Autumn’s Fall

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Autumn’s Fall

Autumn’s Fall By Jaye Patrick

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Autumn’s Fall

Copyright © 2006 Jaye Patrick All rights reserved Second electronic publication October 2009 Author’s note: This e-book is not intended for sale and is not to be used to generate profits in any form. Readers have the author’s permission to copy and distribute freely for non-profit purposes.

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Prologue 1987 “You must not stray from path.” Mai Thi Vo grabbed Autumn’s arm, shook her. “Land mines in jungle. Blow you up.” Autumn smirked. “Not me, I’m too fast.” She didn’t like Mai. The old woman must be forty if she was a day. White strands threaded through her thick night black hair, her face was dusky, unlined, her dark, up-tilted eyes were bitter and angry. Dad trusted Mai to take Autumn to safety, but after weeks in the jungle, Autumn was beginning to doubt Mai’s loyalty. Mai was a cleaner at the compound and Autumn had seen her subjected to physical and verbal abuse by the guards, by the white-coated staff, or she was totally ignored as if her position was beneath notice. Mai sympathised with the captives, especially the children. She brought treats, soothed their tears, told them stories of the war, the glorious victory and her part in it, but told them not to tell any adults. “It our secret.” She’d said with a secretive smile. But Autumn never kept secrets from her parents, it wasn’t right and it was dangerous, her dad said. Dad frowned at her when she asked him what Viet Cong meant. “The people here would never allow an enemy to work here, Autumn.” He said in his deep, rumbly voice. “And while the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I doubt any of the staff here would or could help us.” “What’s that mean, Dad?” She looked up at him, so big, so strong, so unhappy. “The enemy of my enemy...” His smile was sad. “Be careful who you trust, Flash, because sometimes your friend might be your enemy, and sometimes, your enemy is a friend.” She looked at him, puzzled at the distant look in his eyes. Then he shook himself, grinned at her. “Never mind, darlin’.” He brushed a finger down her nose. “Now, the twins are due back and they’ll be upset.”

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Autumn rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Dad, I’ll see to them. Man, you’d think they’d be used to it by now.” “You’re four years older, Autumn. They don’t stick needles into you anymore, just get you to run for them.” She lifted a shoulder. “I like running.” He squatted in front of her, his voice urgent. “And one day, one day soon, you’ll need all the speed you can muster. We’re getting out of here, all of us, but we can’t go together. Do you understand me?” She gaped at him. Get out of here? Why? Once the White Coats stopped sticking her, they wanted her to run and run and run. It made her happy, and if she was happy, they were happy, too. If she did really well, they let her play or read books about a land called U.S.S.R. One of the White Coats – he was losing his hair and wore glasses that made his brown eyes seem huge – he wanted her to read everything about U.S.S.R. She didn’t understand where it was, but she liked the pictures and the idea of people working hard for everyone’s benefit. One day, she thought she might like to visit. Autumn didn’t want to go anywhere. “But... this is our home.” She whined. Autumn cringed at the fire in her father’s blue eyes. “This isn’t home, Autumn, this is a prison, an abomination where cruelties are perpetrated on children, on babies. No, Autumn, you may have been born here, but this isn’t your home. Your mother and I will get you out, all of you, and then... I’m going to destroy this place down to the last brick.” Mai shook her out of her memories with a pinch. “Ow! Whadja do that for?” Mai’s lip curled. “You pay attention to me! This jungle dangerous! You Yankee dogs, drop bombs in war, kill many people, but more. Set mines to kill

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patriots of the cause. One blow up, make you run and new one blow up right in front of you, then more blow up. Blow up you, me and anyone. Hot blood, stinky guts, cut off limbs, severed heads, all go up then down, spray everywhere.” She shook her finger in front of Autumn’s eyes. “You not fast enough. No one fast enough.” Autumn did not lack imagination, she’d seen pictures of Soviet soldiers and citizens from the October Revolution, from Stalingrad and what weapons could do to a body. She stared at her guardian in horror. No, not even she was fast enough to escape destruction of a massive mine. “You understand?” Autumn nodded, wide-eyed. “Good. Now, we near Phnom Penh, my home. Time I am home.” She murmured wistfully, then glared at her charge. “We go.” ‘Near’ turned out to be a two-day walk. Mai’s experience within the jungle kept them going, kept them fed by using the local wildlife and plants. Mai knew this jungle, Autumn thought, understood it well enough to survive for long periods and she wondered again about the Viet Cong and what it meant. She caught a strange scent. Sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “What’s that stink?” Mai dragged in a deep breath. “Mekong.” She sighed. “I been gone too long.” “What’s a Mekong?” Mai smiled with genuine affection. But not for her, Autumn knew, for a Mekong. “It is the river of my birth. My home, my life.”

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Mai guided her out from under the oppressive jungle, past farmland, past rice paddies and farmers wearing conical hats. None paid the travellers any attention, content to work the fields. Autumn was thankful to be out of the jungle, the close heat and humidity. Here, under a rich blue sky, it was still hot, but a light breeze, redolent of manure and dead fish blew against her hot skin. Mai suddenly stopped, dropped Autumn’s hand. Autumn watched as a long, black car approached, then stopped beside them. The black-tinted window of the passenger side wound down, but she couldn’t see who was inside. She lifted a hand to shade her eyes from the intense sun. “I expected the boy.” An accented male voice said. “His father take.” Mai pressed her hands together, bowed. “He not listen to me. Want boy with him. Mother take twins. I stuck with this one.” “And?” The menacing word sent a shiver down Autumn’s spine. Mai swallowed hard. “She is the wind.” Silence reigned and Autumn shifted, the hot sun beat down and an ache started pounding behind her eyes. “You have served me well, Mai, we have a future need of the wind.” The man said and the door opened. “What is your name, child?” His voice was softer, cajoling. “Autumn Skye McCafferty.” She replied. “And are you as fast as the west wind?” “Yes, sir, I’m as fast as any wind.”

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The man chuckled. “Excellent. I am of the Yakuza, and I’ve been waiting for you.” Autumn looked up at Mai, but the woman fixed her attention on the interior of the car, as if something bad would happen if she looked away. “Why, Mr Yakuza?” She couldn’t see the man, but she heard another chuckle. “I have an agreement with Mai, of course. She was to deliver one of you to me in exchange for cash and freedom. I hoped for your brother, but you will do.” Autumn stared up at Mai, but the woman wouldn’t look at her. “I’m supposed to go with you, Mai. We’re supposed to wait for Mom and Dad and the others.” “You will, you will. You wait with him.” She lifted her chin, indicating the car. “If I stopped, if I questioned, I say you gone. Dead in jungle. You safe now. You go with him, he take you to father. Okay?” Autumn frowned. Mai’s forehead twinkled with beads of sweat, as if nervous, but she knew the woman as a warrior during The War. She never mentioned it by name when she told the stories, but it must have been big, because she’d done so many brave things. The man called to her. “Come, child, I’ll take you to him. You have been in the jungle a long time; you must be tired and hungry.” Autumn felt her shoulders slump. She didn’t really want to leave Mai, she’d been her companion, kept Autumn safe will ill-grace and bad temper... but her father waited. Mai’d seen Autumn to freedom; she deserved her reward. She stuck out her grimy hand. “Thank you, Mai. I’ll let my Dad know you got home safe.”

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Mai looked down at her, patted her shoulder. “You go now, Yankee dog. You go and never come back.” Mai walked past her, continued on the raised dirt road between the rice paddies. “Come now, Autumn, we have a way to travel yet.” I’m sure your father is anxious to see you.” Autumn climbed into the darkened car, sat on a soft, cool seat, blinked away the darkness. The man wore a dark suit, with a white shirt. He had black hair carefully combed back and midnight eyes with an uptilt cast. He watched her for a moment, studied her face. “You are fearless. This is good.” He said with a slow nod. “Let us see how fearless. Yoshiro.” He said without his gaze leaving her face. Autumn watched as a big man, also dressed in a suit, climbed out of the front passenger side. He reached under his jacket and pulled out a longbarrelled handgun. He aimed towards beyond the back of the car. She heard three loud pops, and then the man, Yoshiro, climbed back into the car. Autumn did not turn to look out the back window at what he’d fired at. She already knew, felt the cold chill through her veins. But Mai would be okay. She’d seen the guards at the compound use similar guns on the people there. They always woke up hours later, all achy and sorry for acting stupid. It happened to her Dad often enough and he apologised every time – until his temper got the better of him again, that is. He said it was like being beaten with a baseball bat all over, or a mega hangover without the booze. She never wanted that to happen to her. She was a good girl, obedient, honest with her answers, eager to please.

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So she didn’t look. Mai would wake up and go home to her Mekong and she would go with Mr Yakuza to her Dad. Excitement zinged at the thought and she gave Mr Yakuza a big smile. “Can we go now, please? I want to see my Daddy.” “Mr Sakamura will be pleased with you, I think.” Mr Yakuza murmured and his mouth tilted. “You will give us great fortune, Nishikaze, when you are grown.”

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Chapter One Akiko Sakamura spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what went wrong. She lay in the hospital bed in a civilian prison, her right leg in a cast, from hip to ankle. The bitch had done an excellent job on her knee and it required a reconstruction – or so the doctor said – because of the damage. A cracked knee-cap, ligament damage from hyperextension. Whether she’d ever regain full use of her knee was up for debate, but she swore she’d get it back, no matter what. Failure, in this case, was never an option. There was no going back; it was over and she could only look to the future. In the meantime, she had other things to think about: Chambers and what parts of his story were true, the women, Summer and Winter, and the fact they were like her and yet Chambers never mentioned it. Oh, she’d seen them around the Fort, while in Sir James Pocklington the Third’s employ, but she’d never seen them do anything... special. Then again, she’d only been at Patriot’s Fort for two years, acting as Sir James’ bodyguard. The twins weren’t her responsibility unless they threatened Sir James directly. Akiko sighed. If he’d told her of their abilities, Sir James would be alive today, but he’d told her to ignore them – he was her only concern. His death was her shame; she’d failed to protect him from the two who should have revered him the most: his daughters. She thought of them now, those daughters who killed. Thought of Winter turning a lead ingot into gold. Akiko couldn’t be shocked at Winter’s talent, because she had one herself, but she also knew what the woman had done; she’d had a perfect view of the bathroom as the jug on the vanity turned grey even as the ingot on Chamber’s desk turned to gold. She hadn’t ‘made’ gold

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out of thin air after all, she’d transferred it, or replaced it, but the result was still impressive. And Summer. She hadn’t seen what Summer could do because Chambers had her locked up in that room. It was her first clue something wasn’t quite right; no one should have that sort of punishment levelled against them. And yet, at the time, she’d believed Chambers when he’d said the women had murdered his employer. Her unease grew, when he’d told her to keep her mouth shut when she’d asked why he hadn’t called the authorities. Surely, they were correct agency to deal with murder? Chambers wanted to know how they’d done it before involving any law enforcement. She suspected he’d wanted to torture Summer, simply because he could and because she had access to the wealth denied him. Akiko was in his employ, bound by law, honour and tradition to fulfil the contract that Chambers said devolved to him on the death of Sir James. He demanded she fulfil her obligation since the contract stipulated she protect the CEO of Pocklington Industries. Since he was the de facto CEO until the reading of Sir James’ will to name a successor, she had no choice but to comply. Chambers, however, did not understand all she could do and deployed her skills in a manner not conducive to his well-being. She tried to explain, but he stuck to his rigid assumption that anyone Samurai trained must be some sort of invincible ninja. In the end, she failed Chambers as well. What Winter did to him... She shuddered. Three times Akiko fought the woman, twice she lost. Chambers’ initial anger had been ferocious as it was vicious. The way he died, the savage satisfaction in Winter’s face… all seen through her own tears because Winter had broken her knee; comprehensively disabled her. And then later - the accusations, the charges, the thin-lipped military men and police, the questions about Chambers’ and Sir James’s business dealings. Now she was here. Incarcerated for criminal activities.

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She leaned back against the pillows. What a fool she’d been. She’d brought shame to her family, to her name, to her father’s memory. The years in his service now meant nothing. A black fog of depression cloaked her. She could rely on no one to help her. Her father had died these two and half years past from an over indulgence of Western food. His death from a heart attack was as devastating as it was sudden. The Japanese government declared her a non-citizen; she was ineligible for diplomatic assistance. On the advice of her father’s faithful retainer, Yoshiro, she accepted a post with the American billionaire businessman. A four-year contract, Yoshiro suggested, then she could return and he’d find her a permanent position. Reality crushed that dream to dust. She could not return if she had a criminal conviction. And here, in prison, charged with all sorts of things, she’d never get out to erase that shame. She’d die in here and the ancestors would turn away from her. She’d walk the after-life alone until she was reborn to make amends - if she ever could. The briefing she’d received on Chambers’ criminal activities had been thorough. His thieving ways dated back years, and it added to her shame, her loss of face for she’d unwittingly helped him. If she’d been Yakuza, it wouldn’t matter, but she wasn’t and it did. Akiko sighed. Tomorrow the cast came off and she’d have a brace, begin the slow and painful therapy back to walking again. The injury cut to the very heart of who and what she was. Without it, she was nothing. Worse, she felt embarrassed by the injury. She should have known better, had experienced Winter when she’d first tried to detain her. She should have learned from the mistake and stayed out of reach, but her pride felt wounded

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when the woman had sneered at Chambers; she had tried to take retribution and now, here she lay. If nothing else, she learned caution and to never trust a charming face and an erudite manner. She’d serve her time and come out an old woman, if ever. Akiko turned to her face towards the barred windows where the sunlight filtered in, and mourned the loss of her freedom. *** Major Nathaniel Hawk sat uneasily in his chair as his colleagues from Special Operations briefed him on the events over the past months; from their incarceration in Patriot’s Fort, to the deaths of Sir James Wellesley Pockington and Wallace Chambers. He heard rumours, of course, but until he saw the reports, he’d simply written it off as an X-file. Dubious at best, an outright lie at worst. But with General Cosgrove sitting in, nodding on occasion and tossing in his own comments, he had to wonder. Three superwomen? He couldn’t credit it, refused to believe until he had absolute proof. “It’s hard to believe, Major, but true nonetheless.” One of the women, Summer, he thought, with sapphire blue eyes, said. He kept his doubt to himself as he looked over to her. She was a pretty woman… “Why, thank you, Major.” She said with a warm smile. Captain Duncan Duquesne didn’t look quite so happy. “And so he shouldn’t,” Summer went on, “but having a man think she’s pretty is a nice compliment, regardless of the fact you think this is all a crock.” “Summer.” The other woman, Winter, murmured. She had the most amazing jade green eyes, deep and pure. And they had a gleam to them, as if they had an inner light.

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“He thinks you glow, Winter.” “And so I should.” She replied smugly and rested a hand on her still flat stomach. “That’s not what he meant.” General Cosgrove cleared his throat, glared at the women with cold wintergreen eyes. “If we could continue?” “Yes, sir.” Captain Beech grinned and patted his wife’s knee. “Winter, behave.” He murmured. “The third of the triumvirate, for wont of a better word, is one Akiko Sakamura.” Beech said and kept reading from the report in his lap. “Adopted daughter of the late Ahiro Sakamura, business tycoon and well-respected member of the Japanese Diet. Akiko was raised in Tokyo, but educated at the American School there. All she will say is that she knows nothing of her birth parents and she’s always had the speed, though she was ordered by her father, never to use her ‘power’ – her word, not mine – for anything other than good; to uphold the family name and honour.” “Well, that’s gone pear-shaped.” Winter muttered, earning another glare from the General. “And there in lies our advantage.” The General said and turned to Nathan. “Ms Sakamura will do anything, short of willingly breaking the law, to regain the family honour. It is the one thing she values most of all.” Nathan lifted a black eyebrow. “Not her life?” “No. Her family’s honour is paramount. They can trace their tree back to the days of the Samurai and have kept that honour.” Cosgrove grinned like a shark. “Until now, that is.” “But it’s not her family tree, sir.” Nathan said.

