A piercing halo of white light on his face brought Hayato back to consciousness. His head throbbed, and his wrists burned like they had been cut, yet his first instinct was to jerk his head away from the deadly gleam messing up his eyeballs. He realized he was in some sort of dimly lit office space no bigger than the conference room. It took him a moment longer to figure out his wrists were tied behind his back to an ergonomic chair.
Yet the muzzle of an M4 carbine pressed on his forehead was what worried Hayato the most. He gulped at this, and as his mind cleared, he glimpsed a couple of men carrying menacing rifles in a safe hang position at the edges of the shadows around him. They were covered in black and wore red masks on their faces. There was no doubting they were Amaterasu operatives. Wondering how long he had been out, Hayato could only assume they had taken over the building while he had blacked out. Yet the more he became aware, the more his headache intensified.
“Where’s your sister, you little brat?” demanded the terrorist closest to him, the one who held him at gunpoint. “And what the hell were you planning back there?” he added while producing an earpiece out of thin air.
The boy did his best to prevent his face from betraying his surprise as he saw the device previously in his ear in the hands of the bastard. He even began to shift as slightly as possible in the seat, feigning discomfort while testing the play in the zip-ties. But he found only a little degree of freedom in them.
At any rate, his dilemma wouldn’t prevent Hayato from displaying his usual cockiness. “You guys must be confused. I’m an only child, you know?”
That wasn’t the response the terrorist wanted, his expression souring. “You think you’re funny, huh? What if I put a bullet in your leg?” the man barked, rapidly placing the muzzle of his shotgun against Hayato’s right tight. “You’ll laugh at that too?” The challenge was clear in his manner, yet his intimidation tactics had no effect on the boy. He unruffled, closing his eyes and sighing as if the terrorist before him were hopeless. As soon as he opened them, he realized the man’s face had twisted into a sneer, his eyes wide with anger. He shifted the weapon in his hands, ready to hit him with the butt—when an outstretched arm caught him mid-way.
“Leave him, Ieyasu-Two,” a flat voice interrupted the man, his black hand easing the rifle away from Hayato. Even before he realized another figure had stepped into the room, he noticed the scar running across his face, exposed in the absence of a mask. A chill ran through him as he identified this man as no one else than Takeshi Uchida. “The sister’s probably long gone by now,” he added. “We’ll make do with one sibling.”
As Hayato made a mental note Uchida was in charge, the man he had called Ieyasu-Two whirled to him. “Then, what about the whole hush-hush thing? What the hell were they up to?”
“That no longer matters. Remember, we’re on a tight schedule here. We don’t have time to fool around.”
“Isn’t that what you are already doing?” Hayato cut into their conversation. Both men turned to look at him. “I mean, how do you think this is going to end? ‘Cuz I’m pretty sure it’ll be with you guys caught and behind bars.”
Uchida didn’t hide his displeasure. “Humph, so you’re one of those guys who see us as some kind of demons?”
“Bombings, shootings, kidnappings... Your actions kinda speak for themselves, you know?”
The scarred man stepped closer to him and kneeled to star down at Hayato. His gaze was penetrating, measuring him with dubious intentions. “Let me tell you a short story, then. Back during the Greco-Turkish War, my unit was sent to deal with a group of Kurdish insurgents operating in Diyarbakir. They were funded by Greeks to divert attention away from the main front.
“It was no battle. They were throwing rocks at us while we fought them with tanks. Yet it was once the local police took over that it turned into a massacre. I saw officers beating the shit out of teenagers while their dogs attacked their parents as if they were raw meat. I even saw women being raped in front of their relatives, unable to do anything about it from my position.” Uchida paused briefly, yet Hayato still felt his eyes boring into him. “Those insurgents were fighting for their freedom against an oppressive government. But the Americans were only interested in pleasing their allies while getting their slice out of the conflict, as usual.”
