Chapter 2: The Night Before

Her image was clear and brilliant, background shimmering on the screens. Her lips were curved in a small smile. She fingered the whip in her hands idly. "Killing you won't be any trouble, but an ordinary death wouldn't be interesting. That's why I'm going to give you a little time to think about it."

Ryu stared in shock at the face on the monitors. Sweat trickled down his face and he was practically hyperventilating. "That's AYA?!" Kaori was on her knees, staring in horror at the screen. They all looked down at her in pleading disbelief, Ako with her hands to her mouth. Ryu stuttered out, "It can't be...."

"No, that girl is Aya!" Kaori sobbed, not shifting her gaze. Tears streamed from her eyes and she added painfully, "I'm her mother. She's my daughter! I couldn't be wrong!"

And the girl on the screen, Ruma who must be Aya, continued speaking for she could not hear them. "You have this time you might use to remodel your machines, or to run away. Struggle as hard as you might, it'll do no good." She waved her whip, and as the screens went dark they could still hear her sneering laughter.

Ryu gaped at the screen, his whole being in shock. His mind seemed blank, thinking was an effort, for to think was to know what he did not want to be true. That... is that girl really Aya? Has it happened to me again? That horrible pain.... The agony of losing someone I love....

And the only images that made it through the silent screaming in his mind... Ruma's -- Aya's body in red and black became Rie's, as she was in black and white when she was Maria. A hard, ruthless, sadistic killer encased in Rie's body. And yet Rie was still in there. Stolen away when she had fallen from his fingers into the depths of space. Stolen yet again when Radiguet had turned and bisected her with his terrible sword. Lost forever.

Low laughter in the darkness. There was light, though it was silver and gray. The walls of the room took sleepy breaths. The pillars holding the only light sources were organic and curving like intestines. At the center was a huge chair, elegant and sweetly made of wood. And in the chair sat a man dressed in a ragged cape, black clothes and silver armor. He had crossed his right leg over his left and rested his cheek on the curve of his right hand. He was at peace for now. And he was highly amused. He spoke softly in the dimness. "Can you endure this, Red Hawk? Can you survive the pain of fighting, maybe killing someone you love?" Such a wonderful thing to think about. Red Hawk in agony. Humans were such strange creatures.

"Father!" Radiguet lifted his head from his hand. Ah, she was beautiful. Her hair was a pale, pinkish fluff over her head and she was pure grace as she loped to his side. "I did what you said!"

"Oh, well DONE, Ruma."

She gave him her small, smug smile. Then she cuddled up against his left shoulder, gazing inquisitively into his eyes. "But I'm wondering, why do we hesitate with these humans? You could fight and kill them in no time."

So bloodthirsty. She pleased him greatly. He chuckled low in his throat. "That's true. But we want to fill them with the taste and fear of death. Besides... look at this." He lifted a glowing, iridescent globe in his right hand.

Her gloved hands lifted to cup the globe, touching lightly on his clawed fingers. Awed, she whispered, "What is it?"

"Ruma, it's your present. When this grows, you can use it as your arms and legs."

She took the globe between both her hands and stared inside it with amazement. There was a tiny woman in there. She was curled in a fetal position, sleeping. Her body was lightly armored. Ruma could see three symbols going up her left arm from her wrist. Sweet, delicate wings rested against her back. She was beautiful, and Ruma gazed at her in delight.

But then pain screamed and skittered across her senses. For a moment, everything went black and Ruma crumpled to the ground between her father's knees. The globe rolled away on the floor. Surprised, Radiguet asked, "What's wrong, Ruma?"

She tried to lever herself up against his leg, but could not. "Headache," she gasped out.

Her father's hands cupped her face and turned her so she could see his beautiful eyes. With a gentle smile, he said softly, "Poor little thing... Ruma, you are young. You can't yet be active for so many hours. Your body cannot endure it. You should give it a rest."

"Yes... Father." She stepped from her clothes and left them in little piles on the floor. Her stasis pod opened for her. When she was inside, stillness settled. All the pain was gone and there was only peace.

Radiguet studied her with clinical interest. Humans were such odd creatures. He held the globe in his left hand. What would she do with it, he wondered. A nearly blank canvass, on which to create a person. As he had created her. "Fifteen years seemed a suitable length of time for a human," he mused. "Still not enough to get acquainted with her body. She cannot fight yet. My weak, lovely girl."