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“No, Major, it is not, and yet because of the adoption, she is treated as if born to the family. Their honour is her honour. And she must regain face, or never return. But, for her, it’s worse than that. If she does not regain face, when she dies, the ancestors will not recognise her and she will be alone, ever to be reborn until honour is restored to the family. As military men, you know of honour, you know how to keep it, but if you lost it, well…” “Impressive, sir.” Duquesne said. Cosgrove turned to him. “I’ve made a study of a lot of militaristic cultures, Captain, it would serve you well to do the same.” “Sir.” Came the Captain’s chagrined reply. “What is it, exactly, you wish me to do, sir?” Nathan asked, masking his impatience, but he saw Summer grin, then Winter; then both Captains turned to him with raised eyebrows as if they knew of his irritation. “I want you to take Ms Sakamura and hunt down the birth parents of all the women. I want you to find the source of this program and make sure it is shut down. I want you to get every scrap of information about this project and return it. In short, Major, I want you and Ms Sakamura to find the solution as to why they are so special; and to make sure it never happens again.” “Uh… sir?” Captain Beech asked. “It’s too late for that.” And he glanced meaningfully at his wife’s stomach. “I meant, Captain, that there be no more genetic experimentation to create super humans. Naturally, fine, but unnaturally? No. The American government will not tolerate such abuse. Do I make myself understood?” “Yes, sir,” all three men said. “Very well. Major, you have your orders. Captain’s dismissed and…” The General had a surprisingly boyish grin. “Enjoy your honeymoons.” Nathan stayed seated while the Captains and their wives left.

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“Something on your mind, Major?” Cosgrove asked. “Yes, sir. What’s to stop Sakmura from running once she’s free?” “Apart from her own honour code which you evidently don’t believe in?” Nathan inclined his head. The General stared at him coolly, then opened a drawer and removed a wooden box. “You’ll need this.” He pushed it towards Nathan. He picked it up, lifted the lid. “What’s this, sir?” “The gun is an injector. The blue capsule is a miniature explosive that you will inject into a muscle on Ms Sakamura neck. The red capsule is for you. You will insert it under the skin above your sternum. Should she turn traitor, thump it twice and it will send a signal to Ms Sakamura’s and… boom. The problem is erased.” Cosgrove’s mouth turned down. “Twice, sir?” “Once to activate and send a signal and once to detonate.” Cosgrove said. “She is a valuable asset, Major, an asset any government would love to make use of. Ms Sakamura isn’t essential to this mission, but she is older than the twins. I suspect she will recall more of her origins if she’s in familiar territory and I need you to coax her into sharing the information. She may even remember where the compound was and you can search it for clues.” The General’s mouth firmed and he glared at Nathan. “Ultimately, she cannot fall into enemy hands.” Nathan dragged in a deep breath, eased it out. “The explosive guarantees she won’t kill me, nor will she let me be incapacitated, but should we find ourselves with no way out...” “Exactly. You can claim military status. It might work... But Sakamura?” Nathan felt a wry smile lift his lips. “You don’t trust her code of honour either, do you sir?”

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“I said I studied foreign militaristic cultures. Know your enemy, Major.” *** Akiko slowly walked on the squeaking treadmill. Every step caused pain to flare inside her knee, but it also brought her closer to recovery; and every day she walked that little bit further. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. She thought with a grimace. She wasn’t up to jogging or running on the outside track, or cycling, but she was working toward it, and goals were important to her. Simple goals, like making it through the day. She woke every morning with one aim and every time she achieved her objective, she rewarded herself with thoughts of freedom. Every sunset was one less day she’d have to suffer through this eternal hell of prison and one day closer to that freedom. She didn’t understand the American legal system, but figured her addition to the general population of Alderson was a part of the lawyers’ ambitions to intimidate her into confessing to crimes she did not commit. On the day of her arrival, all the tough nuts decided to show her the ropes – which she read as, show her exactly where she stood in the hierarchy: the absolute bottom. They’d quickly learned to leave her alone. Even one legged, they rarely touched her, but she sure as hell touched them and there were a number of healing black eyes and fat lips around the complex. The guards were puzzled as to why so many women had suddenly turned clumsy but they never saw the brief fights, nor did they care as long as no one actually died.

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For her part, Akiko didn’t get away without bruises, but she held up under the punches and slaps without flinching. That earned her respect, and from then, she had only herself for company, which was just the way she wanted it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone enter, ignored them and wiped the sweat trickling down the side of her face with the back of her hand. This gym was open to everyone and she was determined to adhere to the doctor’s orders that she exercise her leg without over-doing it. She still had another five minutes left on the treadmill. “Ms Sakamura.” A deep, definitely masculine voice said. “Would you care to come with me?” He asked. Akiko didn’t turn her head, but kept her focus on the barred window across the gym, kept walking. “No.” She replied. “Ex…cuse me?” “You gave me a choice. I choose not to go with you.” She replied. But her knee ached like a bad tooth and she longed to stop. At least this was the last exercise of the day – she’d already spent two hours with the free weights, boring repetitions to maintain her upper body strength. Therapy was difficult, even with the metal brace. If she sought to regain her speed, suffering through the torments of movement was the only way to get it. Unfortunately, she was on her own for any therapy. The doctor gave her a list of exercises, but it was up to her to do them. There would be no massage after a trying session, no hot tub to ease the aches, and the only painkiller she was allowed was an over-the-counter, generic analgesic. The man stepped into her view, ahead of the treadmill. He wore a military uniform with oak leaves on the shoulder tabs. A Major, then. Come for more interrogation, no doubt. His face was set in a hard expression, as if unused to anyone contradicting him. His jet-black hair stood up in a crew cut. His narrowed eyes were the

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blue of the sea, dark, mysterious, and, she thought, probably just as changeable; a square jaw, jutting pugnaciously, with an indentation in the centre of his chin. His nose was long, aristocratic, but with a bump in the middle. And his mouth was a firm slash of discontent. A true military man, the picture of what a soldier should be, especially with the white scar bisecting his left eyebrow. “It wasn’t a request.” He said, showing white teeth. “Then why make it so?” She asked and drew her eyes away from him to stare at the light streaming through the barred window and the freedom it represented. She often dreamed of being on the other side of the window, outside in the fresh air, but she chose to use her free time here, in the gym. When she was fitter, when she could run, then she’d join the other inmates in outdoor activities. Then, she look beyond the wire, the guards, to the forest beyond and... think. “I thought to make this visit as polite as possible. However, if you wish to make it hard, then I’ll oblige.” “All visits are hard, Major, why should yours be an exception?” The major folded his hands behind his back and rocked back on his heels. “Ah, the famous Eastern calm and inscrutability. Let’s see if I can shake it a little.” “It is your conversation, Major, but I will listen for…” she checked the timer, “another one minute and thirty-two seconds.” His head lowered. “How is the therapy going?” “Painfully.” “And your mobility?” “Improving.”

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“What kind of distance can you walk?” He asked, his tone genuinely interested and her eyes returned to his. He was interested, but why? “Light walking, about two kilometres. I do this every day. I am not yet allowed to run, but it will come.” She replied. “You’re doing very well, given the injury occurred thirteen weeks ago. I’m impressed.” “I am not doing to impress you, Major, I am doing it so I can…” She broke off, returned her gaze to the window and blue sky beyond. It wasn’t the Major’s business why she felt... bereft without her speed, without the ability to run and she refused to explain. “So you can… what?” He asked, curious. He was no more interested in her physical fitness than life on Mars. She told him what she’d told so many military types before when they inquired after her well-being. “Defend myself, Major. A new inmate is fair game, but an injured one? The crows circle to pick the bones of the weak.” “Had a tough time of it?” He asked, but without sympathy or compassion. She lifted a shoulder. “It is no better, nor any worse, than I expected.” “You’re not enjoying your stay, are you, princess?” She lifted an eyebrow at the ‘princess’ remark. “It is not to my liking; but then I’m not here to enjoy myself. I am here as punishment for making bad decisions. And in that I agree.” His eyebrows rose in surprise. “You… agree this is where you should be?” “Good decisions should be rewarded; bad decisions should be punished. It is the way of the Circle of Life, Major.” “Karma.” He smirked.

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“Yes.” The treadmill slowed to a stop. “Your time is up, Major, and I need to shower.” His grin deepened to appreciation as his gaze went from the top of her damp, dark hair, down her grey sweat-suited body to her institutional joggers. “Don’t let me stop you.” He lifted an eyebrow as if to dare her. She stepped carefully off the treadmill and limped towards the shower. “As you please.” She tossed over her shoulder.

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Chapter Two As you…? Well, wasn’t she a bold little number? Nathan thought and followed her. He’d come here thinking he could intimidate her into talking to him about her origins. He’d then go to Thailand he could get on with the mission alone regardless of what Cosgrove wanted. But she’d challenged him by refusing him and some perverse part of him decided he couldn’t let that slide. This was a battle of wills and he wasn’t about to give in. The General was adamant Sakamura join him on this mission, though he didn’t think she was physical able, not with such a catastrophic injury. He doubted she’d ever be able to do this mission. Sakamura’s sweats draped her body as if two sizes too large. She obviously lacked stamina given the way she was trying not to breathe hard, nor did she have the right attitude. She thought she deserved to be in prison? Well, so did he. She deliberately withheld information about the kidnapping of Summer McCafferty, used drugs to subdue the victim and unlawfully detained her; the charges went so far as to accuse Sakamura of the torture of Summer. She’d kidnapped Winter McCafferty, facilitated the use of drugs, and again, covered up the torture. Nathan felt his lip curl. He’d make sure that, if she survived the mission, he’d personally return her, whole and unharmed to her cellblock. But, he had to admire her guts; she was trying hard to get back into shape and he knew what a disastrous injury she’d sustained. Winter had done an excellent job in kicking Sakamura and ensuring she stayed down. He’d had a knee reconstruction back in his college days from playing football, and only sheer determination and persistence got him through the painful therapy. Even now, his knee gave a twinge as if remembering the surgery. It wasn’t something he wanted to go through again. He sympathised with her, but couldn’t let it show. She was a villain, a criminal close to conviction on a

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multitude of charges that would see her incarcerated for the rest of her natural life. She was a means to an end, that was all, and he’d better remember the importance of his mission. As he followed her, he withdrew the injector from the small of his back, held it behind him. It was pre-loaded with the blue explosive capsule. He walked into the shower. It was a long room with a row of showerheads on one side and shiny metal vanities on the other. A steel bench, bolted to the concrete, was set down the middle of a green lake of floor tiles. Sakamura sat and ripped the Velcro apart on her joggers, her profile to him. She flicked him a glance and he leaned casually against the doorjamb, waited for what she would do next. Sakamura toed her shoes off, then unbuckled the metal hinged brace from around her knee. Sweat dampened the thread-bare padding and he saw yellow sponge through a tear. She set it aside on the bench, and then she lifted the sweatshirt over her head, folded it and laid the garment next to her. Nathan felt beads of sweat pop out on his forehead. She wasn’t really going to strip off with him here was she? But she wriggled the sweat pants down her thighs, over her knees and off, folded them and set them on top of the sweatshirt. She was being deliberately provocative, he thought as he admired the faintly tanned skin of her shoulder and thigh. He’d heard all about demure Japanese women and they did not strip off in front of strangers. But there she went, her hands reaching up to unhook her institutional white bra. Nathan swallowed against a dry throat as she revealed rosy-tipped full breasts. Holy Mother of… He inwardly cursed at the sight of those tempting globes. She was going to do it! Her thumbs hooked into the sides of her panties and eased them down.

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Nathan bit his lip to stop himself from commenting. He would not give up and he would not give in. And a naked woman was more open to intimidation. He’d wait. Finally unclothed, she stood, her long, slim body tilted away from him and she picked up the washcloth and soap. His trousers went tight as he stared at her rounded butt, but he also saw yellowed bruises across her shoulders and a fist-sized bruise on her ribs. Still… “You are one finely put together woman, Sakamura.” He breathed. She glanced over her shoulder at him. “You are not naked if it is not recognised.” She said and limped to the shower reached out to turn the taps on. “Oh, I’m recognising all right, I’m most definitely recognising.” “You are being deliberately insulting.” She sniffed. But he saw the red stain of embarrassment creep up her face. He clucked his tongue. “And there I thought I was being complimentary.” “American men,” she replied caustically, “are crass, boorish and are about as subtle as a fart in a church.” She said and ducked her head under the water. He laughed. He couldn’t help himself, it was too funny. A fart in a church. It was something one of his boys would say, but not in mixed company. And yet it pinged him that she thought so little of his countrymen. Sakamura soaped up and for the life of him, he couldn’t drag his eyes away from her slicked, lithe form. She was built, he admitted, and, for all the lack of facilities, she was fitter than he expected. He could see the slight bulges of her abdominal muscles move under her skin and wondered if she’d done what he had: sit-ups while in bed, though he’d had to be careful not to put any pressure on his knee, and isometric exercises. He watched as the water sluiced down her body, rinsing the white soap bubbles away. He knew he was ogling her but he couldn’t help himself,

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especially when her hands reached out. Her shoulders lift fractionally, and then drop and she turned the taps and the water slowed to a drip. Sakamura paused for a moment then turned and limped back to the bench. She didn’t look at him. She had her head lowered a fraction, as if keeping an eye on every step she took. His gaze feasted on the breasts, the taut stomach and dark triangle of hair at the top of her thighs, his gaze dropped further to the thick, reddened scars of her knee and he winced. His lustful thoughts drained away. They’d really opened her up. Two long and diagonal red slashes, one above her knee the other below; two seven-inch long slashes that outraged him. Even when he’d blown his knee out, the surgery hadn’t left scars like that. His were barely four inches each. She saw him looking as she towelled off. “Top surgeons are not available for felons.” She said. He nodded and backed out of the room. What had been done to her knee was criminal in his book. He would allow her a measure of privacy before they got into the reasons he was here and he tucked the injector back into his pocket. *** Akiko sighed with relief when the big man left. She’d seen the shock and the anger in his eyes when he’d seen the scars; she knew they were ugly, would be with her for the rest of her life. A reminder of a poor decision, one she’d never make again. His unwavering gaze of masculine appreciation as she bathed unsettled her, even as she suspected he was doing it to intimidate her. And, she admitted as she slowly climbed into fresh underwear and sweat suit, his interest had warmed a part of her she thought long cold.

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The sad fact was there was nothing she could do about the spark of attraction. He would take her to the interrogation room and ask questions. She would answer and he’d be on his way again, never to return. Better to remain aloof than to return any interest, for it would lead only to frustration and loss, she thought and sealed the Velcro straps on her brace. Tiredness dropped onto her shoulders and she sighed. Best get this interview over. Then she could head to the cafeteria, down what she loosely described as food, and return to her cell. She picked up her work out clothes, wrapped her soap in the face washer and limped out. He was waiting for her just outside the door. “Where is your cane?” He asked with a scowl. “Felons are not allowed weapons.” She said and limped across the gym to the exit. The major followed. “It’s to assist you to walk.” He bit out. “And should I choose, I could beat someone to death with it; or someone might take it from me and beat me to death.” He muttered under his breath and she smiled. He knew nothing of prison life and the feral opportunism. It was only by the grace of the Warden that she did her own therapy, and only when she explained the lack of therapy could be interpreted as cruel and unusual punishment in a court of law, did he acquiesce. Warden Montgomery did not like her – but he liked his job. He wanted no excuse to investigate how he ran his prison. She limped out of the room, the brace squeaked with every step, but she had no oil for it. The best she could do was save her butter from the cafeteria. The major gripped her elbow and heat sparked through her at the contact. “I need no assistance.” She said and his grip tightened as she tried to pull away.

