before continuing. "Well, for a second I was wondering to myself if things in FOXHOUND would be better if General Drake was in charge. I know even Campbell answers to him, but…you know what I mean…"

"You mean, if he was in charge completely?" Nagi asked in reply. "What brought this up?"

"I guess I just don't like how Reese seems to be having too much freedom in FOXHOUND, and it would be nice if he didn't." Riku answered. "Of course, I wouldn't mind if Michael, Garland, or Seishiro-san were in charge either," Riku then smiled as he considered something. "Though if Garland were in charge I'm sure every recruit would be required to have a very rigorous training schedule."

"You do have a point there." Nagi agreed.

Unbeknownst to either Riku or Nagi, they had actually felt something, though it would be a while until they and others would learn what it is that they had felt occur.

Mayura Seno awoke to find herself lying in one of the beds of the school clinic. For a moment, she wondered how she had gotten there, but the memory of why came to her after a few seconds. It was then that she heard two people speaking not too far from her, and sat up and turned to see that it was her younger sister, Alice and the school nurse who were speaking to each other.

"Oh, Sis, you're awake!" Alice exclaimed as she noticed Mayura had gotten up and she quickly ran to her sister's side. "What happened? Why did…?"

Alice stopped as Mayura suddenly grabbed her hand and held on to it firmly.

"Sis, what…?" Alice stopped as she realized something, though Mayura's hands were holding onto hers firmly, Alice could feel them trembling, and as she looked into her older sister's eyes, she could see signs of fear in them.

"Mayura, what's wrong?" Alice asked, keeping her voice low since she had a feeling that the answer to this was not something Mayura wanted the nurse to hear.

"I need to talk to you and Kyo, now." Mayura's voice had a tone of urgency in it.

"Alright." Alice nodded, and then turned to the nurse. "Uh, I know this may sound a little strange but Mayura and I need to talk about something privately…you know, girl talk and all that."

It took a little bit more talking but the nurse agreed to leave for a few minutes and be waiting outside. When she closed the door behind her, Alice took out her cell phone and selected Kyo's number, only to receive a busy signal.

"I guess he's talking to someone right now." Alice said and turned back to Mayura. "Is it alright if you just tell me for now?"

"Yeah, as long as you both know about this before it may be too late." Mayura answered.

"What do you mean by, 'too late'?" Alice was starting to feel nervous now as she hadn't seen her sister like this, not since she had recovered.

"Back at the archery club, when I collapsed like that…" Mayura paused as she shuddered at the memory. "The reason was because I felt, no…more like I sensed 'him'. That thing you and your friends fought a year ago. He's come back somehow!"

Alice's eyes widened in shock as she heard this, and for a moment neither of the two spoke as Mayura's revelation sunk in.

"Then…if that's true…if Darva really is back…" Alice then shook her head. "Then it's alright, we'll be ready for him this time. And if he or any Maram Masters come after you, then Kyo and I will keep you safe, so…"

"For get about me, that's not what I'm worried about!" Mayura half shouted, and then noticed her sister's expression and both her gaze and tone softened. "I'm sorry…it's just…I'm just worried about what will happen next. Not to me…but to you and everyone else. You, Kyo, Mom, Dad, Kyo's family…I don't want you or any of them to go through all of that anguish again. I almost destroyed our family and Kyo's too, and one of Kyo's friends ended up…because of me…I…"

Mayura suddenly stopped as Alice suddenly put her arms around her and hugged her.

"Sis, I know you're worried, I'm worried too." Alice said in a reassuring manner to try to calm Mayura. "Still, that doesn't mean you should say what I think you're about to say just because of what happened last year. We all managed to get past it and if anything, it's made us, and our bonds as a family, stronger. And as for what happened to Kazuki…you know Kyo didn't and hasn't ever blamed you for his death."

"That doesn't mean I wasn't responsible, even if he was killed by someone else." Mayura said, her eyes lowering.

"Even if what you're saying is true…don't think for one second that you don't deserve to be protected or helped by any of us just because of what happened in the past." Alice said firmly. "You're my sister and I love you, that's more than reason enough for me to do this for you."