At this, the scarred man stood up and loomed over the boy, looking down on him like a parent teaching a child a lesson. “There are no good or bad men, kid, just those with power and those without it. And we will be nobody’s pawns anymore. We won’t let that happen to our country. Not again.” Uchida spoke no more and turned to his colleagues, leaving Hayato gazing at the floor in shame. Whether it was because of what he told him or because he had no words to throw back at him, he didn’t know.
What he did notice, however, was a terrorist stepping forward to whisper something to his ear. They were close enough for Hayato to hear them. “It appears one of the kids handled the stick to the woman. We pressed her for an identity. She gave us nothing, but she won’t have to. We checked the security footage. It has to be a student in your brother’s group.”
Uchida nodded at his subordinate. “Shake them up, then. I’ll head back to the annex to check our progress.” The man gave Hayato a long hard look. “Keep an eye on the kid. Don’t let his appearance fool you.”
As soon as Uchida stepped out of the room, leaving only Ieyasu-Two and another terrorist inside while taking the others with him, the boy began weighing his options. What he said had completely changed the situation. There was no doubt in Hayato’s mind that Kotori and the Sugiyama kid were now in danger. He had, after all, no guarantees as to how far would the terrorists push them for answers. For a moment, he wondered what had been of Saori. While it was a good thing she had avoided capture, it was unlikely he could count on her; she would have made the smart choice for sure, abandoning the building to regroup with Father at Hardy Barracks.
In the end, he decided not to pursue the thought further. For one way or another, he would soon leave his captivity.
As Hayato glanced down at his legs, he noticed his ankles weren’t bound. He then looked up to see the shadow of a terrorist standing before him, his rifle slung from his right shoulder across his chest. He shifted in his chair ever so slightly, cocking his head to look past him at Ieyasu-Two, who was about to take a position in the doorway. “W-Wait!” he begged, making sure the edge of pain in his voice was loud enough. “I’ll tell you where she is!”
The terrorist stopped dead in his tracks halfway to the door. Turning back to Hayato, he knelt beside him, the other man moving aside and behind an empty chair. The boy opened his mouth to speak, yet nothing but unintelligible babbling came out of it. “You should have bounded my ankles...” he then said, his voice regaining strength.
Ieyasu-Two, who had unconsciously leaned in to listen, burrowed his furrow in confusion and found his reaction time just a little bit delayed. Hayato used the moment’s distraction to slam his knee hard into his crotch and head-butt him. The terrorist grunted in pain as he reeled back. His partner, however, reacted faster and came to him right away. Hayato employed the chair between them, kicking it into him and knocking him off balance. With both terrorists momentarily stunned, he seized the opportunity to get his bounded arms up and over the back of the headrest. Halfway there, he realized Ieyasu-Two was onto him. He spun around and kicked the chair backward once free from it, sending it crashing into the terrorist. Fighting the urge to look over his shoulder, Hayato lunged at the desk in front of him, rolling over it until he landed on the floor on the other side.
The boy hissed at the pain in his left arm, which had taken the full brunt of the impact. Yet realizing his wrists were still bound, he looked frantically for something with which to free them. He spotted a pair of scissors inside a pencil holder, scattered among the objects he had thrown on the floor amid his stampede. Using his loose legs, Hayato pushed them towards him and began working on the plastic handcuffs. As he took notice the second terrorist was already on his feet, he started sawing his bounds as fast as he could. It wasn’t fast enough. The man had circled around the table and was now facing him.
Hayato rolled on the floor just as the clattering hammer of a triple-shot salvo coming from the terrorist’s rifle ripped into the place where he had been laying. Adrenaline pumping, he dove for cover at one of the flat panels on the side of the office desk. Prying out on his knuckles while lying on his knees, he raised his arms high enough behind him and slammed them down on his arch back. With a nervous gasp, the boy celebrated he had freed himself at last.
But he failed to realize he was still in peril.
“That was enough, boy. No more tricks.”