In the great bay, the people working on the giant robots seemed like little ants. The groan of reluctant metal was a constant sound, seeming to fill the air of the bay. Among the intent working men stood three people in gray jumpsuits. Small, delicate Ako somehow seemed right at home among them, as she exchanged suggestions and ideas with the others. Tall Jeff would sometimes pause in his steps and stare, wide-eyed, about this place that was still so strange to him. And nearby stood broad, heavy Lyta. He was sweating and his eyes were starting to blur with exhaustion. "Ah! I can't concentrate any more!" he groaned.

Behind him, Jeff turned and stared anxiously, clutching a clipboard against his chest. Ako looked up from the blueprints she was studying, eyes distressed and sympathetic. "Ly-chan, we mustn't be impatient. We have to believe we can do this."

The gaze he turned to hers was haunted. "I understand. I understand but... I will do it. I just keep thinking about Ryu... and Kaori."

Husband and wife were still sequestered in the control room. Kaori sat listlessly in one of the office roll-away chairs. Ryu stood beside her, staring down at her bowed head. He finally said, "We have got to fight Radiguet." She did not speak, only stared hopelessly at nothing. Straining his voice to speak, he answered himself. "Of course. And that girl. Kaori, can we fight? Aya... she's our daughter...." Ryu shivered. He felt so terribly sick and cold, sweat still on his cheeks. Nothing seemed to reach her misery. He needed her to answer him, he needed her to speak. He tried again. "You could run. But we've been entrusted -- "

"Ryu!" she cried suddenly, nearly making him jump out of his skin. She stared up at him with desperate anguish. "You? Can you fight? Fight Aya?!"

There was the core of his frozen horror. As always she struck right to the heart of the matter. Could he? "I...."

Much the same discussion was going on in the bay. Jeff kept clenching and unclenching his fingers on his clipboard. He was not quite certain what he was looking at on the board. He felt so fifth-wheel around here. He watched Ako, amazed at how the singing idol he had always admired was an adult woman, tremendously concerned with the fate of the world. And she was barely older than him.

Ako met Lyta's gaze and spoke softly, "I'm worried about them. But... this is Ryu and Kaori's problem. Whether they'll fight or not is their decision. There's nothing we can do."

Lyta lifted his hand, eyes invisible beyond the glare reflecting off of his glasses. "But... it isn't only about the two of them," he explained softly. "I don't know if we can do it or not. Go to war against Aya. Defeat her. What -- "

Jeff could bear it no longer. He set the clipboard aside and stepped into the conversation. "I'll do it. She's Mr. Tendo's daughter! If she attacks us, we have to fight her! If that's the case, then I'll fight!"

He burned with startling energy, clenching his fists. Ako and Lyta stared at him in astonishment. "Jeff..." Ako murmured questioningly.

But he was determined, his fine brows drawn low. "I've decided. Even though I'm the only one who doesn't know Aya at all."

"Thank you, Jeff. But it's all right. We'll fight." Ryu's voice speaking so suddenly and with such terrible calm nearly sent Jeff jumping out of his boots.

In front of him, Lyta exclaimed, "Ryu! Kaori!!"

"Kaori and I will fight." Ryu was there, his face grim and determined. Behind him was Kaori, now dressed in a jump-suit that somehow seemed badly suited to her. Like her husband her gaze was steady, decided. Unlike him, misery clearly weighted her shoulders.

It took the other three an instant to pull themselves together, then Ako rushed to her fellow woman to ask with half horror, and some hope, "You okay? Kaori, is it true?"

Kaori met her pleading with steady, saddened eyes. "Yes. We've decided."

It was Lyta who shouted furiously, "How can this be okay!? Ryu, Kaori, it's Aya you'll be fighting!"

"Yeah, Mr. Tendo! What if you have to kill your own child!?" Jeff added his voice to the fray. He felt oddly blank inside, for all the churning in his gut.

Ryu drew in a slow, steadying breath and met each of their eyes with the greatest calm he could muster. "I believe somehow we can get Aya back. But... if that's impossible to do..." and here he had to stop, for he felt himself dying inside. He lowered his gaze to the shadows. "I'll... have to settle it myself." Behind him, Kaori wiped the tears that had suddenly streamed from her eyes away with both hands, then held herself with a quiet sob.

"Ryu..." Lyta murmured unhappily.

The group stood together in quiet, miserable shock for a long moment. Jeff stared at the Tendos intently, but then he felt something break inside. Without a word, he clenched his fists and walked away from them.

His unexpected movement caught Ako's attention and she called after him in surprise, "Jeff?" When he did not answer, only continued walking with long, hurried strides to the elevators, she decided to investigate. He was the newest member, he had a crush on her. That did make him sort of her responsibility, she told herself. It was not merely to get a break from this agonizing situation.

