"Are you guys sure you want to do this?" Lloyd asks as he turns off the SNES and walks over towards us.
"I mean if Sensei Wu finds out—"
"Sensei is not going to find out," I interrupt quickly, giving him confident smirk, "because you're going to cover for us."
"What!?" he exclaims loudly with his mouth agape. "Come on Kai, this sounds way too stupid and why me? I don't want to get involved."
"You're getting involved because you're a guy too and a fellow ninja," I counter steadily, but Lloyd only frowns.
"You'll understand our reasoning when you get older and have your own girlfriend," Cole says as well.
Lloyd crosses his arms and turns his head away with the same sour expression on his face.
"I don't want a girlfriend if I have to do stupid stuff like this," he grumbles.
You say that now, but someday you'll be singing a different tune, I thought as I give the abrasive youngster a look.
He relents with a groan and uncrosses his arms.
"Okay, I'll distract Sensei if he comes looking for you guys, but if you all get caught I'm gonna say "I didn't know anything about it" deal?
"That's fine because we won't get caught," I say off-handedly and Zane turns to me.
"I suggest we hurry. The meeting most likely has already started."
"Yeah, so how should we go about doing this?" Cole wonders and looks at me expectantly.
"Hmm, there has to be some way to utilize the—"
"The ventilation system," Jay finishes with a smile. I glance at him with a raised eyebrow and he shrugs nonchalantly in response.
"I guess sometimes we have our moments. Anyway, I got bored one day and used the bridge's computer to bring up the blueprints of the ship's interior. As it turns out, there are vents in each room to provide heat and cool air when needed of course and they all interlock in a maze above us. Our best course of action is to enter through the vents in our own quarters since they're closer and follow the voices of the Kunoichi to reach their side of the ship. The tunnels are narrow, but should provide ample space to belly-crawl to our destination."
We each give the Ninja of Lightning a critical look.
"You were bored you say," Cole reiterates for good measure with a grimace.
Jay shrugs again and releases an exaggerated sigh.
"Guys, the more we stand here wasting time the more we miss out on any "secrets or complaints". Shouldn't we get moving?" He concludes with a sly grin.
"Fine, we'll follow your plan, however when we get there we don't make a sound. We've all been trained to be able to hear a pin drop on a pillow, so even if we whisper they'll be able hear us. We'll communicate through sign language instead, got it?" Cole asks for confirmation and we all give a nod of affirmation.
"Alright, failure is not an option in this mission. Let's go." Cole concludes and turns to head for the exit with us following.
"Dead men walkin'…" Lloyd mumbles under his breath, but we all ignore him and I close the door behind us.
I trail behind Jay lost in my thoughts as we make our way to the Ninja side of the ship.
Why would the Kunoichi go through so much secrecy? What was so hush-hush that they would feel the need to confine themselves together behind closed doors and talk about Ifrit knows what?
Well, it ends today, I thought as I round the corner leading to our corridor of rooms and we all enter our respected quarters.
I close the door behind me and lock it while looking up at my closed vent. It was a nice size so Jay was right about that.
Moving my chair under it, I climb on top and remove the latches that were keeping the vent closed. It swings open and I immediately heave my upper body through the opening followed by my lower.
I could breathe easily despite the claustrophobic feel of the narrow tunnel and move efficiently as well. My eyes adjust to the dimness of the straightaway and I begin to advance.
Once I reach the first fork I lay still and strain my hearing to pick up any voices…
…There! Ayane's laugh!
I turn right and continue to belly-crawl my way through the duct following the feminine voices of the Kunoichi as they talk animatedly.
I was still too far away to tell what they were talking about, but I knew I was getting closer by how clearer their voices were becoming. The only voice I haven't heard so far was Ebony's.
I make another left and that's when I see Zane's unmasked face a few meters ahead of me. Cole was on the left and Jay was on the right. They were each looking down through the slits of a large vent cover, the bright lights illuminating their faces in streaks.
I advance the rest of the way towards my brothers and peer down into the room of congregated Kunoichi.