"Alice…" Mayura then slowly returned her sister's embrace. After a while they broke apart.

"Well, I guess I'll try reaching Kyo again so we can all talk about this." Alice said. "We'll probably have to call Frey, and then…"

"I assure you, this is important. I need to speak with both Alice and Mayura right away!" A young man's voice, which both girls recognized, spoke outside the door, apparently to the school nurse.

"That's Kyo…" Alice said and then opened the door to the room and spoke to the nurse outside. "It's alright, he can come in."

The nurse was more reluctant to do this, but after some convincing allowed the three to talk privately but only for five minutes then she'd have to come in.

The one who walked in was a tall and athletic looking young man who was the same age as Mayura. He had short black hair and was wearing an archery club uniform as he had just come from there. This was Alice's boyfriend and partner as they were both Lotus Masters, Kyo Wakamiya.

"I heard about what happened and came as soon as I could." Kyo said and turned to Mayura. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, for now, at least." Mayura answered.

"I tried calling you on your cell phone, but it was busy." Alice said.

"About that…I was talking to Frey as he called me when I was about to come and check on you two." Kyo's expression became a serious one. "I'm afraid something's happened with the Lotsuan Order and Frey, Chris, Pai, and Billy will be taking the next flights they can to Japan as representatives of their respective branches."

"Could it have something to do with…?" Alice and Mayura looked at each other as they considered the possibility.

"Whatever has happened has happened to close to this to be a coincidence." Mayura said.

"What do you mean?" Kyo asked. "Did something happen when Mayura collapsed?"

"It looks like we both have stuff to tell each other." Alice said. "Well, I guess we should get started, maybe we'll find some answers…"

"I'm still saying you two should." Chidori said to Aya as she, Yuhi, Aya, Toya, Aki, Maya, Shuro, Alec, Riku, Nagi, and Tot got out of the plane and into the Japanese HQ for FOXHOUND as the plane had finally arrived in Japan. "It's a tradition for a husband and wife to go on a honeymoon of some kind after they're married."

"I didn't say we weren't going on one, Chidori, I was just saying we'd have to wait until we found someplace we could afford to go to." Aya said.

"Hey, don't mean to butt in, but if you're looking for any reasonably priced places I might be able to suggest a couple." Riku spoke.

"Really?" Aya asked, hopefully. "What kind of places?"

"Just two, really." Riku answered. "The first would be this hot springs inn out in the country. The owner Takayuki-san and his wife, Ayumi-san, are very good hosts, plus their cook, Makoto-san, is a good cook to boot. Also the hot springs there are some of the best my family and I have been to."

"A hot springs inn, huh…sounds nice." Aya was definitely considering that, but was curious about the second place Riku was going to suggest. "What about the other place?"

"If you're willing to wait until winter, then I'd recommend this one ski resort." Riku said. "There are a few people there who help with the lodges and stuff. There's this lady, Kasumi-san, who's quite the storyteller, and this couple who help her out, Minoru-san and Shizuka-san, very nice people as I remember. From what I've heard, those two managed to add a very pretty addition to the area just before they were married, at least that's what Dad, Mom, and I heard from some people who knew them when we first visited the place."

"What is it?" Aya asked.

"This huge field of some kind of white flowers that go as far as the eye can see, it's really an amazing and rather pretty site if I do say so myself." Riku commented.

"Can we go there sometime?" Tot asked eagerly. "I don't know how to ski, but I'll learn." She then turned to Nagi. "Could you teach me, Nagi-kun?"

"Well, to be honest Tot…I don't know how to ski either." Nagi replied, his expression slightly embarrassed.

"Then I guess we can learn together then." Tot said brightly, having seen a good chance to spend time with her boyfriend either way.

"I don't know how to ski either." Aya admitted.

"Neither do I for that matter." Toya spoke, not entirely sure if this was something was supposed to have learned beforehand as the old man who raised him had never mentioned anything to him about skiing.

"Don't worry, beginner courses are available so you can learn the basics and such." Riku said. "I should know, I took those courses the first couple of times my family visited."

"First couple of times?" Chidori asked. "You mean you had to go through two trips to learn how to ski?"