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“Humour me.” “I’m not here for your amusement, either.” “You are such a wise ass.” He rumbled and guided her down the hall. A custodian used the mop as if it were furniture to lean on watched with narrow-eyed intensity as they walked by. Akiko knew the middle-aged and obese woman would report to her head bitch, Yolanda, that the foreign slut had been hauled off by the army again. From the look in Jamelia’s eyes, Yolanda would get an intimate description of the major, too. Akiko could expect a conversation this evening, and it wouldn’t be pleasant. The major opened a door near the reception area and ushered her into an office. She had a brief look at its utilitarian grey desk, bookcase with a couple of half-empty shelves and an uncomfortable visitor’s chair before he urged her to sit in the damn thing. She stretched her leg out and sighed with relief. The pain was worse today and someone had stolen her last stash of painkillers. She wasn’t due for a refill for another two days. She’d have to tough it out. Again. And find an alternative hiding spot. “Are you in pain?” The major frowned as he took the seat on the other side of the desk folded his hands on the surface. “It is fine.” She murmured and made herself stop rubbing her thigh above the brace. “Obviously, it’s not.” He rummaged around in the drawers, removed a blister pack and tossed it to her. She caught it without the necessity of applying extra speed. “Thank you.” She said and tucked them into her pants pocket.

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“They are for taking now, not later.” He was scowling again. “I must conserve them. My next prescription isn’t due for a couple of days.” “Don’t tell me you’ve been taking extra.” He said with contempt. Akiko bristled. “I do what the doctor tells me. Nothing more; nothing less.” His mouth twisted. “Double talk for someone stole them.” He shook his head in disgust. “There’ll be more tablets later, and of a more potent level. You can’t be getting much sleep with that constant ache.” Akiko said nothing. He did not care for her well-being; he wanted information and the more comfortable she was, the more he thought he’d get out of her. But she’d been through this too many times to offer them anything new on the subject of Chambers. He waited for some sort of reply, but she didn’t give one and he sighed. “My name is Major Nathan Hawk, from the Special Operations Intelligence Unit, based out of Washington. It means, I’m one of the big guns.” If he thought to impress her, he failed. She kept her peace until he continued. “I’m also here to offer you a deal.” “Deals have been offered before, and then rescinded Major, when I didn’t have what you needed. What makes your deal any different?” She asked with a shrug. “I won’t go into the specifics, not yet, and anyone who reneges on a deal is a worthless, spineless asshole.” He finished with a shark-like grin. “I’ll be sure to let the JAG commander know the next time he comes to visit.”

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“Right.” He said doubtfully and leaned his forearms on the desktop. “I have been asked to…” stopped, tilted his head, and then continued. “Do you know who your birth parents were?” “No.” “Would you like to find out?” He asked with a gleam in his eye. “No.” She replied again. “Why not?” “Because I know who my parents were and are.” Hawk leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips. “And who were, are they?” “Ahiro Sakamura and his wife, Hirito.” She inclined her head. “But you know this.” His forearms were back on the desktop, and his expression irritated. “They are your adoptive parents. You’re not curious as to who birthed you? Who provided the sperm? You’re not curious at all?” “A parent is not who gives the egg and the sperm, Major, that is simply biology. A parent is one who nurtures inherent talents and abilities, who teaches right from wrong, honour, virtue and integrity in all things, who loves without question but punishes transgressions without fear or favour. That, Major, is a parent.” The man ignored her reply. “And why they gave you up?” “I assume it was either because they did not want me, or they were in a situation where they could not raise me.” She said with calm. A sly smile came to his mouth. “And if they sold you?” “Then I hope they enjoyed the money, for I enjoyed my upbringing.”

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The smile slid away. “I don’t get you. Not at all. Here I offer you a chance of a lifetime and you’re not interested.” “Major, you have offered me nothing but to sift through the ashes of a past long dead.” “You’re right.” He nodded. “Let me rearrange my thinking here. Obviously you’re not a woman to be lured by speculative emotional links.” He chewed his lip and came to a decision. “You’re the product of genetic experimentation, this much we already know from documents seized from Sir James’ estate. What we don’t know is where this all took place or whether it is still going on. Our only link is through a letter written to Summer and Winter McCafferty by their birth mother. Neither women saw the letter until… well, until Sir James captured two squads of Spec Ops and imprisoned them. Sir James was going to take Summer to South America. Winter, he tried to kill, since he thought her useless to his ambitions.” He looked at her and Akiko nodded. She’d found this out after she’d been taken into custody. “Right. On the death of Sir James, Chambers took over and called himself the Castellan. He already had Summer locked up, but he needed Winter for his gold-making enterprise.” Akiko found herself rubbing her thigh again. She didn’t need this rehash, she felt ashamed enough by Chambers’ deception when he acted as a charming, seemingly worried guardian. She stopped and folded her arms under her breasts, waited for him to continue. “I have been ordered by the government to find the information on the genetic experiments. The mission, which started before my Spec Ops colleagues found themselves captured by Sir James, is to discover everything

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we can about these experiments. So far, there has been only rumour and innuendo as to this so called Project Genesis.” The major seemed tired of sitting and got up to pace. The only room he had was behind her chair, but she didn’t twist to watch, simply kept herself facing the bookcase. If she did twist, it would put pressure on the inside of her knee and more pain, she didn’t need. “Why are you telling me this?” “Because you are a part of it all, just like Summer and Winter.” Her smile was cynical. She knew that. Her connection to the twins might be through genetic manipulation or through the possibility of natural birth; she didn’t know and didn’t care. But, she thought, they had probably started out together. “I looked it up, you know.” “Looked what up, Major?” She asked, tired, and rubbed her forehead. “Your name. It’s Japanese for Autumn.” “Yes.” “And still you didn’t feel a kinship with either Summer or Winter?” He asked from behind her. “No, I did not. I do not know them, nor do they know me. We are strangers, for all our... talents. Kinship – which has not been established - has no place when implementing an order; you, of all people must understand that.” “I know that following orders blindly is a one way ticket to hell.” He said. “But I guess you already found that out yourself, didn’t you?” The irony was thick in his voice. She acknowledged his dig with a nod. “I acted honourably for a dishonourable man.”

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“Yes, you did. And the days of using the ‘I was only following orders’ defence as an excuse is over. We expect people to follow orders, but also integrate their own moral code into the understanding of the objective. If that mission feels wrong on an emotional level, then there is something wrong with the parameters and questions should be asked.” Akiko heard the lecturing tone and resented it. Oh, she knew he was right, curse him, but he didn’t have to rub it in; she did that herself. The salt of failure stung in the wound of dishonour; and she applied it with vigour. She rested her hands in her lap as an exercise in control. “Now, back to the point: Neither Winter nor Summer have any information regarding the whereabouts of Jennifer Ann Porter, the woman who was, allegedly, their mother. The history of Sir James Pocklington suggests Porter found him, approached him, in Bangkok. We assume she saw in him not only money, but an opportunity to get the girls to America, where, she hoped, they would have a good life. She, herself, couldn’t handle what they were. You, though, are a complete mystery. How did you end up in Japan? How did your parents find you? Why were they selected as likely candidates?” “And the big questions,” she cut in, “are there any more of us out there and if so, where are they?” “Yes. I see you have a firm grasp on the situation.” “As much as you’ve told me, this still has nothing do to with me.” She said and stared down at her folded hands in her lap. “It has everything to do with you.” He whispered in her ear and she felt a sharp sting in her trapezius muscle above her shoulder blade and near her spine. She didn’t flinch, but she did feel disappointment in the major. “That wasn’t a pain killing injection, was it.” She said as he came around holding an injector gun. She recognised the type of weapon – she’d used

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something similar to take Winter down. He sat down, cracked open the breech and slid a small, sharply pointed red pellet into the barrel. “No, Sakamura, it wasn’t.” He said and unbuttoned his jacket, then his shirt. She caught a glimpse of dark chest hair as he aimed the gun at his sternum at an angle and pressed the trigger. He winced, rubbed the spot with the heel of his hand and laid the weapon on the desktop. Then he re-buttoned his shirt and jacket. “What did you do, Major?” She asked and gave in to the urge to rub the spot. She felt a lump underneath the skin. “Ensured your co-operation.” He said with a brief smile and sat back. “I need you to come with me to Thailand to begin the hunt for Project Genesis.” He said and Akiko felt all the air squeeze out of her lungs.

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Chapter Three Ah, there we go. A reaction at last. Nathan thought smugly as Sakamura’s lightly tanned face paled. “W… what?” She asked and stared at him with wide blue-green eyes. He wondered if they ever settled on one colour. “You and I are going to Thailand.” She lowered her head. “I... cannot.” She said almost too soft for him to hear. “Yes, Sakamura, you can and will. If I decree it.” “This mission of yours requires someone who is physically able. I am not that woman.” She said and he was surprised. Not only at the admission – his offer would get her out of prison, after all – but also at the respectful regret in her quiet tone. As if her inability to comply with his order was a shame she couldn’t deny, but would accept that shame with stoicism. “Sakamura… Akiko…” He began, then realised his voice had softened and he cleared his throat. “The good news,” he said briskly, “is that whether you’re capable or not, the decision is up to me. The bad news is… that whether you’re capable or not, the decision is still up to me.” She slowly lifted her head, her expression empty. “Then you are a fool.” She accused and he had to nod his head. “I guess I am, but you’re what’s required, and you’re what I’m going to have.” He kept his eyes on hers, even though he knew she wasn’t thinking of the double entendre, he certainly was, as inadvertent as it was. Akiko looked away first. “Then this mission is doomed to fail before it has begun.”

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“Don’t be such a misery guts, Sakamura.” He said and her eyes came back to his. “I don’t foresee us running and jumping and creating general mayhem. This is a fact-finding mission only.” “And when it is done? When you have the information you need?” She asked and he frowned. She must be thinking of her reward. And his lips twisted. Of course. But he couldn’t mention Cosgrove’s contractual offer until they succeeded. It was better to tempt her to compliance with what she wanted, what she needed to believe in. “All will be forgiven and you can return home.” He said, but a line formed between her eyebrows. “That is not what I meant. My punishment is just and I expect to be returned here once we are done. I meant, what will you do with the information?” Of all the things for her to say, that wasn’t even on his list. She wanted to come back to this hell? But, no. She’d said her punishment was ‘just’; ergo, she had accepted it and would continue until the penance was done. He didn’t understand her. Not at all. Anyone else would leap at the chance to get out of jail, to be set free with no conditions. But not Akiko Sakamura. She saw balance. One crime, one punishment. He shook his head. He would work it out later, if he had the chance. “The information will either be archived or destroyed. Genetic manipulation on this scale in the wrong hands could be devastating to world peace. It would upset an already precarious balance in world politics.” She nodded, accepted his reply, but he didn’t think she truly understood what was going on and he wasn’t about to explain it all. Suffice to say, his reasoning was enough for her. “Until someone remembers it.” She murmured.

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“Look,” he said and rubbed his eyes, “the point is that we will get you checked out and signed off for duty. This is a soft mission; we’ll be looking in archives, talking to people, checking on locations. Hell, you might even enjoy Thailand; it has a lot to offer.” He got to his feet, rubbed the pulsing ache in his sternum. Better explain that, too, but the longer he talked to her, the more he realised it was unnecessary. Akiko Sakamura had a strange code of honour, but a strong one. And not he or anyone else could shake it. “The… uh… capsule I injected into you. It’s an… explosive device.” He said and her eyes narrowed. “So, for all the soft mission status, I am not to be trusted.” “It’s not that…” He began, the stopped. “Okay, you’re right. The brass don’t trust you not to escape. And I have my doubts, too. But that’s the way it’s got to be.” “And the capsule in your chest?” “Is connected to yours. Should something happen to me and it no longer detects my heartbeat, the mission has failed and… your device goes off. If you run, I thump the capsule twice and…” “The device goes off.” She finished for him and he nodded. He watched as she dragged in a deep breath and let it out. Then she nodded, again with acceptance. “It is the way it has to be. I have done wicked things. For me to regain my honour, I must walk the bridge of fire.” She said. That confused the hell out of him, but he wasn’t about to start psychoanalysing her. No, she was a means to an end, a partner ordered on him and he would fulfil this mission one way or another. “Ri-ight.” He said and walked around the desk to help her up. “We’re going now.” “Now?” She looked up at him. “But…”

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“What? You have some French cuisine on tonight’s menu? A large, luxurious hot tub to soak in? Your nails to do? Perhaps you’d like to say goodbye to your buds? Got a bitch to take care of you, yet? Or maybe you don’t want to leave your oh, so, attractive wardrobe behind?” She simply stared at him as he hauled her out of her seat. She was surprisingly light for a tall and fit woman. Maybe the facilities didn’t lend itself to weight gain, but given some of the inmates he’d seen, maybe it was a case of Sakamura wanting to exercise more. “Give it up Sakamura, we are leaving and we are leaving now.” She took a hesitant step towards the door. She glanced at him, and then continued with an unreadable look on her face, as if she didn’t really believe she was about to be out of here. He guided her to the reception area where the forms were already for him to sign. The guard pushed the paperwork through the window and he signed off with a flourish. “Need an escort, sir?” The guard asked without expression, though he kept his eyes on Sakamura. “No, thank you, I can take it from here.” “Watch out for this one, she’s pretty inscrutable.” “Thank you, officer, I consider myself duly warned.” He said stiffly and folded his copy of the sheets. The officer touched a finger to his forehead as a salute. “We’ll look forward to your return, missy, have fun.” He smirked and Nathan felt tempted to slap it off the man. Akiko, to his surprise, bowed her head. “Thank you, sir.” She said with complete sincerity, and the security guard grinned and shrugged.

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His hand under her elbow, he guided her out through the gates and into the parking lot. “Are you always so polite to those who don’t require it?” “Everyone requires it and courtesy costs nothing. He suggested I have fun, and I hope I will; I thanked him for it.” “He was being sarcastic.” “And that means I should be sarcastic back? Oh, no, Major Hawk, that would be impolite.” “I’m thinking,” he muttered as he walked her to his official car, “that you are quickly going to get on my last nerve.” He thought her wiser beyond her years when she kept silent. *** Major Hawk was a strange man. She decided. He had an authoritarian bearing, true, but he had a canny mind behind those compelling blue eyes of his. She’d never had a choice in this, although he’d approached it as if she had. Akiko knew very well that her knee was not up to this type of mission; any type of mission, and wouldn’t be for some time to come. Yet, he insisted she was the woman for the job simply because she was like those other two. Now she was out of prison, she did not want to name them, did not want to curse this mission. It was cursed enough. And why didn’t the Major go on his own? If it was true and the mission was fact finding only, he had no need of her. Someone higher up in the government had ordered him, yes, but it went deeper. The motives were mysterious, but, she mused as she sat back into the comfortable seat of the car and stretched out her leg, it would become clear as time moved on. Major Hawk did not engage in idle conversation. His focus was absolute as he drove her to an unnamed destination. He kept checking the rear view

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mirror, the side mirrors and the traffic around them. Was he searching for a tail? Or simply habit? He was, after all, Intelligence, and that meant… what? That he was a spy? A covert operative who had gained a number of enemies? She did not ask. She kept her own counsel and watched the countryside go by. Four and a half hours later, they hit Washington and he drove with the skill of a rally driver through the traffic. This time of the evening, civil servants headed home and consular officials headed out to various functions. She saw more than one limousine or black town car cavalcade with a foreign flag rise from the hood. He turned into a tunnel and her view of the city vanished. With nothing else to look at, she faced forward. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as he handled the car with expertise, with long, capable fingers. His face was set in harsh lines as if this was duty rather than pleasure. And she thought she understood. He resented the order to take her with him. He slowed to a stop at a checkpoint, showed his identification to the armed guard and drove on down the tunnel. Then the car rolled into an open area of car park. He drove into a slot and turned the engine off, got out and came around to her side. “Let’s go.” He bit out and helped her out, kept a grip on her arm as he led the way to the elevator. “I can walk, but not at this speed, and not so well after my work out.” She said and he slowed his pace without apology. He pressed the call button and she leaned her hand on the wall, lifted her foot off the ground to ease the weight on her knee. Major Hawk kept his attention on the downward progress of the light.