Sasha and Ayane's room from the looks of it, Ebony was sitting on Ayane's bed while the blonde sat behind her brushing her now free pure white hair gently while speaking to her.
Sasha was stationed on her own bed tinkering with her stereo, but Nya was nowhere in sight.
She'll pop up sooner or later, I thought as I refocus on Ebony and Ayane.
Ayane moved the brush to the front of her left temple and slowing pulled the fringe of hair covering half her face back with her caring stroke.
Ebony's eyes were closed in bliss and a faint smile played on her lips obviously pleased with Ayane's tender ministrations.
As her entire face is revealed a smile of my own forms, if she would just keep her damn hair like that, I thought hotly.
From my peripheral, I see Jay had begun to sign.
(Maybe when Nya returns they'll strip down to just bras and panties for a tickle fight!)
My eyes narrow and I sign furiously to him.
(What makes you think I want to see my sister in her underwear you creep!? Do you know how disgusting that would be!)
Jay just grins cheekily and Cole rolls his eyes in exasperation, but the tunnel is not dim enough to hide the slight redness on his face.
Zane's expression is thoughtful before he puts his two cents in.
(I think Ayane would win that bout since she is undoubtedly the swiftest of the Kunoichi, although she is quite ticklish in some areas.)
Oh brother… I thought as I roll my eyes; leave it to Zane not to understand the innuendo of Jay's comment.
(Are you kidding me man?!) Jay's signs in response. (Nya is way faster than Ayane!)
The bickering between the groom to be and his best man carry on for awhile until it stops as Ebony's voice reaches us.
"I'm hungry, I wish Nya would return with the snacks soon," she says as her eyes open and she gives the door to her right a look of longing.
"Yeah, me too so let's see if we can pass the time while we wait," Ayane says excitedly as she finishes re-braiding Ebony's long hair and bounces to sit beside her.
"So Sasha, you never told us how you spent your birthday with Cole. How was it? He took you somewhere didn't he?" Ayane asks whilst leaning closer to the Kunoichi of Water.
Sasha removes her hands from her stereo and straightens up to answer Ayane's question.
"Yes," she begins with a blissful voice, "and he was so romantic. I expected nothing less from him."
"Well, I've read that Italian men are known for their sensuality," Ebony observes with a straight face. "I take it he would fit the profile."
"Yes and even more so. I wanted to go back home because I was feeling so homesick and I missed my little sister and mother, but it was just too far. He promised he would take me back though and I know he will, so instead he took me to a private section off the coast of Bluebay…" Sasha trails off with a sigh.
"Okay, so what happened?" Ayane questions anxiously, "And don't omit any details."
Sasha gives a small laugh and continues to speak in remembrance of her birthday last month.
"First of all, I've never seen Cole in any sort of classy attire. He looked so dashing in his black slacks and black button up dress shirt, I also appreciated him leaving the top two buttons undone."
Ayane giggles into her hands while Ebony crosses her legs and relaxes her posture.
"I saw you before you departed," she began solicitously, "you were wearing a sea foam-colored sleeveless dress. It was quite long and tied into a bow around your neck leaving your back bare."
Sasha nodded slowly and replied, "Yes, I wanted to wear something that would easily become undone, you see…I was planning on giving myself to him that night."
I quickly looked to my left to see Cole clutching his head tightly. He must've jerked upward and hit his head on the ceiling of the tunnel…hard.
He motioned for us to back away from the vent cover which we did immediately.
"What was that!?" Sasha questions in alarm and I hear numerous squeaks informing me they had raised from their seated positions.
We lay stock-still and I hold my breath as well knowing they would be able to hear even the slightest shift in wind if they were concentrating enough.
"Hmm, this ship is still relatively new perhaps we have not heard all the noises she can make?" Ayane suggests.
"I'm back ladies and I've brought a treasure trove of goodies!"
Nya's voice carries up to us ecstatically and the other Kunoichi are momentarily distracted by her arrival.
"Oh yum fruit salad and you glazed it with honey!"
"I'll eat the fruit salad later, right now all I want is ice cream."
"Phew, it's a good thing we work out everyday otherwise we'd be huge!"