"Hey, I could ski after the first trip." Riku said defensively. "I just needed a little more help in the area of steering so I wouldn't crash into things…and people."

Everyone sweatdropped at Riku's answer.

"You can ski without crashing into people now…right?" Nagi asked, wondering whether or not it would be a good, or for that matter safe, idea to ski on the same slope that Riku was skiing on.

"Of course, I can, Nagi." Riku nodded. "I haven't crashed into anyone or anything since I finished those lessons."

"I'm a little curious, but why did those two plant so many flowers?" Shuro asked.

"Well, to be honest I don't really know exactly since I didn't ask too much about it at the time and it's been a while since I last went there with anyone." Riku answered. "The only thing I do know is that that flower apparently has some kind of special meaning between the two of them, that and apparently Minoru-san was the one who started planting the flowers."

"I think I know what happened, this flower must have been this Shizuka-san's favorite flower and this Minoru-san, who was in love with Shizuka-san, planted those flowers all over in order to show his love for her…and then they got together and lived happily ever after." Tot stated her theory on the subject.

(What shoujo manga or romance novel provided by Michael did she get that idea from?) Riku wondered as he and the rest of the group sweatdropped at this. Then a thought came to him. (Come to think of it, I got a weird feeling from Shizuka-san the first time we visited…ah, must have been my imagination. And why am I thinking about something like that now?)

"Swapping stories, huh Riku?" A male voice spoke, causing Riku and the rest of the group to turn to see a tall man in his early twenties standing by the area leading into the lobby. The man had short black hair with bangs, blue eyes, and was wearing casual clothing. He smiled warmly at Riku, who immediately recognized him, as did Nagi, and Tot, and was glad to see him.

"Well, I was expecting someone from our clan to be here to pick us up, but I wasn't expecting it to be you." Riku was grinning now. "Talk about your pleasant surprises, right Aniki?"

(A-aniki!?) Aya and co. were surprised at this new revelation as Riku greeted the newcomer, who they had at first thought was another member of FOXHOUND.

"Well, that concludes our business then." Kurando spoke as he, Tenzen, and Shade stepped out from the cavern. "I am truly grateful for your help, Shingen, we couldn't have done this without you."

"Yes, I know that." Shade replied and looked at the folder Kurando had handed him on their way out. "So this has the location of that seal as you promised, correct?"

"Indeed it does, and I can assure you that it's genuine." Kurando said.

"It had better be, and I'm going to go make sure of that myself." Shade turned to leave, but stopped as Kurando called out to him.

"You seem a little…out of sorts ever since you defeated Darva with your Orochi power." He noted. "Why?"

Shade's expression was unreadable as he simply looked back at Kurando, and then he simply grinned as he answered.

"No real reason, I'm just feeling a little elated after having defeated something close to a god, and finally being able to go all out using one hundred percent of the Orochi's power." Shade answered. "I almost feel like thanking you as I haven't done that for a long time. A pity that there isn't more than one Darva…"

With that Shade walked off, leaving Kurando and Tenzen alone. After he was sure Shade had left, Kurando turned to Tenzen.

"I thought you said you'd hunted down and captured every Maram master." Kurando said, irritation in his voice.

"I did that, Master, just as you ordered." Tenzen said quickly.

"Then why is the power from Darva incomplete?" Kurando asked. "I have almost everything from him, but I can feel a little bit is missing."

"Master, I know I did not miss a single Maram master as I was able to hunt down even the ones that tried their hardest to evade me." Tenzen said. "Could it be possible that the missing power is the mara that only just recently began manifesting in some normal people who attracted it?"

"I suppose…" Kurando stopped to consider that. "In that case, I have a task that you are to perform on the side while doing the other tasks I give to you. Wherever you go, you are to keep an eye out for any such people and if you find them bring them to me."

"Of course, Master." Tenzen nodded, however he was thinking something quite different.

(Though don't expect me to bring you very many, 'Master'.) Tenzen's thoughts at Kurando were filled with contempt. (When you absorbed an incomplete power, you created a chink in that impenetrable armor of yours. I'll bide my time until I can obtain the power and a way to use that chink to my advantage so I can pay you back for all those years I've been your slave.)