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The door pinged and slid wide. The car was empty and he once again grasped her elbow to usher her inside. For a tough army officer, he was unconsciously solicitous of her and if she called him on it, he’d drop her arm like a firebrand. Truth to tell, she was glad of the support. At this time, back in prison, she would be in bed, probably asleep after an unsatisfying and not terribly nutritious dinner. Yolanda would have stopped by for one of her ‘chats’, too, and that might or might not have lead to violence. With her, you never knew. Yolanda would want to know all about Akiko’s visitor and whether they’d ‘got it on’ to use Yolanda’s phrasing. She asked the same question every time an officer came to interrogate her and Yolanda never believed it wasn’t a conjugal visit, but an interview. The door pinged, dragged her out of her thoughts and Major Hawk guided her down a white corridor. She caught the scent of antiseptic. He came to a door without a tag on it, knocked twice, and then pushed it open. Inside was a doctor’s surgery, but without the waiting patients. In fact, there was no one here. Not that it stopped the Major. He went to a door set into the wall on the left and opened it. “Sam. Patient for you. Fix her up quick smart. I’ll be back in the morning.” He said and gave Akiko a nudge through the opening. “I’ll see you tomorrow and read the assessment. Have a good time.” He said with a faint smile, did an about turn and walked out, leaving her alone with ‘Sam’. “Come in, Akiko.” A woman’s voice called and she limped into the room. It was an office, but without windows. Bookcases, haphazardly filled with medical texts lined the walls. The woman, slim with greying hair and lively

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brown eyes behind gold-frame glasses and light smile, sat behind a large desk. To Akiko’s right was an examination bed and equipment. “Sit, Akiko, I won’t bite.” She edged towards the chair and sank down into its comfortable cushions. “I’m Doctor Samantha Estrada, Commander, actually, US Navy, but I rarely use it.” She cleared her throat and took off the glasses. “Do you know why you’re here?” “I am here for an assessment on whether I am fit enough to go on a mission with Major Hawk.” Akiko replied. “That’s right. It will be up to me to test your fitness.” She got up and came around the desk. “The first thing I want you to do is stand up.” Akiko slowly got up out of the chair. “Okay, now put your feet together and stand up straight, as if on parade.” She eased into position, suppressing the wince as her knee straightened. Pride would not allow her to show pain. The doctor gave her a slight smile, crouched down to tear the strips of the brace, and removed it. Akiko swallowed hard as the pressure increased on her knee. “Drop ‘em.” The doctor ordered and Akiko leaned over and dragged her sweat pants down. The doctor was silent as she examined the knee. Akiko fought hard not to flinch as cool, professional finger moved over the damaged area, shifted her knee-cap left and right, up and down with gentleness, but pain still flared, then an ache settled into the joint. Akiko heard the doctor mutter under her breath, caught the words, ‘incompetent’ and ‘asshole’ more than once. Though tempted to smile, Akiko refrained. It would be disrespectful.

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“Okay, take off your duds and climb up onto the exam table, please.” The doctor rose and went to the sink while Akiko did as asked. She sat on the edge of the table and waited while the doctor washed and dried her hands, sprayed something on them and turned back to her. “Whoever did the surgery should be hung drawn and quartered, then struck off for stupidity.” Doctor Estrada growled and rubbed her hands together, then laid warm hands on Akiko’s knee. “I can feel some swelling here which indicates some tissue wasn’t removed when it should have been. The patella is a bit loose, too. Therapy?” “I have been using the treadmill, with a gentle incline.” The doctor clucked her tongue. “Weights?” Akiko nodded. “Light ones.” “Bike?” “No.” “Step machine?” “No.” “Good, that shows common sense. Still, I’m unhappy with your progress.” The doctor said and Akiko’s shoulders slumped. “But I have tried hard to get back into shape.” “And that’s a good thing, but knees are tricky at the best of times. If this asshole had done a proper job, it would be the course of action to take, however the aforementioned asshole did not do a good job and you’ve been aggravating the injury.” Akiko kept silent, tried hard to keep the tears of frustration and disappointment at bay, but they sheened her eyes anyway.

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Commander Estrada continued. “And that brace? Did he get it from the last century? It will never do. I’m sure I can find something that will take more pressure off without affecting your performance. And why don’t you have crutches or a cane?” “Felons are not permitted weapons.” Akiko said without inflection. “Felons, yes, but you haven’t been convicted of any crime. Weren’t you kept in the county lockup?” “No, ma’am, in general population up at...” Akiko paused and, from Doctor Estrada’s expression, suspected someone had dropped her in it in the hopes of a worse outcome than this. “General… I’m going to have to have a few words with a few people, starting with the warden. Your status dictated that you be kept in County, in isolation if necessary with appropriate medical staff and support.” She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Lie down, I need to take an x-ray.” Akiko did as asked, the bed more comfortable than the bunk in the prison. “What kind of medication are you on?” The doctor asked as she moved the x-ray machine into position. “Painkillers.” She said. “I know that, what kind so anything I give won’t react badly with it.” “Standard analgesic.” Estrada stopped what she was doing and looked at her. “What did you say?” She asked aghast. “Standard generic analgesic.” The doctor started cursing and swearing again at unknown, incompetent people again. Her language was so colourful Akiko felt her eyebrows lift.

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“I am so kicking some righteous butt over this.” She finally muttered and stepped behind a screen, took the pictures and came back. “How is your health otherwise?” “I am fit.” Akiko said. “And that’s not what I asked. I can see you’re fit. Apart from the mess your knee’s in, you’re healthier than you have a right to be.” The doctor grinned a little. “Must be good genetics. However,” she scowled, “I’m more interested in things like your mental health, whether the food given in prison was enough to sustain you, whether you have any concerns.” “No, ma’am.” Akiko said and lowered her eyes. Estrada snorted. “Now I know you’re lying. Give it up, Akiko.” “Anything I say will get back to…” “Anything you say is party to doctor-patient privilege. I can make recommendations to your well-being, which is what I intend to do tomorrow, but I legally cannot divulge anything else. Do you understand me?” “Yes, ma’am.” “Alright then, put your pants on and come and sit. I’m making coffee. Do you want some?” “Yes, ma’am.” Akiko said and sat up. “Thank you, ma’am.” She slid off the table, pulled up her pants and sat in the visitor’s chair. The doctor turned from the coffee machine with two mugs. She set one on the edge of the desk for Akiko, cradled her own mug in her hands. “Tell me.” Estrada ordered. Akiko sipped, found the brew to be wonderful and sipped again. “Or do you need a moment to commune with the best coffee you’ll ever taste?”

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“I do not think I am up to this mission set for me.” Akiko confessed with her eyes on the modesty board of the desk. “I’ll be the judge of that. What else?” “My reward for the successful completion of this mission is to be free to return home, but I cannot. I have no home to return to.” “I thought that’s where you mother is.” “Yes, ma’am, but the Japanese do not allow non-citizens to stay in their country, nor do they allow non-Japanese people to stay.” She raised her head. “Since my father died, I am a non-citizen. I have no right to return.” “Oh. Well. Hmm. You could always stay here. I’m sure the government will…” “Immigration issues aside, ma’am, I am a felon. I have done things I should be in prison for. And yet I am free to regain my honour and my family’s honour.” “Ye-es. I see that, so what is the problem?” “Major Hawk.” “Oh?” Estrada’s eyebrows rose with speculation. “He’s a handsome man.” “You misunderstand.” Akiko said and the doctor chuckled. “It is a matter of trust, of faith, and of his not giving in to his need to protect me.” She said and the doctor’s face fell into understanding. “If I am not completely fit, I will be more of a nuisance than a help. If I am not completely fit and we strike trouble, he will have no choice but to stay and protect me. That will lead to a failure in this mission. He needs to understand that I can pull my weight, that I will not slow him down or endanger the mission. While he thinks I am… crippled… he will act accordingly.” “Yes.” Estrada murmured. “I do see your point.” She sipped her coffee, studied Akiko with intensity. “However, the orders for you to work together

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come from the top. There is nothing I can do about Hawk’s attitude, only you can change that, and you can only do it if I work some of my magic and you do your part.” “Yes, ma’am.” Akiko said, satisfied they’d come to an arrangement. “Right then, let’s get started.” Estrada drained her mug and rose. “Ma’am?” Akiko said and finished the most excellent coffee and stood with most of her weight on her left leg. “We are going to start now. I was given a heads-up that some corrections might have to be made, so I’m prepared. I won’t be able to do what I want, that can wait until you return, but I can make you more comfortable. Come along, Ms Sakamura.”

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Chapter Four Major Hawk strode down the corridor to the ward where Sakamura rested. Commander Estrada had assured him she’d be up and about by days’ end, but he had his doubts. Any knee surgery was as awkward as it was painful, and he figured the doctor was merely trying to soothe his frazzled nerves. Commander Estrada explained she’d used arthroscopic surgery to clear away floating bone chips, tidied up torn cartilage and ligaments. She went on to use colourful language to describe the surgeon who hadn’t done a blessed thing but except cut Sakamura’s knee open and align the kneecap properly. The General wanted them moving as soon as possible and he suspected an agenda that majors did not need to know about. He’d tried to explain to the good general that Sakamura would be out of action for a couple of weeks, but the General shook his head. “That is not what Commander Estrada tells me, Major, so quit with the stalling and get on with it.” Cosgrove had growled at him. “Today, Major.” And so here he was, worrying like a mother hen over a forlorn and lost chick. That thought gave him pause, because Sakamura was forlorn, and she did seem lost. He picked up his stride; it wasn’t up to him to find her - that was between her and the extreme sense of honour she had, because it surely was a strange one. Oh, he could understand parts of it like taking responsibility for your actions, acting with integrity at all times, but that I-deserve-to-be-punished attitude because she chose the wrong side? That was not the way things were done. Hell, he’d heard she’d even rejected the lawyer hired to defend her. And how crazy was that?

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He walked into the open room. The nurse at the counter nodded to him and pointed to the corner. He couldn’t help but smile as he saw that Commander Estrada had put Sakamura next to a window where she could see trees, birds, the sky. Akiko had her eyes closed, looked relaxed in sleep, but he could still see the lines of pain bracketing her mouth and the bruises under her eyes from lack of sleep and the constant ache of the injury. If Winter had known the result, would she have pulled that kick just a little? Then he thought of Beech’s feisty wife and thought not. Sakamura was determined to protect her employer and Winter not only defended herself, but Captain Beech as well. Akiko hadn’t given her a choice. It was a shame Chambers hadn’t survived, he would have loved to kick the sorry asshole into next week for what he’d done, or caused done, to all three women. Unfortunately, Chambers suffered catastrophic and fatal shrapnel injuries when his gun exploded. He wondered if what Beech and Winter said was true. But how could they have missed it? And how did a modern gun explode like that anyway? He disregarded the fanciful tales from the men held in the cells as a ruse to explain their quick surrender. He picked up a plastic chair and set it down next to Sakamura’s bed to wait. He stared at her face, saw similarities and differences between her and the twins. Sakamura was older, he thought, or had led a rougher life. How could she doubt she was related to the twins? Winter and Summer had been brought up in an honest-to-God castle with hot and cold running servants, gourmet meals, and labelled fashions. He expected Sakamura, being the adopted daughter of a parliamentarian who was also a business tycoon, she would have a similar upbringing, but looking at how tired Sakamura was, he wondered if that were true.

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He knew from his readings the Samurai did without creature comforts and material wealth. All their money, if they had any, went on their basic needs, like armour and weaponry, then food, drink and shelter. Most military analysts regarded Samurai as the toughest soldiers in the world for the time, and their fighting skills and moral code knew no match. Years of hard training ensured they were the best, for they had the most dangerous of jobs: protection of the local lord. Ahiro Sakamura was a devotee of the code, had been a Samurai himself in his younger days until Hirito lured him away into the family business. Had he been so enamoured of the code that he brought Akiko up in it? Had he taken a personal interest in her training? And could Akiko have taken Winter down at any stage but expected the twin to fight fair? He couldn’t help the smirk that lifted his lips at the idea of Winter fighting with strict rules. She wasn’t that kind of a woman, and it would have been an eye-opener for Akiko. A nurse brought him some coffee and he smiled his thanks. Coffee here was perfect. This hospital was exclusive and special. And the nurses made the coffee. There were no beverage machines in this part of the medical facility, and the patients deserved the best; heroes every one, wounded on covert missions and kept away from the critical public eye until they healed. Unfortunately, the wards were nearly full of those heroes given the current world climate of violence. It made him sad that so many needed such intensive care, and yet he felt proud of their achievements. It was his job to see that they had the best intelligence before going in, and he liked to think that he’d saved some men and women from landing here. He finished his coffee, stared out the window, studied the ward, the nurses, Sakamura; then he got up and paced, came back, checked on her status and paced some more. He needed to get this show on the road. Cosgrove expressed

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his keenest wish to get the job done, asap - which suggested somewhere, a clock was ticking. Two hours later, Commander Estrada came in and he walked to her. “She’s not awake yet.” He said and she nodded, made notations on a patient board, set it down and picked up another. “To be expected. It was tricky surgery. I had to remove old scar tissue, clean up the damage, but it went well. It’s not a perfect fix, that will have to wait, but she’s good to go. She’ll be up and around tomorrow.” Nathan groaned and jammed a hand through his short hair. “I’m supposed to take her out of here today. General’s orders.” She shook her head. “That man! I told him she’d have more mobility today, not that she’d be ready to sprint a quarter mile!” “I need to let him know we are on our way, or he will have my oak leaf in a cocktail.” Nathan said with a grimace. “His words, not mine.” Estrada eyed him, gauging his honesty, no doubt, and then huffed out an aggrieved sigh. “Okay. Here’s what we’ll do: when she’s more compus mentis, I’ll fit the new brace. Then, if you promise to monitor her condition for twenty-four hours, you can take her away. Can you give me that promise?” Nathan thought on it. The only place he could take her was to his house; his two storey house. He could give her his downstairs bedroom. There was a full bathroom off the kitchen and he had that day bed in the den he could use. But to have Sakamura in his home, seeing what was there, invading his hard-earned privacy, poking around in his stuff? “Well?” Estrada asked. “If you can’t, she stays here.” He gave a sigh and sucked it up, for the good of the mission. “Yeah.” He said a little resentful. “I’ll take her home.” He ground out.