The sounds of bowls and silverware clinking reaches us and I slowly take the initiative to crawl towards the vent cover and peek down through the slits once more.
A large tray of snacks such as ice cream, sliced fruit, popcorn, a variety of cookies, and a whole Dutch apple pie lay in the middle of the floor right below us with the Kunoichi sitting around it.
I signal for the others to join me when I know the Kunoichi are completely distracted by their hunger and they creep up silently.
Jay begins to sign frenetically, (Nice going Cole, you almost got us caught!)
Cole shakes his head in reply and signs an apology.
I eye our dark-haired leader, but his expression is too difficult to read since his long bangs are shadowing his features as he looks down into room.
Did he and Sasha have sex?
It didn't seem like it if I recall correctly when he came back. He looked a little disheveled and dazed, but that's all and when we asked him how it went, he simply nodded with a small smile and left to go to bed.
Then again…how is a guy supposed to act after having sex?
I wouldn't know…
"So, what'd I miss? Anything juicy?" Nya asked after swallowing a spoonful of vanilla ice cream.
"Sasha was telling us about her date with Cole on her birthday last month," Ayane answers eagerly.
"Yes I was, but I'll continue that story another time. First we should get down to business," Sasha states with a new firmness in her voice and I see the other Kunoichi straighten up considerably.
Alright, now it seems like we're getting somewhere.
"Our last mission and the ones before that have all been a complete success, but we've encountered a few close calls that I would like to address," Sasha says with a shake of her head.
Missions? What missions?
"Sensei Wu gave us strict orders not to be seen or to engage the Serpentine during our operations in gathering intelligence. If we are seen what do we do…Ebony?"
"Kill the enemy and get rid of the body…discreetly before they have a chance to sound the alarm," Ebony replies with ease and leans back against the side of Ayane's bed.
"Right, we are not there to fight. Ayane, you have been designated as our team's point-man which means you're our "eye in the sky" if you slip up even once then—"
"Yes, I know Sasha and I'm sorry," Ayane laments with a bowed head. "I didn't see that Serpentine in time and Nya almost got caught, if Ebony didn't send one of her shadow doppelgangers to dispatch him—I'm sorry Nya."
Nya shakes her head and her voice carries warmth.
"Hey, I'm alive, right? Plus, we managed to stop the production of the female Serpentine if only momentarily."
"They're building an army," Ebony says in a hard tone, "shutting off the flow of power to their four generators is only a minor setback for them. They'll get them up and running again sooner or later, therefore we have to figure out a way to halt their production permanently."
Sounds of agreement came from the gathered young women and a thoughtful silence followed.
Sensei Wu has been sending the Kunoichi off on their own to spy on the Serpentine in their headquarters?
And without telling us about it?!
(Is Sensei Wu insane?) Jay signs hastily (Why the hell would he put them in unnecessary risk like that? We could've gone with them to insure their safety!)
(No Jay, this was their training. Sensei is clever as he is wise; it was his way in further uniting the Kunoichi to work better as a team.) Cole explains calmly, but I wasn't buying it.
Cole was too tense…
(But, we never did something like this during our "team building" training Cole. Sensei still should've told us and-)
(That is the problem Kai.) Zane interrupts. (If Sensei had informed us of his decision then we would have persisted on accompanying the Kunoichi with or without his consent. He knew this, that is why he withheld his decision from us…and possibly why the Kunoichi did the same.)
The four of us don't communicate anything else to each other. We simply lay lost in our own thoughts.
I gnawed on my lower lip in aggravation and gripped my hair tight with my right hand.
I don't give a damn about "team building" exercises! Anything could've happened to them, anything!
I mean I know the Kunoichi aren't weak, far from it actually, but still…and when did they sneak off to-!
Wait, they didn't sneak off. They told us up-front what they were going to do just not in great detail.
"Sensei Wu is having us perform "team building" exercises. He said it would strengthen our unity which we'll definitely need in the future."
Yes, I remember Nya saying that one time when I asked her where she was going and I just shrugged it off and said "Have fun…"
When did this start? It couldn't have been too long ago maybe—
"My head is beginning to hurt," Ayane sighs suddenly and I redirect my attention down below.