Meanwhile, Shade had stopped at a small peninsula and was looking out into the ocean as he thought to himself.

(Was that a fair trade, though? Will the power I gain from this unsealing be equal to the power I let that old man gain through absorbing that creature?) Shade wondered to himself and shook his head as the answer did not matter to him for now. Then another thing came to mind, it was the voice that had spoken to him as he had struggled within himself for control of the Orochi's power. Though he knew that it was impossible for that speaker to have actually asked him that question, Shade felt compelled to answer her.

"I am myself, Kicho…" Shade said out loud as he looked out upon the ocean, his voice sounding strangely weary, before turning around and continuing towards his next destination. "For now, that is the only answer I can give you…"

"So you're Riku's cousin?" Chidori asked the man that Riku had introduced as Kenshin Mori.

"Yes, I am." Kenshin nodded and then gave a light bow. "A pleasure to meet all of you."

"So why did Riku call you 'aniki'?" Yuhi asked.

"Well, we grew up together and I always did consider Kenshin as an older brother so that pretty much stuck." Riku answered with a smile.

"How come we didn't see him at the Uruha Mansion when we were there?" Aya asked.

"I was away on a bit of a mission for our clan at the time." Kenshin answered.

"Speaking of which, how did it go?" Nagi asked Kenshin.

"My team and I managed to complete the mission successfully." Kenshin answered. "And I'm glad to hear the same went with your mission."

"Thanks, Aniki." Riku replied and then remembered something. "You know I was a little worried since you'd…well you know, only recently returned and all that, but you said that since you'd be working with someone you knew very well there wouldn't be too many problems. But anyway, that mission of yours, it was in Gazth-Sonika right?"

"Yes, and actually that's something you three and I will need to talk about soon, Riku." Kenshin said. "Anyway, I came to pick you guys up and take you directly to the Uruha Mansion."

Noticing how serious Kenshin's tone was, Riku knew his cousin well enough to know that something was up.

"Has something happened, Kenshin?" Riku asked, now dropping 'aniki' as a sign that he understood that something was up.

"I'll explain to you once we arrive, for now let's get going." Kenshin answered.

"But what about my sister Suzumi and our friends from Weiss?" Yuhi asked.

"Don't worry, they're on their way to the mansion as we speak." Kenshin reassured him and then turned to Riku and co.. "In case you're wondering, I had Reiji, Elen, and Cal go and get them."

"It looks like I'm right then." Riku said, half to himself, half to the rest of the group.

"Who are those three that Kenshin-san just mentioned?" Toya asked.

"Reiji Azuma codename 'Zwei', Elen Azuma codename 'Ein', and Cal Devens codename 'Drei'." Riku answered. "Those three are Kenshin's nakama, and three of the best gun wielders that I know. Suzumi shouldn't have anything to worry about with those three and Ran and the others watching her back." Riku then gave a light smile. "You guys will like them too, I can assure you."

"Yeah, and I bet they're making friends with Ran and the others right now." Tot said optimistically.

"Anyway, Riku, on a lighter note, I also picked someone up for a visit just before you arrived today." Kenshin spoke, the seriousness from before not as apparent. As they exited the building and headed to the van Kenshin was driving, someone called out to him.

"You sure have grown since I last saw you, Riku." A woman spoke. She had long brown hair tied back in a bun, and was wearing a plain but well kept kimono. She looked like she was in her early to middle forties but was actually in her fifties. Riku, Nagi, and Tot recognized her, while the rest of the group did not as they hadn't met her before.

Riku walked over and hugged the woman and she hugged back.

"It's good to see you again, Grandmother." Riku said and then turned to the rest of the group. "Everyone, this is my grandmother, and my uncle Kurei's mother, Tsukino Mori."

"It's a pleasure to meet all of you." Tsukino bowed to Aya, Toya, Yuhi, Chidori, Aki, Maya, Shuro, and Alec, all except for Toya could only look in shock as Riku had introduced them to another grandmother of his who also looked surprisingly young.

"It's no good, I can't find him." Kagero shook her head as she put away her madogu which she had been using.

"Well, it was a long shot anyway, that man always has been good at concealing himself." Yukimura Sanada said in agreement.