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“Good. Then in about thirty minutes, she’ll be waking up. After we’ve ascertained she has no ill-effects from the general anaesthetic, that she can eat and drink a little, I’ll be back.” Estrada nodded to the nurse and replaced the patient chart. “And that will be…?” “Oh, another couple of hours at least.” Estrada waved a hand, as if it was of no importance. Nathan groaned. Would this day never end? “Fine. I’ll go rustle up some clothes for her.” Estrada gave him a grin. “That’s nice of you; it wouldn’t do for us to let our patients out wearing nothing but a pained grimace.” He nodded to her and left to hunt up some clothes. Maybe his sister would know where and what and how much? No. He stopped that thought. His sister would start making wedding invitations if he went to her. He didn’t need to call anyone. Where they were going, they’d need summer gear. So shorts, t-shirts, short sleeve shirts, jeans… oh… underwear. Nathan sighed wearily, but strode off like a man with an uncomfortable mission. She was awake and sitting up when he returned holding a brown paper bag with clothes in it. His search for what she needed hadn’t been as difficult as he’d thought. The rest of the clothes and stuff were stored in the boot of his car and Summer Duquesne had sent more clothes from Patriot’s Fort via the estate’s private helicopter. Sakamura eyed him warily. “Major Hawk.” She nodded and he slumped down into the visitor’s seat again. “How’re you doing, Sakamura?” He asked, not really expecting a reply.

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“I am… doing better, Doctor Estrada tells me. She will be along shortly with a new brace. Which she tells me, is an improvement on the last and will give me more mobility.” “Good, good.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “That’s fine. When can we get out of here?” “When she has fitted the brace.” Sakamura said with a confused smile. “Good, good.” He said again, stood and rested the bag on the bed. “Some clothes for you.” “Clothes? Thank you, but what about…” “You cannot possibly think I’m going to be seen with you wearing institutional grey sweats. If you do, you have a poor opinion of me and yourself. Get dressed.” He snarled and walked out of the ward. He walked the length of the hospital then back again. Repeated it and told himself he was being an idiot. If she wanted to wear such ugly clothes, then who was he to deny her? Damn the woman and the stupid manners and... Why the hell wasn’t she pissed? Why wasn’t she bitter? Why was she meekly accepting her situation? He’d be railing against the injustice, defending his actions, he’d be... And why did his protective instincts have to raise their macho heads on the eve of an important mission? Just because he knew what she was going through with her knee, just because she turned those eyes on him, just because… She was Samurai trained, for God’s sake - she didn’t need protecting from anyone. She probably knew a hundred and one ways to kill a man… his thoughts suddenly segued to the bathroom in the prison. And a hundred and one ways to… no, he couldn’t think that. She wasn’t a Geisha and that’s not what they did anyway.

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The bloody woman had him so confused he didn’t know what to think. He took the slow route back to the ward. She was sitting up, dressed in the blue sweat pants he’d brought, the white t-shirt with the flannel shirt over it. Estrada was leaning over her, adjusting the brace. Nathan had to admit it was a more attractive contraption than the unwieldy thing she’d been wearing: black, smaller, the support braces on the inside. It looked like a sports version with thick Velcro above and below her knee rather than mid-thigh to mid-calf. “How does that feel?” Estrada asked and moved back. He had to resist helping Sakamura off the bed as she slowly slid forward and put her left foot down, then her right. “It feels… better.” Sakamura said and a smile lit up her face. That smile, the first genuine smile he’d seen from her, jabbed him straight through the heart. He lifted a hand to his chest, felt the nub of the capsule beneath his fingers and a cold chill washed through him. He’d forgotten about it and the one inserted into Sakamura. He’d do well to remember, for it was a life or death mission for her. Literally. *** Akiko couldn’t believe the difference a day made. Yesterday, she suffered through the grinding ache; today, there were twinges but nothing compared to before. Doctor Estrada’s face showed how pissed off she was, but not at her. “Now, what that idiot did was simply reattach the patella; he did nothing about the damage underneath. I’ve cleaned it up some, but I’m afraid more surgery is due. That…” She turned her head and Akiko followed her gaze, felt the smile slip away as she saw Major Hawk’s forbidding countenance. “That,” Estrada went on, regaining her attention, “will have to wait for your return.

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There’ll be no gymnastics for you, my girl, so if you feel tempted to swing from a chandelier, don’t.” “Yes, Doctor… I mean, no. I won’t be doing any swinging.” Akiko lowered her eyes. “And there’ll be no more of that.” Estrada chastised softly and Akiko met her gaze. “No more of…?” “This submissive lowering of the eyes. American women are proud of who they are and never submissive. I don’t mean to say that American women are aggressive, though,” she tugged her ear, “some undoubtedly are. But, Akiko, every time someone gives you an order you feel you must obey, you become totally submissive. If you are to make your own way in this world, you’ll have to get over it.” Akiko fought hard not drop her eyes; and failed. “I am not an American woman. I am Japanese. It is the way I was brought up, Doctor Estrada. I cannot go against a lifetime of learning.” “Well,” the doctor said and rose to her feet. “We’ll put that on the agenda for when you return. For now, be careful, take your painkillers and good luck.” Estrada patted her shoulder and walked past Nathan, said a few words then went to the nurses’ station to fill in the patient chart. “Ready to go?” Major Hawk asked coolly. “Yes, sir.” She replied and picked up the cane Estrada had loaned her. It was made of a dark wood with a smooth handle that fitted comfortably in her hand. He reached out to grasp her elbow again, but she side-stepped him. “I can manage, thank you.” She said. He shrugged and led the way out of the hospital.

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Akiko was determined to follow through on Doctor Estrada’s comments about submissiveness. It had, she thought, leant weight to Major Hawk’s protective nature. But if she could show she didn’t need help, didn’t need him, maybe he’d ease off the formal attentiveness and relax, treat her as if she weren’t a… cripple. And the heat he generated whenever he touched her… she could not lose her focus. She must not let him touch her again. She thought too many carnal thoughts when he did and he was not for her; no one was. He kept his pace slow to compensate for her slow walk. She couldn’t move fast yet, but soon she would, very soon she would and he’d feel the wind as she went by him. Major Hawk’s manners never wavered as he opened the passenger door for her. It was an unconscious courtesy and she didn’t mind. He climbed into the driver’s side and twisted the ignition key. The car started with a satisfied purr. He turned to her, his hands resting on the steering wheel. “Doctor Estrada said you needed to be monitored for the next twenty-four hours, in case there are side-effects to the anaesthetic. To that end, I’m… I’m taking you to my place.” He said and her eyes went wide, dropped, then, remembering what Estrada said, lifted them again. “I know you’d prefer to be anywhere but near me, but this is the best option. We can set up a plan of action before we leave for Thailand tomorrow.” He put the car into gear and pulled out as if it were the end of the argument. She had no objections to their destination; she had nowhere else to go. The military cops confiscated her gear and did whatever they did with the property of felons. Or it was all back at Patriot’s Fort. She had no wish to return there, not with her shame still fresh in her mind, and her defeat still a stinging ache in her knee.

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They were going to be in close quarters for the next however long it took to find the information. Did Major Hawk resent having to take a strange and dangerous criminal into his house? And what did his wife think of it all? Her attention went to his strong, ring-less hands. A man as handsome and capable as Major Hawk had to have a woman equally as strong and capable at home. The thought did not sit well with her. He drove in silence and the tension in the air so forbidding she held her tongue. She did not want to examine her conflicted emotions too closely. Still tired out she rested her head back against the headrest and drifted off… …only to have Major Hawk roughly shake her awake. “We’re here.” He said. He’d come around to open the door again. Inherent courtesy again. Akiko rubbed her eyes and squinted at the white two-storey American colonial house. She grabbed her cane and climbed out of the car, carefully avoided banging her knee on the car doorframe and followed Major Hawk up the path, one careful step at a time to the front door. He fitted a key, then walked inside. Akiko followed more slowly. She stepped carefully on the polished hardwood floor, the black rubber tip of her cane squeaking as she moved through the foyer and down the hallway. Major Hawk turned those cool blue eyes on her as he stood outside a room. “This is where you’ll stay; the stairs would be too hazardous.” She nodded and moved past him, breathed in the scent of citrus aftershave and man before standing inside the room. It was brightly lit, with two windows. Gauzy curtains draped over them. The double bed was made of a reddish wood, a crimson quilt with a geometric design laid over a thick

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mattress; the chest of drawers matched the bed, as did the enormous doubledoor wardrobe. “The bathroom is next door, off the kitchen.” He said and went to leave but paused. “You’ll need to rest. I’ll call you for dinner in about two hours, okay?” She wanted to protest, she was perfectly capable of making herself dinner, but she bowed her head instead. This was his house and she was a guest. “Thank you, Major Hawk.” She said. He grunted and closed the door. She turned for a closer look at the room, when he opened the door again, a faint smile curving his mouth. “The clothes in the chest of drawers and wardrobe are yours.” Then he shut it before she could say anything. Akiko, like any other woman, put all thoughts of rest aside and went to the wardrobe, opened the reddish doors and gaped at the clothes. He was right; they were hers, from the Fort, but there were other clothes as well. Evening gowns hung in semi-transparent black plastic bags. She reached out to touch, then drew her hand back; they could not be hers, his wife’s perhaps? Quietly, she closed the doors and went the drawers. Again, there was a mix of her belongings and new things; the underwear in particular. She felt the heat rise in her face. He went underwear shopping for her? She didn’t know whether to be flattered at his forethought, or angry at his impertinence. Then again, he’d never see her in any of the… she picked up a pale green satin bra, checked it. It was her size, as were the matching panties. Further investigation revealed more underwear in different cuts and shades. Akiko closed the drawer. The next drawer below revealed shirts. T-shirts, short-sleeved shirts, longsleeved ones. The bottom drawer was filled with sweaters and sweat-shirts.

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She didn’t know how to feel about this largess. It wasn’t as if she had time to shop herself before they flew out. Major Hawk must have realised and preempted her requests. Every day, she fell deeper and deeper into his debt. A debt she’d never be able to repay. Suddenly tired, she stripped down to her current white underwear, slid between cool sheets, and drifted off into an exhausted sleep. Two hours later, she heard a hard, imperious knock on the door. It opened and Major Hawk came in before she had time to lift her head. “Dinner’s just about ready if you’d like to… wash up.” He said. “Uh…” Akiko used the heel of her hand to rub her eyes. “Thank you.” She said with a sleep husky voice. “I’ll be right there.” But he didn’t leave. He stood there, staring at her with a strange expression on his face. Akiko dragged herself into a sitting position, ran her fingers through her hair – the thick, dark strands needed cutting after three months of prison. “Was there something else?” She asked and blinked. His attention wasn’t on her face and she glanced down at the white bra she wore. But… he’d seen her naked. Why did wearing a bra put that expression on his face? “Huh?” He asked and lifted his gaze. Red stained his cheekbones. “No.” He stated firmly, did an abrupt about face and walked out, leaving the door open. The scent of spicy meat drifted in to the room and her mouth watered. The sooner she got up, washed and dressed, the sooner she’d find out what made that delicious smell. She tossed the quilt aside. Akiko chose her clothes, grabbed a change of underwear – hers – and limped into the kitchen, then to the bathroom. Major Hawk had his back to her and didn’t notice her passage.

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The bathroom was decorated in a simple American Colonial style with brass fittings and wood, lots of natural oak. Akiko washed her face. She couldn’t shower for two days due to the stitches in her knee, and she didn’t want to take the time to use a cloth. That could wait until she was ready for bed. She changed her clothes, found a new toothbrush and cleaned her teeth. A quick finger brush through her hair, and she was ready to face him. Akiko stared at her reflection in the mirror. She looked terrible, with dark circles under her eyes, pinched lines around her mouth, a too pale complexion. No wonder he wouldn’t look at her, not that she wanted him to, but still… She looked like she had spent a long time in darkness, and she had long-term illness written all over her. She’d not seen the sun in three months and she had been ill, or at least injured. No wonder Major Hawk treated her with such care, she looked like a starved and crippled waif. On a sigh, she went into the kitchen. On her right sat a stove, a large double-door refrigerator, a pantry cupboard in oak with pots and pans hanging from underneath the cupboards set onto the walls and a night dark bay window. The floor was unfinished. She could easily envisage what he was doing with the area, and it would make a fine breakfast nook, with an oak trestle table and benches, gauzy curtains on the windows. Akiko didn’t comment. It wasn’t her place to express an opinion, but she could almost hear a family in here, with kids laughing at the table as they ate their breakfast. On the left, grey walls, naked except for smears of white. Against the wall were four high, ladder-backed stools. A saw-horse stood on the unfinished, bare floor, a tool belt draped over it. Major Hawk turned from the counter. “Take a seat.” He said.

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She looked down, remembered the doctor’s admonishment and lifted her gaze again. “Where?” She asked softly. “Oh, in the dining room, it’s the next door down to your right. It’s a little unfinished, but it’s functional.” He said and turned back to stir the pot on the stove. Akiko followed his directions and opened the dining room door. A little… unfinished? The walls were the same grey as the kitchen with the white smudges, paintspattered cloth covered the floor and the windows were bare. In the centre of the room sat a card table and two wooden crates acting as seats. Above, a bare bulb hung on a short cord. That was it. She limped to the table and cautiously sat down. The box creaked, but held her weight. She sat with her back straight, her injured leg stretched out, and waited for Major Hawk to arrive. It didn’t take him long. The smell of dinner reached her first and she turned slightly. He toed the door open with his boot, carried a tray with the pot on it. He put it down in the centre of the table, and turned back to the door. “May I help you?” She asked, not looking directly at him. “No, thank you. You just sit there.” He said and strode out. She’d seen him glance at the cane by her feet and felt useless; worse, she felt like the cripple she was. But that would change, she thought and narrowed her eyes at the door, and it would change soon. He came back with a board loaded with fresh bread, the front half cut into slices. From the steam rising from the loaf, it was just out of the oven. He put it down on the table and went out again, soon returned with heavy china plates and flatware.

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On a sigh, he sat opposite her and began dishing food onto his plate. He put it in front of him and turned the ladle towards her. “Have at it.” He said and began to eat. Akiko stared at him for a moment, and then lifted food onto her own plate. She bent her head over the food, said a prayer to her ancestors, then began to eat. It was wonderful and she soon followed his example of a second helping. Together, they finished off the stew and the bread, wiping the plates with a slice to sop up the spicy gravy. Akiko put her flatware together. “That was delicious, Major Hawk. Thank you.” She said and stared at the plate. Then she remembered Doctor Estrada and raised her eyes again. He was studying her. “You’re welcome.” He said and she dropped her eyes again, lifted them. “Is there something in your eyes?” He asked. “No, why?” “You keep looking up and down as if to budge an irritation. Do you want me to take a look?” Heat flared across her cheekbones. “No, thank you, it is…” How did she explain that you didn’t look at your provider eyes when conversing with them? “A cultural thing.” She finished. “I don’t understand.” He said and collected her plate, tipped everything into the pot and placed the pot on the board. “Japanese women are not to be aggressive. To look someone in the eyes is an aggressive act; you challenge them. You have been kind to me Major Hawk, and so I should not be aggressive towards you.” She said, and then at his raised eyebrows, she continued. “But Doctor Estrada said that is not the

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way it is done here and I must try not to be so overtly submissive. It is hard, though, to overcome a lifetime of indoctrination.” He was frowning. “I don’t get that, Sakamura. You’re not Japanese. Oh, I understand that’s you where brought up, but you are not Japanese. And Doctor Estrada is right; you cannot be submissive here, people will run right over you, will use you to your detriment, but I guess you already know that.” He picked up the board. “Come with me to the kitchen, and we’ll talk more while I do the washing up.” “I can do it for you.” She offered and picked up her cane. “I’m sure you could, but you’re a guest in my home and unless I ask something of you, you can keep me company instead.” He nodded to the door and she opened it, followed him back to the kitchen. He set the board down and filled the sink with sudsy water, slid everything in. “Grab a stool.” He indicated with his head to a high stool set against the wall. “Talk with me, while I do this.” She did as he asked and sat to his left, leaned her elbow on the counter top. “Tell me about growing up in Japan.” He ordered and dunked his hands into the water. “Tell me about how you can be submissive and yet be a bodyguard?” Akiko lifted a shoulder. “There isn’t much to tell. My father and mother had no other children when I came along. They took me in, but never lost hope that Hirito would produce an heir for him. That did not happen. But before he knew a genetic child wasn’t possible, he began teaching me the ways of the Samurai; that way, when his son came along, he would have two soldiers in the family.”