"I can't think of anything either," Ebony admits plainly, "I guess we have no choice, but to play things by ear."
"Yeah, I suppo—wait Nya, were you able to hack into their mainframe and survey the formula they were using to create the females?" Sasha inquires briskly while putting her fruit bowl down on the tray.
Nya licks off the icing on an Oreo before answering.
"Unfortunately no, the database was coded with an Omega Class Sigma encryption. I would've needed a wormhole virus to decode it….oh."
"Yes Nya, you guessed it. That's what we're going to do next week ladies, Nya will hack into their mainframe and scramble-up their formula for the female Serpentine. Once that's done, they'll have no choice but to stop their production indefinitely," the Brazilian elucidates energetically.
"But, wouldn't they just have to…unscramble what was messed up?" Ayane asks, reaching over to take a sugar cookie off the tray.
"Not if I reinforce the security override code with one of my own choosing," Nya counters with a sly smirk on her lips.
"Okay, now that that's settled let's move this meeting along shall we…Ayane? Got any news to share?" Sasha questions with a playful voice.
"Oh um…yeah I received a letter from Uncle Dai reminding me of the Celebration of the Sun God Amaterasu next month. I hope I get to attend, I never missed it before and would hate to cause sacrilege towards my God of worship."
"That sounds interesting," Ebony voices with intrigue, "What does the Celebration entail?"
"Well, it's of course meant for everyone in Shika to participate in to give thanks and praise to Amaterasu, but it's also for…new couples as well," The Kunoichi of Light ends shyly.
"Is it now?" Sasha begins teasingly and leans forward towards Ayane in mimic of the blonde's earlier demeanor. "So, have you asked Zane to accompany you then?"
I looked up to see Zane's expression and he had a soft smile on his face as he peered down lovingly at Ayane. Jay made an elaborate gesture with his hands and he somehow got stars to dance in his eyes as he glanced dreamily at Zane in mockery.
The Ninja of Ice didn't even notice…
"N-Not yet, but I will and I want all of you to come too, I mean that is if you want to."
"So, the festivities will occur next month…I wouldn't mind going to see that."
All movement ceased to a stuttering halt down below and a veil of endless silence was cast over the room.
The only one unaffected by the stillness was Ebony herself as she continued to munch on a handful of popcorn.
"E-Ebony? So you and Kai…are…a couple?" Ayane inquires hesitantly and I move closer to the vent, pressing most of my upper body over the covering to try to see Ebony's expression more clearly.
Ebony suddenly stops chewing and may have realized what she said, but no burst of outrage was forthcoming from her mouth.
"That's…not what I meant," she says slowly.
Then what did you mean?
"I simply what to observe another culture not take part in the coupl—"
"That reminds me," Nya interrupts swiftly, "last week we left off at a very important discussion that I think should be re-opened. All in favor say I."
"We did not adjourn last week discussing me," Ebony counters sternly, "it was about preparing to go get vaccinations to ward off the flu."
"On the contrary," Sasha shoots back while waving her index finger in a "you-should-know-better" manner, "that was prior to discussing you and Kai. Now then…last week you were going over the pros and cons about being in an actual romantic relationship with Kai."
I feel someone grip my shoulder, but I shake them off harshly.
I want to hear and see this!
Ebony's hair was still pulled back as to when Ayane re-braided it, so I could see the cherry hue light her face beautifully and her deep garnet gems shimmer in uncertainty.
"Care to go over that list again?" Sasha asks coyly.
Come on what is it?
The sound of creaking metal sounds in the distance, but I pay it no mind as I wait eagerly for Ebony to go through the list.
The hands are more frantic now and someone even manages to move me a little.
Angrily, I swat at the annoying appendages and reposition my upper body over the vent.
Yes, Kai is…
Suddenly, open air is below me as the vent cover collapses from underneath. My upper body immediately goes through, but someone grabs my shins to stop my descent.
I struggle in a vain attempt to heave myself up, but that only seemed to make the person who caught me lose their grip and fall through the opening as well.