The two of them had arrived at the Uruha Mansion a few days ago and were discussing something with two other people who were in a room with them. The first was a man with long black hair tied back in a single ponytail and bangs of his hair to the sides of his face, while wearing his traditional clothing of a white and black samurai's casual clothing and the second was a lovely looking woman with long dark blue hair who was of slightly shorter height than the man she was with and wearing a traditional purple kimono, both of them appeared to be in their twenties.

"So what we felt occur earlier has something to do with this man that you've told us about, Darkness, am I correct Yumikura-dono, Kagero-dono?" The man asked.

"Yes, I'm afraid so, Gennosuke-dono." Yukimura replied. "I don't know what exactly he was doing, but during that time his power suddenly flared up, before a an extremely large and dark feeling power suddenly appeared, and then another more familiar one flared up, and quite suddenly the second one vanished."

"And that third one belonged to another that you've told us of, Shade." The woman now spoke.

"Yes, Oboro-dono, and that's what makes things even more serious now." Kagero nodded. "We were originally going to meet because Shade was somewhere in Japan, but now that Darkness is apparently with him, this makes things more serious considering that when those two work together it involves something important for the both of them."

"Which is what we need to determine." Yukimura added. "Especially what that second power was as neither Kagero or I have sensed it before."

"I…I think Gennosuke-sama and I have sensed it before." Oboro spoke. "It was about a year ago."

"That same dark power appeared for a moment before just vanishing as suddenly as it had come." Gennosuke began describing it and then paused and turned to Kagero. "You were away from the mansion at the time, Kagero-dono, and Oboro-dono and I meant to tell you about it, but by the time you got back other things had happened and we ended up forgetting."

"This is strange though, how come you two were able to sense this but neither Yukimura or I were able to?" Kagero asked. "I think we'll have to go and ask 'him' and see if he knows anything."

"Very well, I'll contact Roger and arrange for us to meet him." Yukimura nodded. "And after we've met with your grandson and his friends, we'd best go and investigate where we felt that power coming from. We might find some answers there."

AN: And that's the end of chapter 35! I hope you all enjoyed it, especially the number of crossover references and such that I made.

I'm sure I've managed to surprise quite a few of you who are fans of the manga series Alice 19th, another series by Yuu Watase. A note to fans though, it will be a few chapters until the cast of Alice 19th meets with the Hokage clan so I hope you'll all be patient.

In case anyone is wondering, the games that I mentioned being more of a reference are the following; Tokimeki Check In and Snow Drop. Now to those wondering, no, neither game will be playing a major role in this story, so don't expect anything above cameo appearances for the characters in the future for now. I mainly did it to give a few locations, give a nod to two of my favorite bishoujo games, and also just in case I decide to do a bonus chapter with either a hot springs chapter or ski trip chapter, but that won't be for a while. If you want, you're welcome to send suggestions. Just to let you know though, the endings for the games that are being followed are Ayumi's for Tokimeki Check In and Shizuka's of Snow Drop since those are my favorites of those two games. One last thing, don't expect the stories for those games to be explained in this fic since as I said, their role in this story is very minor. I encourage you all to buy and enjoy the games yourself (to some please don't be turned off by the ero content, and play the game first before making any hasty judgments as they're really good ones (though I highly recommend Crescendo, Private Nurse, Figures of Happiness, and Yume Miru Kusuri for anyone who wants a game with an exceptionally amazing story with romance and such in it).

Anyway, the other games I've referenced in case you haven't spotted them are Phantom of Inferno another great bishoujo game (US release was the non adult version) that I highly recommend and the Shadow Hearts series. For the latter, it was mainly the monsters that Kurando/Darkness used as those are monsters from the first two games, and the mentioning of a recurring character of the series (the only one to appear in all three games).

Well, I hope you all enjoyed this chapter, and please excuse long waits as my schedule is pretty hectic with my going back to work and college, along with the fact that I spent a great deal of this summer break catching up on anime and games, and of course reading the final Harry Potter book (talk about a SATISFYING ENDING (note: disregard a past omake as Half Blood Prince has been completely forgiven, the poor soul ;;). Anyway, see you all next update!