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“Soldiers. He trained you as a soldier. For what purpose? Japan hasn’t been at war since the Second World War.” He put in. “No. But it was not for me, any fighting. Samurai avoid fighting if possible. There is always another way. But should it be necessary, I am prepared.” “War begins when diplomacy fails.” He murmured. “Yes.” She said, surprised at his comment. “Soldiers pay the bill on a government’s order.” He looked at her and she felt, for once, they were in perfect agreement, as if they’d reached an unspoken understanding between warriors. But how long would it last?

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Chapter Five Hawk stared into blue-green eyes and felt an instant, primitive connection that resonated through his soul. He tore his gaze away and shut down the unwanted connection, but he feared it was too late. On a frown, he turned his thoughts to the conversation and his hands to the dishes soaking in frothy water. He knew war well and despised it. But to bring a daughter up as a soldier? That was plain nuts, though he’d heard of rednecks doing it here in the States. The girls grew into paranoid, violent women as a result. “So...” He cleared his throat. “Samurai are about avoiding battle.” “To a certain degree.” Akiko said, warming to her subject. “But it is about control, about discipline, about… inner strength, rather than a desire to kill. To be a Samurai is a long and hard road, with little reward but the satisfaction of retaining your honour and protecting the honour of those less able.” She said. Hawk nodded; that he could relate to. “I understand, but most soldiers have a choice; to be a soldier, or not. Such a decision isn’t taken lightly, nor so young.” “No, it was not my choice, but my privilege and honour to serve him.” “You say that as if…” He frowned, searched for the words. “As if you were indentured to him; a virtual slave.” Akiko smiled, as if pleased he’d understood. “Yes, that’s right.” Nathan was appalled. Surely she didn’t mean…? That didn’t still happen, did it? “You were a slave?” “Of a sort. I was also trained in how to be a woman by my mother. The ying and the yang. The dual nature; one cannot survive without the other. All must be in balance to have a satisfying, useful and content life.”

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Nathan stared at her, his hands deep in suds, but stilled by her words. Akiko sighed. Maybe he didn’t understand after all, Nathan thought. How can being a slave be in balance? “When I was brought to Ahiro, I made him a promise that I would do nothing to embarrass him.” “You remember that?” He asked and slowly started washing the pot. “I do. Ahiro smiled at me and said if I could honour that promise, he would teach me how never to be alone within myself. That he would nurture my spirit as well as my body…” “Whoa…! You don’t mean…?” He felt the slow burn of rage at her words. She lifted an eyebrow at him, and he was struck by how similar it was to Summer and Winter. “No, of course not; I was his daughter!” She said as if that made a difference. “I meant,” she went on, “he would hone my body, keep me fit for battle, for the fight for inner peace and contentment. One does not achieve either without conflict with the outside world.” She said, sage-like. He inclined his head. “I hear you, grasshopper.” He quipped, but she didn’t get the reference. “Grasshopper?” “Never mind.” He said. “So… you spent almost your entire life doing martial arts and meditation?” “No. I learned other things as well. I learned to control my speed, to use it when necessary, to act without thought and with thought. Decisions need to be made in a split-second, but they must be the right one. Especially in battle.” “And yet, Winter thumped you good.”

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Her face went cold. “I had thought to reason with her, to avoid conflict. She ran, I pursued, but…” She had a puzzled expression in her eyes. “She fought like… a mad thing; unsure, untrained. I was… surprised.” “And later, in the castle?” “I thought to teach her that the Castellan was in charge and she should respect that. He was my master, and he was to be her master, too.” “Instead, she kicked your knee cap out.” “Yes. I should have learned from our initial conflict that Winter had no… control; she is aggressive, and unbalanced. She does not have the inner peace a warrior should.” She finished and he could have sworn he heard regret in her tone. “How does it feel?” He asked. “Your knee, I mean.” “The painkillers work surprisingly well, though I do not trust them enough to bounce around.” He smiled and lifted the pot out of the water, set it upside down to drain, and pulled the plug. “About tomorrow.” He wiped his hands on a tea towel. “Are you fit enough to travel?” She nodded. “Doctor Estrada suggested I drink a glass or two of alcohol. It thins the blood, I understand, and if I do some walking as well, I’ll have a lower chance of an embolism.” Nathan snorted. “Drunk and staggering around? Well, we can accomplish that.” He said and saw her trying to suppress a yawn. Sleep was the best thing for her. “You’ve had a long and tiring day. Why don’t you hit the sack? Sleep as much as you want. I’ll wake you when it’s time to go.” He helped her off the stool, could feel the strength in her arm and once again marvelled at her physical courage and stamina. He picked up her cane,

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handed it to her and released her. She was determined he not help her and he was sometimes as equally determined to do that very thing. “You said you remembered your first conversation with Ahiro. Do you remember anything before that?” “Bits and…” she yawned again. “Sorry… and pieces. Images. I remember a Vietnamese woman, a plane flight, I remember jungle and a compound and people. I have flashes of… medical stuff, but it’s all hazy, as if it was a dream. I don’t understand why I can’t remember it more clearly. I still don’t, not really, yet it was a fundamental and important part of my life.” “Well,” he said and ushered her towards her room, “we’ll explore that further tomorrow. We have a long flight ahead of us and not much in the way of things to do. We may as well talk about your memories and make further plans on our mission.” In the open bedroom doorway, she turned to him and gave him a sleepy smile. “Good night Major Hawk, and thank you for all you’ve done for me.” He leaned against the doorjamb, folded his arms across his chest. “I think we’re beyond that now. Call me Nathan.” She bowed her head. “Thank you… Nathan.” She stepped into the room and closed the door. He had no option but to step back. He didn’t want to. The way she said his name had him thinking all sorts of inappropriate things, and her naked body flashed into his mind. Returning to the kitchen, he grabbed a beer can from the fridge and pressed the cold metal against his forehead. It was going to be a long night unless he got that image out of his head.

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But it wouldn’t leave. He had three beers and he could still see her limping sassily to the bench for her towel, could see the sway of her hips, the tautness of her belly, the lushness of her breasts that begged for a kissing. Frustrated, he walked around the house, locked up, and then climbed the stairs to the guest room, stripped off and got into bed. No way would he sleep in the den now, not with the carnal images in his head. He closed his eyes, determined to think of something else, like his plans for the mission. Eventually, when the dawn light crept around his curtains, he drifted into sleep. But even his dreams were filled with her; both truth and fiction. He awoke with a hard-on stiff enough to crack nuts and a longing for a woman he didn’t understand and couldn’t have. The shower was icy cold and temporarily relieved his tension. He didn’t expect her to be up, but he heard the downstairs shower. She wasn’t supposed to get the sutures wet so how… another film started in his head on all the ways she could get around that restriction. None of them helped his semi-aroused state. When he walked into the kitchen, he found the bathroom door open. When he peeked inside, the shower curtain hadn’t been drawn either. He drew back and gently bashed his head against the wall. She had found some plastic wrap and wound it around her knee, but that didn’t detract from the sight of her long back, tight bottom and slim, lithe legs he could imagine wrapped around… He turned his back. What was it she said? You are not naked unless it is recognised. How the hell did the Japanese ignore it? Discipline and control, he figured, but she was slowly destroying his well-honed self-control. It was her low and seductive voice that made him think of things he couldn’t... He had to put a stop to this and he turned into the bathroom doorway.

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“Sakamura!” She looked over her shoulder at him and gave him a slight smile. “Yes, Nathan?” And he ground his teeth at the inviting quality of her tone. He knew she wasn’t doing it on purpose, he knew her voice. It was the way she said his name for the first time - it changed everything. “When we are overseas, it would be better if you bathed with the door closed.” There she went, lowering her eyes again. “Yes, of course, Nathan.” “Sakamura.” He began in a more gentle tone and walked in. “Culturally, you have no problem with this bathing in public. In my culture, we definitely have a problem with it. And you…” He leaned against the tiles next to the shower. She watched him, not his eyes, but in a subtle non-confrontational way. “You are a beautiful woman. If people…” “But they won’t, Nathan. I heard you. Keep the bathroom door closed when bathing.” She made it sound as if she’d said: I hear and obey, and that’s not what he intended. Then he had a thought. “Sakamura, have you always had a… master?” He asked and swallowed. The thought was anathema to him, yet he had to ask given her attitude. She turned off the taps and he picked a deep blue towel off the rack and handed it to her. “Yes. Samurai means ‘to serve’.” She took the towel, held it by her side and pursed her lips much to his discomfort. “The original word was subarai, those who protected the Emperor, and they developed a code called Kyuba no michi, the Way of Horse and Bow. They were the equivalent of European knights. There was another class called Bushi, or warriors – their code is

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Bushido, the Way of the Warrior but both came from Confucian and Zen philosophies. The Samurai spread out to protect the local Shogun, or ruler, but as a class, eventually came to rule and govern Japan themselves.” “And now?” She gave him a lopsided smile. “Now? The Samurai class doesn’t really exist except in tradition and training, but not in any active role.” “But you’re a Sam...” She hissed out a breath. “I am Ronin.” “Ronin?” “I am dishonoured, masterless. In the old days, I would be required to commit ritual suicide. In today’s society, I can work to regain my honour. I must serve to do that.” “You’ve never been treated as an equal?” “Of course.” She rubbed herself down and he found it difficult to keep his eyes above her throat. “But as Ronin I should be shunned, reviled in my dishonour. “So… in order to feel worthwhile, you need a master?” “It is a complex thing. Ronin have no honour, serve no one but themselves; Samurai are honourable, have contempt for death and serve a master.” She stepped out of the cubicle, reached down, right in front of him, and peeled off the plastic wrap from around her knee. Thankfully, it was quick; otherwise she’d see how she truly affected him. Akiko began to dress, much to his relief and chagrin. “I have spent my time in prison thinking on the subject. While I feel the disgrace, I also feel worthwhile no matter who my master is as long as he acts honourably.” “How do you find a master?” He asked.

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“A master is someone who holds my contract, Nathan. At the moment, that is you.” “Because I can give you your freedom.” He said and wondered why the thought disappointed him. “I suppose. But it’s more complicated than that.” “I don’t see how.” He muttered and she grinned at him. “It is because you offer me honest work. It is because you are an honourable man. It is because you act like a master should. You provide for me, help me when I need it and are not overbearing with… arrogance at having a Samurai at your side. Or should I say, you are not disgusted by having a Ronin with you.” She explained, though by the look on her face, she didn’t think she was doing a good job of it. “What are you, if not a Samurai?” He asked and her face paled, her eyes turned bleak. “Then I am truly… nothing.” She said and picked up her cane from where it rested against the vanity. “I am nothing now, but there is potential for me to regain the honour I have lost.” “Why?” He asked, genuinely interested. “Why is being a Samurai all you can be?” She shrugged and picked up a comb to run through her wet locks. “It is all I’ve ever been.” She said and for once, he understood. He’d always wanted to join the army, but had to wait until he was of age. Up until that day, he worked towards that goal. “Okay.” He relented. “Come on, I’ll make you some breakfast. We’ll work on the subservience later.” “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

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That stopped in his tracks. “Why not? You’re in America now. You have to learn to be an American woman.” “Where we are going, subservient women are the norm; not the exception. For me to act like an American would be detrimental to our mission.” He sighed, a little frustrated, a lot confused. “We’ll talk.” He promised. *** “For us to be a successful unit,” Akiko said over coffee, “one will have to be the senses, the other, the brains, to understand the information.” He stared at her over his cup, lowered it and nodded. “You’re suggesting that you be the senses.” “Yes. If I am your shadow, I will hear and see much. It is for you to decide what to do then, since I am not trusted and you have the mission brief.” She gave him a slight smile. Nathan rose from his seat, retrieved the coffee pot and filled his cup again. He raised it in question, but she shook her head. Too much coffee unbalanced her chi. He took his seat. “Tell me why you think this is the better plan.” He ordered. Akiko suddenly understood. While the Major was an intelligence officer, his job was to analyse information; she doubted he’d spent much time in the field, or if he did, it was years ago. His idea of American tourists roaming the back-country had merit, but only up to a point. They would be treated differently to a businessman looking for opportunities and his respectful servant. The attitude of machismo was alive, well and flourishing in some parts of Asia and if they were to succeed, they had to present themselves as having the same values.

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“Have you studied much of business practices in Asia?” She asked instead and he narrowed his eyes. “What has that got to do with it?” “Because then you would know that the men do most of the talking while the servants see to their needs. The wife is in charge of the household. But make no mistake, Nathan, it is an honourable position. To see to your guests needs is good karma, to help your husband smooth the passage of negotiations. Men have a better grasp of business. It is a sign of good fortune to have servants to do the wife’s bidding; it gives her status. And servants gossip.” Nathan stared at her. “You don’t really believe that do you? That a woman isn’t as good at business as a man?” A frown tightened her brow. “It is not what I believe that matters, Nathan, only what they believe.” He shook his head and waved a hand for her to continue. “You must have credentials, a letter of introduction, if you will. Preferably from someone who knows someone who can act as an intermediary. Direct contact is considered rude.” “This gets worse and worse.” Nathan muttered, and she understood he didn’t have an intermediary. “I’ll have to talk with Cosgrove, see what he can come up with. What next?” “Then, it is up to you to follow the trail. I will, respectfully and with great subservience, listen to your conversations and give you my impressions.” He raised an eyebrow over hard eyes. “I thought I’d record everything.” “And if they have sweeping devices?” “Then we’ll go with your plan.” He said with a tight smile and rose. “For now, I think you should rest while I deal with Cosgrove. You’ll need to dress comfortably - the flight to Bangkok is long and tiring.”

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She gave him a slight bow and went to her room, lay down and stared at the ceiling. This mission had disaster written all over it, but she had to make sure it succeeded somehow, or she would die in dishonour. She doubted he could pull the ‘businessman looking for investments’ off. He had too much of the military rigidity about him. Unless he came up with another plan, they would fail. And she couldn’t allow that to happen. Akiko rolled onto her side, carefully supporting her knee with her other leg. This mission was all she had. Her formal contract with Chambers ended with his death and her imprisonment. She failed in her charge of protecting him, and shame burned within her soul. Her informal contract with Major Hawk gave him a latitude that meant he could do anything with her, or to her. For once, she didn’t have any idea of the conditions of the contract; he’d given her no directives to follow. That could be a good thing, or a bad thing. All she could do was take her cue from him, and hope for the best. She sighed and closed her eyes. She could do nothing now but rest, to regain her energy and her focus. Then she’d be more American and less Eastern in her questions.