"GODDAMMIT KAI!" Jay shouts in rage and I see him glance up back at the opening. "Cole, Zane come on pull us back up!"
Zane and Cole both try to pull us up, however momentum is hard to maintain in such a tight space, so they struggle.
"I-I can explain Ayane, please just listen to—"
Luck really wasn't on our side as every one of us fall through and land right on the large tray of food below.
Vanilla ice cream is scattered everywhere and cookies go flying in multiple directions. The Kunoichi quickly distance themselves further from us until the last bowl of fruit salad slides off the wall and lands with a thump against the carpet.
As my vision clears somewhat, I see Mydnyte trot over casually to begin licking the cream from my face and Howard and Lilia eating some of the fruit from off the floor.
"What…in...the…HELL!" Sasha roars obviously miffed by the situation.
"I think…I think I landed in pie Kai…" Jay says quietly and I wonder why he's telling me about what he landed in.
Sasha's right fingerless-gloved hand suddenly glows a dark aqua and her Bo Staff of Waves appears in her grip.
Oh crap, she's going to place our heads in a bubble of water and drown us! I thought fearfully and swiftly begin to right myself on my knees.
She passes me though and I look back to see her point her staff at Cole patiently. He glances up at her mutely and shakes the cookie crumbs from his hair then grasps Sasha's staff to use as leverage to get up off the ground.
"Thanks Sasha now list—"
The aqua-clad young woman quickly regains possession of her weapon and uses it to push Cole roughly against the wall the staff stationed securely right under his throat.
"You condone this?" I hear her whisper fiercely.
I turn back to see Ayane looking startled and astonished to see Zane before her on the floor with a slice of kiwi stuck to his face.
"Ayane," He starts while gracefully getting to his feet and approaches her, but she backs away from him.
"Ayane, I know this looks troubling, however please try to be understanding—"
"Understanding? I'm supposed to be understanding to this?!" She asks incredulously and gestures to the food covered room.
"You said you wished to have a relationship of trust and honesty. Do you not trust me enough to have my own privacy?"
"Ayane…yes of course I trust you I merely—"
"I-I never expected this kind of behavior from you. I can honestly say Zane…that this is the first time you've ever disappointed me."
Even though her eyes were narrowed, they glistened in tears and a few slipped down her cheeks as she continued to retreat from the white ninja.
"I am so sorry Ayane."
Zane tried again to bring her to him only to be denied once more as Ayane slaps his hand away.
"Don't touch me."
I could just imagine the widening of my brother's hazel eyes as Ayane's voice dropped to such a deadly whisper, but I could not see since his back was to me.
Amaterasu's advocate casts a lingering glare at Shiva's inheritor before departing from the room completely.
Zane remains where he is and slowly reaches up to remove the kiwi slice from his face. It falls from his hand and he leaves the room as well most likely in pursuit of Ayane.
I'm sorry Zane…
"Hn, she sounded like me just now."
I whip my head to the left to see Ebony standing above me with her arms crossed under her chest and her head turned facing the door. Mydnyte was at her feet with her small furry head in the carton of vanilla ice cream licking happily away at the sweet substance.
"Perhaps I should hug someone at random to reach a sense of equilibrium. What do you think Kai?"
Ebony glances at me from her peripheral with an eyebrow raised in question.
Was that a joke or is she baiting me to say something to dig myself deeper? Her countenance is so damn difficult to read sometimes. Is she angry or not?
I can't help, but feel like I'm in immense danger…
Nya's angry growl comes from behind me and I turn to see my sister standing over the now sitting up blue ninja.
"Hey Nya," Jay calls in greeting with a small wave and a smile. He shuffles around a little bit to retrieve something from under him and holds it out for her to take.
"Dutch apple pie? It's still good you just have to ignore my butt imprint—"
Nya slaps the pie out of Jay's hand and off to the side furiously.
"This is not a joke Jay," Nya mutters in warning.
"I know, I know…"
"What you and the others did is excusable!"
"Yes, yes I admit that the action in itself was far from mature, but—"
"Is this the way you're going to act when we're married? Should I expect this behavior to manifest into something more disturbing if we have child—"
Nya covers her mouth with her hand and shakes her head sadly.