Watching the terrorist appear from the side, Hayato regained his footing, raising his arms in a surrendering position. The man waved his gun, motioning for him to move aside when he caught something out of the corner of his eye. From one moment to another, he whirled to where his colleague stood—and ran into White Leopard standing at his side, covered in her powered suit from head to toe. In a reflex of panic, Ieyasu-Two lined up his rifle on her. He gaped in awe as the armored silhouette grabbed the weapon barrel and bent it downward with impossible strength. Stunned by the development, the man had loosened the grip of his gun, which was why Saori ripped it off his hands with ease. Even worse, he failed to anticipate her following action, finding himself on the ground after taking a powerful elbow to his face.
In the meantime, the confusion of the evolving situation had robbed the second terrorist of his focus. Hayato seized his distraction to lunge at him, grabbing hold of his rifle’s handguard and managing to drive its muzzle away from Saori. Both struggled for its control for a short while until the thug drove a knee hard into his stomach. Pain exploded there where the suicidal terrorist had hit Hayato the day before, and he found himself staggering backward, the air leaving his lungs in a wheeze. To his fortune, he glimpsed Saori was onto the bastard in no time. The man lashed out at her with a full-powered punch, pushing his elbow back as far as he could. But it came a beat too slow and predictable, the girl ducking to dodge it with ease. Furthermore, she used her momentum to push her body forward, kicking up with her right leg to stand on her hands. Gaping at her acrobatics, the terrorist failed to prevent her lifting leg from trapping the arm with which he still held his rifle, keeping it between her tight and her calf.
By now, however, Ieyasu-Two was back up on his feet. Saori saw the man diving at her. In quick succession, she forced his partner to the ground and let go of his weapon as she regained her footing, ready to deal with the other assailant. She lashed a spinning high kick with her left leg that landed across his face, putting him down for good, then kept rotating to kick out with her right one, catching the second terrorist square in the jaw as he tried to stand up. The impact made a crack as he spitted out a couple of teeth, and his head hit the floor with a thud. He would no longer be a problem.
Still on the floor, Hayato caught his sister exhaling in satisfaction as he took a few seconds to regain his breathing. She unlocked his mask, her visor and mouth-plates sliding away from her face as she walked to him, offering an outstretched arm to help him up. “How exactly were you planning on dealing with the second terrorist?” she commented sardonically, as though expecting no logical answer from him.
Hayato had none. “I would have sorted it out... Somehow,” was all he managed to reply as he stood up and dusted himself off.
It was then that a cracking voice rose somewhere near them. “Ieyasu-Two, what the hell were those shots? I told you not to push the boy anymore!”
Both twins shifted their gaze to the downed terrorists, then exchanged a long, nervous look. Recognizing Takeshi Uchida at the other end of the radio, Hayato didn’t hesitate. He started for one of the limp bodies, every step a minor effort given the stabs of pain he felt in his abdominal region. He knelt beside Ieyasu-Two, desperately searching for the device among his pockets and pouches.
Once he found it, he brought it to his mouth. “Ieyasu-Two here,” he began, but his seriousness lapsed into nervousness as he realized he didn’t know what to say. His eyes darted from side to side, hunting for words as the second passed. Taking a deep breath, he deepened his voice. “Uh, I’m sorry about that. The bratty twin... he just drives me crazy with his attitude,” he uttered, a curious thought stirring his mind as he considered the way he had described himself. It was soon superseded by the need to continue his reply. “It won’t happen again.”
A tense silence filled the room as the twins locked eyes, nervously waiting for a reply…
“Understood,” Uchida replied at last. “Keep focused on what matters. Ieyasu-One out.”
Sensing no suspicion in his tone, Hayato let out a long breath in relief. Then, he noticed something familiar among the objects he had tossed off the table. He strolled toward it, still feeling a little pain in his stomach and regretting the toll it had taken for the last few days as much as his lack of caution. “Silent Mode works fine now?” he asked Saori in the meantime, curious at her unexpected and sneaky appearance. “I didn’t even hear your hydraulics.”
“As good as it can be expected,” she replied. “But it still takes all the energy from the Kinetic Shields, so there’s that.” She took a few moment as though noticing something. “You okay? You look like crap.”