His elevator stopped on the roof, and so she went after him. Once there, she stepped out the exit doors and looked around. The day was still beautiful, the sky filled with wisps of wind-swept clouds. She soon spotted his broad back. He was sitting a step down on a staircase to a lower patio. His fair hair, which he had tied back in a pony-tail to keep it from getting snagged while they were working on the machines, seemed to sit lax on his back, not stirred by the afternoon breezes. She crossed the roof to him and bent down, her hands on her knees. She said softly, "What's the matter, Jeff?" As she leaned around to look at his face, details of his position registered. His knees were half spread, his arms resting on his thighs and clenched fists hanging between. But it was his face that shocked her. "You're crying?" she breathed.

He sniffled slightly. It took a moment but then he said shakily, "I... when I was a child... My mother almost killed me." A sheer shock of surprise ran through Ako's mind. Jeff continued, his voice steadying slightly. "She was trying to commit suicide and take me with her. I can still see her face as she strangled me. Even now I'll never forget it. It was drenched in tears. She kept saying 'I'm sorry,' and 'We will be happy together in the next world.'" The memory was hard and clear. His mother's dark hair hanging in locks like she was some sort of ghost already. Her eyes filled with an agony that matched his while he struggled for breath and instinctively clenched at her wrists. Her hands like some huge, unstoppable monster crushing his throat and the mindless fear of that moment. He had been only six years old.

He shivered and lifted his gaze to the changing sky above them. "But in the end she couldn't do it. And she said we would have to keep trying to live. Now we can speak, and even laugh about what happened. I think at that time my mother was in terrible pain." The wet of his tears tickled under his nose and he rubbed it away automatically. "The Tendos are thinking the same way my mother was that time. And I hate it." And it seemed to him that they, like his mother, would stop when the moment came.

The images his soft confession brought to her thoughts were heartbreaking. He must have been a beautiful child and it had to have been terrifying. She could not bear it and reached out, gathering his head to rest against her chest in the crook of her shoulder. She stroked his hair soothingly. "And I thought all there was to you was that heavy metal you play. But you have a good heart."

Jeff, on the other hand, had lost his train of thought completely. Ako Hayasaka, his idol, was holding him in her arms. His head was pressed against the soft curve of her breast! His heart hammered in his chest and all sensible thought fled out the window. He hyperventilated at first and then it was like she was holding an octopus. His hands slipped to improperly intimate places as he twined around her. "I've always admired your breasts! Always wanted to rest my head against them!"

Ako reacted the way any sensible woman would. She decked him with a punch so hard it sent him flying. "I TAKE IT BACK!!! YOU ARE A HEAVY METAL FLAMING IDIOT!! Stupid shit!"

Heaven and Hell, thought Jeff.

In the Sky Force Base a room had been prepared. Scientists had dug out the notes and researches of men who had been dead for six years. From the ceiling hung the device they had made. If everything went according to plan, this would create the five Jetman they needed. Though Jeff Kensaki had the power, he still needed the armor and today that would be embedded into his body. But the first person to be bathed would be the bereft young mother. Kaori Tendo.

She was already in the chair, waiting miserably. Her four teammates were gathered anxiously around. That anxiety was not visible in the attitude of their commanding officer, Aya Odagiri. Calm and steady, she looked down at Kaori and asked the questions that had to be answered. "All right? Kaori, we'll bathe you in the Birdnic Wave. You'll become a soldier again. Is this really what you want?"

"Yes." Then Kaori raised her gaze, chin firm and eyes blazing with cold determination. "I understand. Do it, please!"

And a scientist's hand pressed the button on the keyboard. "Let's start."

Above Kaori's head, the machine began to hum. Knowing what was coming, she relaxed her body and waited for it. And though she knew, when the bright lighting sheered into her the agony was brand new. But it was not as great as the agony of what had happened to her family. Though she screamed and writhed in pain, her thoughts were clear. No matter... no matter what the cost to get Aya back. For that I will become a soldier again.

For her husband the logic was the same. He could bear to watch his wife in this agony because they both knew a greater agony. It will be a painful fight. All they could think of was their daughter.

Resting was over. She stepped from her stasis pod refreshed and calm. However, she was troubled. As she used a soft towel to wipe the stasis liquid from her body and hair, she thought back. In my dreams... I thought I heard someone calling me? There had been two shapes seen in the foggy distance, large and warm and comforting. One seemed male, the other female. They reached for her. That was all she could remember and she wondered if it meant anything.

Relaxed and utterly pleased with himself, Radiguet sat on the throne. He swirled wine in a delicate glass and chuckled as he raised it to drink. "And the fun game begins."

Chapter 3