"Nya sweetheart, I promise something like this will never happen again, but we're going to be husband and wife soon. To have a long and prosperous marriage, nothing should be kept from your spouse especially if it affects the both of us," Jay says softly as he stands and envelops Nya in a hug, but my sister shakes out of his hold vigorously and backs away.
"Do you know what else is important to have a long and prosperous marriage Jay? Communication…why didn't you just come to me…why didn't you just do the mature thing and talked to me like an adult?"
"If this is the true you, then there might not even be a wedding."
Nya turns on her heel and flees from the room. The look of utter devastation and wretchedness on Jay's face is too much for me to bear, thus I turn away hopelessly.
Damn…I'm sorry Jay.
Heartbeats of silence create a degree of deafness even as Jay walks out, the tense and heavy atmosphere lingering in his wake.
This is all my fault…I'm the one responsible for this…
"What was I supposed to think Sasha?"
I bow my head, refusing to witness the scene I had caused and just listen.
"What was I supposed to do when you've already kept something crucial from me? Can you really blame me for worrying, thinking that something else may be wrong?"
"So that's it…your trust in me has withered to nothing. You really do think I'm weak."
"Don't twist my words Sasha," Cole growls out angrily, "You know that is not what I meant."
"Really? Well, that's exactly what its sounds like to me. Damn it all, if only I had been stronger. I knew it was a poor decision to confide in you, ever since then you've been trailing behind me like a shadow. Making sure I never strayed too far during battles, making me feel weak and inadequate like a lost child."
"Sasha…I don't want to lose you. That's why I've been so protective of you."
The emotion was so thick in each of their voices, I had to wonder if maybe something else was at large…something…fatal.
"Then you don't have to anymore because…because I have come to accept it. I am ready."
"No you're not, so don't you dare stand here and lie to me. If you were…you wouldn't be crying—"
"SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP AND LEAVE ME ALONE!"
A gust of wind and rapid footsteps shoots pasts me and ruffles my spikes as Sasha departs in haste.
I have to fix this.
"Cole, I—" I lift my head to address him properly as he walks pasts me, but he shakes his head solemnly and looks down at me.
"Don't think this is your fault Kai. We all have minds of our own and we agreed on this as a team. We're all responsible…just like before."
I sigh heavily and run my hand though my spikes warily.
This really sucks and I haven't even heard what Ebony has to say yet.
"Listen, stay here okay? I'm going to go round-up Jay and Zane, so we can come back and clean this room up."
"Alright," I reply quietly and my leader continues out the door.
Ebony and I are left alone with Mydnyte and the ducks.
"Was it really your idea?" Ebony asks quietly as I get to my feet to face her.
I have no reason to lie.
"Yeah, yeah it was."
She scrutinizes me with her bewitching garnet orbs and I can just imagine the "con" side of the list getting longer and longer.
I have no chance with her now. I've snuffed out my own flame and the darkness shall spread unrelenting because of me…because of my own foolishness.
I wait for her verdict unflinching, whatever she has to throw at me I'll simply take it like the man I am.
"I…I wasn't sure at first. I thought I was hallucinating when your scent wafted from the ventilation shaft."
"I got distracted by it especially when the others called me out to repeat my pro and con list about being with you."
Ebony gradually reaches behind her and brings her long braid over her shoulder to re-fasten the end of it.
"It was so strange…can you imagine the atmosphere at dinner tonight? I'm thinking it's going to be similar to a wake."
Okay, this may be a good time to be a little scared…what the—
"Kai, there is something urgent I must discuss with you, not here not now, but tonight after dinner. Meet me on the deck and please come alone."
She then flings her braid back over her shoulder and her gaze lifts to mine.
I open my mouth to speak and really have to struggle to get my words out, but they come albeit breathlessly.
"Yeah, I'll come."
She nods and a small smile graces her ethereal features making her beauty even more mesmerizing.
"Until tonight then," she whispers seductively and leaves the room with the predatory grace of a panther.
Leaving me to wonder if maybe I just signed my own death warrant…