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Chapter Six Nathan had a few words about Bangkok: steamy, hot, smoggy, noisy, busy - and they were the polite ones. Beside him, Sakamura visibly drooped. The combination of alcohol and the long flight had worn her out. She limped badly, as he led her off the plane, and when he put his arm around her waist to support her, she let him. It was good to know that when she needed it most, she would accept help. He lifted his head and saw a dusky-skinned Thai holding a sign up with his name on it. He walked over with Sakamura tucked in close by his side. “I’m Hawk.” He said and the man’s grin was huge. “Tags. I pick up your luggage.” He said with a bright-eyed grin. Hawk scowled at him. “Who are you and how do you know my name?” “I your contact.” The Thai showed very white teeth, then frowned and looked around. “You not know me? Not told to expect me?” Nathan rubbed his aching eyes with a thumb and forefinger – he rarely slept on planes and it was catching up with him. They’d flown from Washington to San Francisco to LA, then to Tokyo and finally to Bangkok. He’d been told he’d be met, but not by whom. His cynical and paranoid side was showing. He was better than this, but he was just so damned tired. He dropped his hand, gave the Thai a brief smile and handed the luggage claim over. Cosgrove would not have hired anyone but the best or the familiar and the man guided him out into the hot night to a black sedan. “In, you get in with wife. Then I get luggage, yes?” He opened the back door and Nathan hung on as Sakamura stiffened in his arms at the term ‘wife’. He’d hoped to avoid trouble; the plan he and Cosgrove nutted out in Washington was for them to act as a man and wife research team. Since he

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handled the bookings, via information from Cosgrove, he had expected to get away with that little deception… for a while. Now, he knew different. The little man bobbed his head in encouragement and Nathan eased Sakamura inside, and then followed her. “I heard that.” She said tiredly. “Hmm. Uncle Aiden obviously has a plan.” He said and raised his index finger to his lips, and then pointed at his ear. He had no idea if the car was bugged, but it was better safe than sorry. Sakamura’s eyes widened slightly, and then she nodded. “Which part concerns you, sweetheart?” He asked and put his arm around her shoulder. She snuggled into him, even though it was almost unbearably hot and sticky. The scent of sandalwood drifted past his nose and he dragged in a deep breath automatically. It was the scent of Akiko… Sakamura, and he couldn’t help himself. This close to her and he could imagine all manner of wicked enterprise that would get him arrested in America, but perhaps not here. “Should you have given the tags to him?” She asked and nuzzled his chest. Nathan felt the contact all the way to his toes. He thought of her body – without the inconvenient clothes. He could see himself clearly stripping her of the deep green Polo shirt and white Capri pants, running his hands over her lightly tanned skin, leaning down to suckle those lush br... “Nathan?” He blew out a breath and let the thoughts slip away. “Uncle wants us to have a good time on our honeymoon. He has contacts here and wouldn’t dream of arranging anyone but the best for us.” “Hmm…” She murmured and shifted a hand to slide across his waist. He sucked in a breath and turned his head.

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Damn, she was killing him! Nathan kept an eye out for the man and for anyone interested in them. Bangkok was a bustling city that never slept, even at night. He saw gang members with the same coloured bandana, police slowly walking the beat, soldiers with automatics across their chests eyeing the tourists, the businessmen, with suspicion. It was taking too long, yet when he was about to set Sakamura aside and go hunting, the man turned up with their luggage haphazardly piled onto a trolley. He had a young boy with him holding it all on. The pair went to the back of the car and Nathan felt the car lower as their luggage was stowed. The driver let loose a stream of Thai at the boy, and then got into the driver’s seat. “I take you to hotel, now.” He grinned and started the car, screeched out into traffic without looking. If he was feeling a little tired himself, he quickly came awake at the driver’s suicidal driving skills. Yet, apart from a few new grey hairs and a sweat-slicked forehead, the driver came to a tyre-laying halt outside the Sheraton on Sukhumvit Street forty minutes later. The driver leaned the seat and grinned again. “I get you here in good time; no one follow.” He said and waved a finger. Nathan handed over a fistful of Baht. “Thank you for that.” “Okay.” The man got out to unload. “Come on, honey, we’re here.” Nathan said and Sakamura lifted her head. “And I thought I was a mad driver.” She said in a shaky but clear voice. “I didn’t figure you could sleep through that.” He grinned. “Rip Van Winkle couldn’t help but hear that cursing.” She replied.

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Nathan felt his eyebrows lift. “You can speak Thai?” She shook her head. “No, but some words, some expressions, are universal.” He grunted and got out. Sakamura followed, but more carefully, leaning heavily on her cane. The driver unloaded their suitcases and a posse of bellboys surrounded them, all vying for the pleasure of moving luggage. The driver growled at them in Thai, then relented, picked two boys who grinned. The others backed up, obviously disappointed, but their dark brown eyes searched the street for the next taxi. Nathan again put his arm around Sakamura’s waist and guided her through the doors to the elegant and cool reception where the driver busily handled their check in. He shooed the bellboys away with the luggage, then came back to Nathan. “Your key. My card. You in trouble, you call, quick, quick. I come, help.” He handed Nathan both items with a serious grin. Nathan handed him more Baht and the driver bobbed his head and vanished out the door. He heard the screech of tyres and yells as the man… he checked the card, Mr Smith, drove away. The bellboys waited for them by the elevator and he hustled Akiko over to them. This late at night in Bangkok was this morning in Washington and he felt the drag of exhaustion. “Not long now and you can sleep.” He murmured into her hair. She nodded. The room was blessedly cool. A wide double bed was set against the wall and faced the bathroom. A smooth wooden desk and chair in the corner near the broad window and overlooked the city, a comfortable chair and side table nestled in the other corner.

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“Do you want to rest, or shower?” He asked as Sakamura limped in behind him. He pointed to himself and mouthed ‘I’ll check for bugs.’ She nodded towards the bathroom. “If it’s available, I’m going to have a long soak in a cool bath. This heat is killing me.” He turned to the air-conditioning unit and saw the smoke of condensation gust out into the humid air. Nathan snorted. “Well, honey, we’ll be on our way to Ko Samui in no time, then you can get into that skimpy two piece you’ve been bragging about and sit on a lounge chair, waited on by cabana boys.” He gave her a toothy grin at her outraged expression, and then her expression turned sly. “Cabana boys, huh? I wonder what I need you for, then.” Akiko came close, draped her elbows over his shoulders and he felt his eyes widen, then narrow with speculation. “Of course, you’re much better at it.” She said a hair’s breadth away from his mouth and he nearly groaned. She drew back, her eyes half-closed, a slight smile on her lush lips, and her forearms dragged over his shoulders, her hands drew along the sides of his face and then she stepped away from him. She picked up one of the cases and went into the bathroom, deliberately closed it behind her with a snap. The breath he’d been holding whooshed out of him and he sat on the double bed faced the closed door. She was going to kill him. It was that simple. She was too seductive, too alluring, too tempting and too out of his league, but dear God, he wanted her as he’d never wanted another woman in his life. He felt more than a little stunned by her – a smack in the head by a brick would have less effect; and he had felt this way, he realised with astonishment, since first laying eyes on her in the gym at the prison. Was phenomenal speed her only talent or did she have something else that no one knew about, like the ability to turn men inside out?

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Nathan lay back on the bed and looked down his body to the bathroom door. He could hear the water running into the bath, see his reaction to her as well. Maybe he should just go in there and… Crap. He could do nothing. Sakamura was a felon; a dangerous one at that. She’d probably use anything and anyone to escape, regardless of that Kyuba or whatever, honour code of hers - or perhaps in spite of it. She would do much to regain her honour, yet he didn’t think she’d try to escape until there was no choice. For now, they were both exhausted and still had some travelling to do; they should simply change, get into bed and sleep, otherwise jetlag would slow them down. He peeled off his black Polo shirt, let cool air brush across his heated, sweaty skin. Then he toed off his boots, sat up and drew off his damp socks. A cold shower would just about be heaven. Nathan knew he was supposed to search for bugs, but he couldn’t give a damn. Let them stare at the American newly-weds go through the rituals of getting ready for bed; it wasn’t a matter of national security, and he had no plans to discuss with Sakamura either. That would wait until they were on their way, tomorrow. It would also, he thought with a narrow-eyed gaze at the bathroom door, give credence to their status. Nathan mentally kicked himself. Seducing his… what? Partner? Wasn’t in the plan, nor could he justify it ‘in the interests of the mission’. No mission required that, but he couldn’t help but wish it did. He heard the water turn off. There was silence for a moment, and then a splash. He groaned as his imagination filled in the gaps for him. What sweet torture was this when unsighted, the maiden sought to play? Nathan smirked. He must be exhausted if he was thinking poetic thoughts. Yet it was appropriate for the hot, lust-filled blood pulsing through his veins.

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Sweet torture, indeed. He was tired, that was all; cool air moved over his skin drying the sweat and he let his eyes drift shut, but only for a moment; only until she came out and he could take her place in the cold, refreshing water. He thought of her leaning back against the cool white porcelain, with her knee out of the water, her legs partially spread as she slowly ran the soaped washcloth up and down her arms. She’d tilt her head to the side, run the cloth down her throat, and then she’d draw the cloth across those lush breasts, down that taut stomach, brushing where he wanted desperately to be. She’d do each leg, careful of the stitches, down the firmly muscled calf to her foot. He heard the play of water and though she’d lifted the other leg out of the water to wash it with slow, sensuous movements. Once done, she’d lean her head back, glory in the cool of the water for a while, sigh over the pleasure of it after the mugginess of the night. But she wouldn’t close her eyes, he grinned sleepily, no, she was an action girl. Once done, once satisfied she was clean and cool, she’d lift herself out of the water, liquid flowing down that gorgeous body of hers, over her breasts, her taut belly, down her legs as she stepped out of the bath. She’d reach for a towel and rub her body dry, wrap it around her, hiding all those lovely assets from view. His view. Did she glance at the door, just to make sure it remained shut? Would she dress in diaphanous nightclothes or was the night still too hot for that and she’d sleep naked? What decision would she make? She’d seen the double bed, knew they would share it. Sakamura was bold enough to share it with him nude without fear of his attention, yet demure enough to be clothed should he ask. Dare he recognise her nakedness? She’d been offended last time, called him a boor and other things he couldn’t remember because all he saw was the long line of her back, the firm globes of her butt, felt the ache to touch her. No, that wasn’t right. He’d been surprised, taken off guard. It was later that

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he’d felt the urge to touch, when she’d bathed in his house, all wet and slick and… Cool hands reached out and undid the buckle on his trousers. His fogged eyes cracked open. As dizzy with fatigue as he was, he saw her. Sakamura stood astride his legs, undoing his pants. Was this a dream or a fantasy come to life, he wondered. She had the towel he imagined, a large white one, wrapped around her, her damp, curling hair hid her expression as she focused on her task. His eyes lowered to her fingers as they drew down the zipper, extra carefully given the near-painful fullness there. She reached for the cuffs of his pants and slowly drew them off. Now he was in his briefs, with nothing between him and the air but a scrap of dark blue Lycra. Sakamura came back to him. Dare he hope that…? Oh… yeah… She undid the towel, let it drop to the floor and his fantasies came back in full force as he gazed at her. Had he ever seen a more magnificent body? He couldn’t recall, all his focus was on her, on the way the muscles moved under smooth, silky skin, the way she stood, proud and with no shyness. “Akiko.” He sighed as her hands lightly brushed up his thighs. Her bluegreen eyes met his and he saw the banked fire in them, the need and the hope he wouldn’t turn her away. He gave her a lazy smile and returned heat with heat. He kept his arms above his head as she climbed up onto the bed with slow, cat-like grace. She kept her eyes on his, and then with a faint smile, drew her gaze down his body to his erection. Her smile grew and she sat astride his chest, with her long, narrow back facing him. He felt another surge of lust as he realised her intentions. His arms came forward, his hands and fingers splayed on her back, drew downwards over warm, firmly muscled flesh. She didn’t look back as she slid

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her fingers beneath the Lycra, lifted it away and down his thighs as far as she could reach and he had a first class view of pink perfection. Then he went cross-eyed as she kissed the tip of him, slowly licked him from tip to root with her nimble tongue. She did it once, twice with agonising slowness as she tasted him, as she swirled her tongue around him. Then she drew him into her hot, wet mouth and used a pulsing suction. His hands dug into the bed cover as heat surged through him and he tried to arch into her. Nathan prayed for control, to last longer than he expected. Dear God! Another surge pulsed through him. He had to distract himself from her efforts. Faced with the feast in front of him, he didn’t have it in him to resist. His hands went to her hips and drew her back slightly, leaned up. He breathed her spicy scent then touched her with his tongue and she sighed with pleasure. He held her to him, inserted his tongue and tasted the freshness, the saltiness, before his hips surged into her mouth. God, he’d be happy to come right now, but that was not her intention as she drew away from him and turned around. Her eyes sought his, as if asking for permission and he gave her a halfsmile. She planted her hands on his chest, pressed her fingernails into his pectorals and slowly lowered herself onto his erection. “Ah, God!” He exhaled as her heat enveloped him. “So tight,” he murmured his hands on her hips. “So wet and hot.” Her eyes rounded, and then narrowed, a slight smile on her face as she took him inside her. She held still for a moment, and then moved her hips forward, then back, then forward with ever-increasing speed. Nathan reached up and drew her down close enough he could get to her breasts. He shifted his hips, began thrusting upwards into her as his mouth closed over a distended nipple. His hands held her butt as he encircled her breast, gently bit down and thrust hard with a rhythm she caught onto. He

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turned his attention to the other nipple, drew it into his mouth as much as he could take in and sucked hard. Sakamura threw her head back, arched her back to give him more, even as she rode him. When he thought he was about to explode, he rolled her under him and plunged deep, his mouth suctioned to her breast. Her arms and legs wrapped around him as he strove for the peak. He shut his eyes against the intensity of a nerve-searing orgasm, blood pounded in his ears blocked all sound and he held himself still as the powerful rush erupted from him and he emptied himself into her with a satisfied growl. Nathan felt as if his heart was going to explode as he dragged in breath after heaving breath. He could hear her heart thundering beneath his ear and his eyes slowly opened as her internal muscles involuntarily squeezed him. Ah, he rubbed his bristly jaw against the soft skin of her breast. Her nipples were still taut and tempted him… then he realised he was probably crushing her and thought to move. She held him still. “No...” She murmured, her fingers lightly stroking up and down his back and he let his muscles relax. The air conditioning cooled his heated skin, dried the sweat and he dragged in a deep breath, closed his eyes and thought he’d never been happier than with her. Then he slept.

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Chapter Seven Akiko wanted to blame the jet lag, the tropics, sexual frustration, the cool water of the bath for this interlude, but she couldn’t. She’d been drawn to this man since meeting him, and even the explanations of what she was, how she was brought up couldn’t keep her away from Nathan. One look into those blue eyes, one confrontational comment from him and she lost all sense, had to meet the challenge he threw down. She’d been aware of his semi-aroused state when he sometimes looked at her. Yesterday, when he walked into the bathroom, she’d decided not to recognise his discomfort. This evening, in the taxi, it was impossible to miss and she wondered. But the lure of him had never felt as strong as when she’d been lounging in the bath. All she thought about was him, had pictured him lying on the bed with only the cool air for comfort. He was her guardian, her protector, her employer, her master, until her knee healed - she knew that. Knew a more intimate relationship would ultimately end in disaster, but tonight, after such a long journey, her inhibitions had dissolved and the lust had coursed through her veins like a shot of adrenalin. If he didn’t want her, then her towel-clad body would slide between the sheets; if he did, well… When she’d come out of the bathroom and seen him almost like she imagined. His faint smile, his closed eyes and an impressive erection, it all seemed too good an opportunity to miss. If he awoke to find her taking off his pants, she would explain she was only making him more comfortable, but then his eyes, slumberous, aroused, had sought hers and he eased out a relieved sigh. He whispered ‘Akiko’ and she’d been lost in those fire-blue depths, unwilling, no, powerless to resist the invitation.