“You kidding? I should be the one asking that question. I thought you were going to play it safe, regroup at Hardy Barracks instead of staying in the building.”
Saori hesitated. “Yes, I considered it for a moment, but I’m more useful here.”
As he stopped in his tracks, Hayato gritted his teeth. Not because of the pain he felt, but rather due to the discovery of his Sentinel watch among the scattered objects. He bent down to pick it up, noticing the crystal was shattered and that the readings on it were fuzzy at best. He pressed the power switch to see if he could reboot it, but it was no use.
“Well, good for you and your morale,” he told Saori while lamenting the condition of his device, “because I’m going to need your help.” The boy stood up and turned to his sister, waving the damaged watch at her. “I can’t activate the suit, and soon Amaterasu will find out Sugiyama gave you the files. Whether it’s him or Koizumi, we can’t take any risks. We have to get them out.”
Saori frowned as she folded her arms over her waist, seemly unconvinced by his way of proceeding. “That won’t happen. They have over 50 well-trained men, scores of guards on their side. The students are closely watched, and Koizumi-san is on the upper floors. Any action on our part endangers them. We must keep gathering intel, prepare for the assault.”
Hayato considered her output, yet couldn’t stop his mouth from puckering up in doubt. “Okay, but our identities are at risk, not to mention Sugiyama can be a valuable asset if it comes to—”
“Sugiyama-kun? Are you crazy?” Saori interrupted him, infuriated “Why don’t you get your shit together for once and stop endangering us all?”
Silence hung between them for a while as Hayato composed mentally what he would say next. He stood his ground, holding his head high. “You know what? That’s an interesting statement coming from you...”
At that, his twin sister looked at him with fierce eyes. She took a step forward, the distance between the two reduced to mere centimeters. He felt the pressure of the tip of her index finger against his torso, her gaze filled with anger and resentment. “If you were not my brother, I would beat you up for that.”
The Twins locked eyes for a long moment. While Hayato knew he had gone a bit too far, that didn’t alter the fact he was right. Over six months had passed since the embassy tragedy, yet it was clear Saori couldn’t overcome what had transpired. Worse, she was determined to carry out her mission without realizing the consequences of her behavior and that this would only further ensure she would achieve nothing in return. Deep down, he wanted to turn her upside down, shake this damned burden off her.
But more importantly, Hayato knew this was no time for a confrontation. He cut to the chase, not measuring his words at all. “And if you weren’t my sister, I would have ratted you out to our father’s bosses about your little anxiety tics and shock episodes, so you stop putting everyone’s lives at risk because you can’t deal with your trauma.” Saori stared at him in dismay, her eyes moistening while her mouth struggled to find words that could counter him.
What Hayato did next, she didn’t expect it, and he saw it in her eyes. Out of the blue, he held her accusing hand with his and rested it against her chest, glaring at her in empathy. “But I haven’t because I care about you. You have to understand this doesn’t affect only you.”
“But then I’d have to give this up, and I don’t want to. It’s all I have!”
Hayato saw the pain behind her eyes, almost feeling it himself. His mouth gave a bitter twist as he tried to favor her with a warming smile. “Then focus your energies on what you can do instead of acting like it’s all fine. Don’t let your failures become your weakness. Make them your strength. Learn from them. Use them.”
Saori seemed to reel from what she was hearing, caught between incredulity and acceptance. She then nodded as if trying to give herself confidence. “I’ll do my best...” she said as a smile slowly softened her almost tear-stained face.
Hayato nodded back at her in reassurance. Then, focusing on the task at hand, he began stripping to his underwear, getting rid of his school pants. He crouched once more beside Ieyasu-Two’s body and removed his tactical gear. “What the hell are you doing?” Saori asked in confusion, not following his train of thought.
“I can’t go out there and walk in these clothes hoping they won't detect me, right?” he replied. “C’mon, give me a hand with the bodies. Since you are more familiar with the building, you take care of Kotori while I handle Sugiyama. Deal?”He had no need to turn around to see his sister gaping at him.