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Now, he was asleep. His breath warm against her breast, still inside her and she allowed herself a small smile. Her hands brushed up and down his muscled back. Had she ever had a more complete orgasm? Not in recent memory. Her knee ached fiercely – she shouldn’t have wrapped herself around him, but she couldn’t help it. For now, though, testing how much they could do to each other would have to wait, and they couldn’t stay like this, not all night. “Nathan.” She said softly. He huffed against her skin, caused goosebumps to pebble her skin and a surge in her blood. “Nathan!” She said louder and he mumbled something, shifted his hips and she held her breath against the friction. His body was ready for her again, even if his mind slept and she smiled. She have to do this the hard way, she thought with a snort, and hooked her undamaged knee behind his, got her arms around him and rolled him. Carefully, she disengaged them, and rose. She went into the bathroom for the washcloth, rinsed it under cold water and returned, rubbed the cloth over his lax body to remove the sweat from him. If nothing else, he wouldn’t wake up hot and sticky, nor would he get a chill from the air conditioning. She turned down the bed and rolled him once more, pulled the sheet over him. She rinsed the washcloth, turned out the lights and slid in on the other side of the bed. Akiko turned on her side, snuggled closer to him and closed her eyes. Her thoughts focused on what they’d done, her body still hummed with satisfaction, but the sensations pinging deep within her didn’t keep her from dropping into a deep sleep, the comfortable presence of Nathan behind her. *** She awoke with a heavy arm across her stomach, a hand cupping her breast, warm breath in ear and a decidedly aroused male against her bottom. She

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smiled, kept her eyes closed; he slept deeply, so she carefully turned over, her smile dropping away as if she were still asleep and nuzzled his throat, searched for a more comfortable position. Nathan obliged by pushing his knee between her thighs, hooked his heel around her calf. Content to stay like that, Akiko felt herself drift off into the world between sleep and wakefulness. She was still in that magical world when his hand brushed down her back to her butt and then her thigh. The even cadence of his breathing indicated he was still asleep, but she wondered, especially when he lifted her leg over his thigh and moved closer. Akiko kept herself relaxed as his hand moved over her. He muttered something under his breath, then eased his hips forward. She felt him nudge her then withdraw. That one contact had her ready for him and she lowered her hand to guide him to her. He slid the head inside of her, then stilled. He was awake now. “Akiko?” He asked roughly and she lifted her head. His confused eyes stared into hers, but she saw the embers of passion there and she could use it. “Kiss me, Nathan.” She whispered and his mouth touched hers, once, twice, then with more urgency as she returned kiss for kiss. He began to move, sliding his length in and out of her with slow, gentle thrusts and the hum through her blood rose to a buzz, pooled low. His kiss grew more insistent and he slid his tongue into her mouth as if he couldn’t get enough of her. He used his teeth, his lips and his tongue and she reciprocated. He shifted. She eased onto her back and he rose above her, lifted left her knee and plunged deep, his gaze pinning hers. She couldn’t wrap her legs around him, though she desperately wanted to, her knee hurt too much for that. She allowed her inner thighs to graze his hips as he worked inside her, lifted her hips for his every thrust.

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He tore his mouth from hers, feasted on her breasts and she held his head to her. She felt the warmth increase, then the scorching heat bloom, the buzz expanded and she arched back as an orgasm blasted through her. But he wasn’t done with her. Still hard, he inched his way out of her, slid along her moistness, then away. Akiko wanted more of him, but he resisted any urgings to return. Instead, he kissed his way down her body, slid his wet tongue over her skin and gently nipped at her then kissed the small marks. His tongue swirled in her navel and her hands clutched at him. He moved lower, drew in the skin of her lower abdomen until he settled between her legs with an appreciative sigh. He used his upper arms to cup her thighs, and brought her to his mouth. Again, he used his teeth, his lips and his tongue on her. She swore and cursed and pleaded in two different languages as he sealed his mouth to her and sucked. Lights exploded behind her closed eyelids as she came again, her heart pounded and fragrant air sawed in and out of her lungs. Nathan crawled up her body and rubbed his stubbled chin between her breasts. “More?” He asked and she slowly opened her eyes to stare down at him. “I don’t think… I can.” She breathed and he smiled. “Of course, you can.” He murmured and crawled further up her body, laid a gentle kiss on her mouth. “We may not get much of an opportunity to repeat this, and I’m going to make sure this is memorable.” He kissed her again, deeper. “For both of us.” Akiko stared down the line of his body, marvelled at his length resting full against her inner thigh. Then she lifted her gaze to his.

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His smile was one of smug anticipation. “Oh, yes, Akiko, there are some things I’m eager to explore with you. Stamina, for example.” He said and eased back on his heels, her legs on either side of his body. “Come to me.” He ordered and she sat up. He held her bottom, lifted her onto him and the slide of him inside her had her gasping, had her writhing against him as he pushed deeper into her than before. Her skin felt ultra-sensitive, she still vibrated from his previous onslaught. Nathan’s mouth took hers with a gentle savageness she returned. Her arms wrapped around him, one leg curled around him and she held the other straight. His hips pressed upwards, his hands held her to him and she matched his rhythm as he thrust, thrust, thrust into her. Nathan ducked his head and clamped onto a breast again, as if he couldn’t get enough of them. When he used his teeth on her, she felt it all the way down and she jerked against him. She felt the pleasure build, deep inside, felt it grow and grow until he lost his rhythm, surged into her once more. She felt the pulse of him deep inside and threw back her head as the pure pleasure crashed over her, expanded and she lost the strength to hang on to him. He held her in his strong arms while she felt as limp as a rice noodle. She had the energy to brush a lock of hair of his forehead. “Nathan.” She sighed and his expression went from pleasure to… something else; something she didn’t recognise. “I should be more careful of your knee.” He said as he eased himself out of her. “I’m sorry.” He lowered his eyes, and she had a sudden thought that he was sorry about making love with her. She kissed him lightly. “Don’t be, Nathan. I am not and any aches or pains I should suffer have been worth it.” She let him go, awkwardly climbed off the

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bed and limped towards the bathroom, though she made sure he didn’t see any difference in her limp. More of those painkillers would see her through the day. Akiko stood under the cold shower, rinsed off the sweat and the scent of him. He was right, she thought, it had been memorable; something she would remember for all her days. It was also something she hoped they had the opportunity to repeat, though she expected him to be resistant to the idea. Work came first, then pleasure. On that, she agreed, with a sigh. The water sluiced down her body, but she still trembled in aftermath of his lovemaking. He certainly had explored a few things with her, but she could teach him more, sensual ideas he might be open to. She turned off the taps and turned, saw him standing there, naked. “I had thought to join you, but our time is short, so out you get.” He said with a smile. Stepping out of the shower, she raised up onto her toes and kissed him. “Thank you for this morning.” She said and he frowned. “I could have sworn last night…” He shook his head. “Must have been a dream, a really vivid dream; or jet lag.” He muttered and took her place in the shower. He obviously didn’t think last night had happened, thus his asking her this morning. She’d let him keep that to himself. Last night had been for both of them, a fulfilling of his fantasy, or, she figured, the beginning of it. And, she thought as she towelled off while watching him, she wondered what other fantasies he had she could fulfil. *** More relaxed than he’d felt in a long time, Nathan guided Sakamura to a table in the spacious Orchid Cafe.

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He didn’t miss her limp nor her attempt at making it less than it was, even with the cane. He’d been rough with her this morning, selfish, but she’d taken it, and him, as if she had no more will power against the attraction they felt for each other than he did. And yet, hadn’t he thought last night she would use anyone and anything to aid her escape? Was this morning genuine passion or did she have an ulterior motive? He couldn’t tell. She’d already addled his brain and he couldn’t let that continue, he had to retain his focus on the mission. But the mission required they be newly-weds. If nothing else, their new intimacy would give credence to their ‘relationship’. Where it went from here, he didn’t know, but he would let it go on; any watchers would assume they were what they said: A newly married couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Of course, that was okay with him. He was happy to use any excuse to get his hands on her, for as long as she was willing. All he had to do was retain his focus and keep an emotional distance. His conscience jabbed at him. Akiko assumed he was her master and would do as he commanded. His heart sank with understanding. That did not, in his book, include fabulous sex, but did it in hers? And he wondered whether she’d acquiesced to his lustful demands because of it. Had Chambers and her other ‘masters’ demanded sex from her? He felt heat of anger at the thought of unknown men touching her because they demanded it and her acquiescing because she felt honour-bound. If they had, if she expected to service him, that made him a total bastard. He resolved to keep his hands off her unless she initiated intimacy. More doubts swirled inside him. Though she professed to not having any regrets, he also wondered if that was a part of her upbringing. Had her father or her

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mother… procured teachers for her? She’d readily confessed that her mother had taught her how to be a woman. Did that mean…? He felt his face heat with embarrassment at the thought. Her mother? And he had an image of his own mother suggesting ways and means to satisfy a woman. If that had happened to him, he’d have died from mortification. She ordered fruit and he heard himself order the full American breakfast. She acted as if she hadn’t… “Nathan? The waiter asked if you wanted coffee.” She said with a slight smile, her hand covering his and he backed his thoughts out of the bedroom. He looked up at the waiter. Mr Smith stood smiling over him, pen poised over a notepad. “Yes, thank you.” He said as if he’d never seen the man before. Whatever reason Mr Smith had for following them, it was rooted with General Cosgrove... Maybe he was back-up, or a guard or a number of other useful things. Akiko turned his hand over, tangle her fingers with his and watched Mr Smith walk away. Acting the part, he assumed. “Ask your questions, Nathan.” She said, smiling at him, but her tone was brisk, professional. Where was the real Sakamura? Who was Sakamura? He shook off his thoughts and tried to remember what she’d said about her adoption. “The jungle, the complex. Can you remember where they were?” She shook her head. “No. I’m not even sure I’d recognise them.” She turned her head to watch the morning diners. “I remember the heat, the damp, the dripping jungle. I remember shouts and running, but I couldn’t use my speed, there was someone with me who knew the jungle.” Her brow creased in thought and she returned her attention to him.

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“I remember the sun beating down, ferociously hot and direct. We... I... had been in the jungle for weeks. I think... I... a car.” Her eyebrows lowered and her gaze took on distance. “A black car, a dirt road, rice farmers in funny hats.” She paused, then shook her head in disgust. “That’s all. My memories cut out, just stop until I’m on an airplane a week or so later and even then they’re hazy, as if I can’t quite focus on them. I don’t have any specific memories of before.” He’d known that might be the case, but the disappointment weighed heavily on his shoulders. He squeezed her hands lightly. “We’ll go to the Red Light District first, talk to street people, see if we can locate any…” A shadow fell across the table. Even as he looked up a man in a khaki uniform stood behind Sakamura. “Major Hawk.” He saluted. “I am Lieutenant Srichapan. Would you come with me, please?” He looked over at Sakamura. She had her head lowered, her eyes downcast. What the hell was this about? They’d been in the country for less than twelve hours. “I…” Srichapan laid a hand on his arm and leaned closer. “Please. Miss Sakamura should accompany us as well.” Srichapan inclined his head in a respectful manner, though his dark brown eyes were cold with determination. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Akiko shift her eyes to glance at him. “Of course, Lieutenant.” Nathan smiled and rose. The other man, also in uniform, helped Sakamura to rise, offered her the cane. She accepted it, but her knuckles turned white on the grip. What had she said about canes? Oh, yes, they were a handy weapon to beat someone to death with and he had no doubt she could do it. They weren’t here to cause a

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ruckus and any violence now would see them in a Thai prison; something he wanted to avoid. Nathan gave her a tiny shake of his head. Her hand relaxed on the cane and she smiled at the officer. Until they knew what was going on, they’d play it calm and relaxed, like the researchers they were supposed to be. As they were escorted out of the restaurant, Nathan saw Mr Smith, and the unhappy expression on his face. But he did nothing as he watched them be escorted from the cafe. Outside, the air was heavy with humidity and smog. He could feel the sweat pearl on his forehead as he walked to a black sedan with its engine running. He handed Akiko into the car, then ducked to get in himself. The lieutenant got into the front passenger side and the soldier jumped into the driver’s seat. The car was blessedly air-conditioned and he sat back, his arm around Akiko’s shoulders. He remained silent as he surreptitiously scanned the area they were moving through. It appeared to be a normal, busy day in downtown Bangkok, with roads crowded by cars and bicycles and people; everywhere there were people. He didn’t know who or what to watch for. He may have been Army Intelligence, but unless he was totally familiar with an area, this mass of humanity made it impossible to search for assassins or foreign agents. He spent most of his time analysing areas, not being in those areas. That was for field agents and he hadn’t been one for a long time. The lieutenant remained silent, content to let the soldier drive them to their destination, which, Nathan saw, was a white, three storey building with a red tiled roof. More uniformed people went into and out of the building; some sort of military establishment?

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The driver parked at the front. The lieutenant got out and opened Nathan’s door; the soldier did the same for Akiko, helped her out of the vehicle. She bobbed her head at the soldier and he bobbed his head back at her. The officers escorted them inside. It was cooler here, out of the hazy sunshine, but the humidity still had his shirt clinging to his back. He kept close to Akiko and took her arm. “Okay?” He asked and she nodded, kept her eyes downcast. “This way, if you please.” Lieutenant Srichapan said and held out his arm towards a long corridor. Nathan frowned. It was so quiet, with uniformed men and women attending to their business in respectful, subdued voices. His office could learn a thing or two from Thais, he thought wryly as they were lead to an office. The lieutenant knocked, opened the door and indicated they should enter. An older man, with a nut brown, narrow face, dark chocolate eyes and jetblack hair, wearing a dark uniform sat behind the lake of a desk. He nodded to the lieutenant who quietly shut the door behind them. “Please,” the man said and rose. “Take a seat. You must be tired after your long journey and… jet lag.” He said with a knowing smile. He came around the desk and held a chair for Akiko. “Miss Sakamura, I hope the therapy is going well?” “It is,” she said softly and lowered herself into the chair with a sigh. “Thank you.” She hooked the cane onto the arm of the chair. “Major Hawk, I’m Commander Attapattu, please,” he indicated a second chair. When Nathan sat, Attapattu went around the desk and re-seated himself. “I’m sure you are curious as to why I have had you brought here.” He began. “Yes, sir, we are.”

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Attapattu nodded. “I have been briefed on your mission here, and…” “You have?” Nathan blurted. “Yes. My American contacts are most… informative.” He said with a smile. Nathan frowned. This was a military intelligence mission; the CIA had nothing to do with it, unless… they wanted the information for themselves. “I don’t understand, sir, this is a simple fact-finding mission.” Attapattu graced him with a broad, white-toothed smile. “Yes, I’m sure it is. On the surface.” Nathan had wondered about Cosgrove’s ulterior motive in sending him and Akiko here, was he about to find out? “On the surface, Commander, we’re here to find Miss Sakamura’s birth parents. Underneath, we are here to find Miss Sakamura’s birth parents.” Attapattu tilted his head with a smile. “So, we are to dance around the topic. Very well, I shall, how do you say, lay my cards on the table. I will give you information to help you with your quest. In doing so, I would like, at the end of your mission, to be informed of the results of your… fact-finding tour.” Nathan kept silent. He wasn’t about to confess to being a covert operative on a mission in an allied country. The consequences didn’t bear thinking about if he trusted this man – and was wrong. As if guessing his thoughts, the Commander continued with a smile. “Come now, Major, Thailand is a close ally of the United States. We mean you no harm, only assurances that whatever you find remains secret. It would be… unfortunate if those you seek, and the information surrounding them, should be discovered by the wrong ears.” He lifted an eyebrow and glanced at Sakamura.

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Holy shit! The Thai government knew about Project Genesis! He thought with astonishment. But were they party to it? Had a previous government allowed those experiments to take place? Attapattu leaned back in his chair, folded his hands across his slim waist. “Let me tell you what we know, then if you can fill in any gaps, I would appreciate you doing so.” The Commander said. Nathan nodded. “It has long been an urban legend that the Americans set up facilities within the jungles of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos during the Asian conflict. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say, since it was a… Black Operation… and your government has never confirmed nor denied such facilities existed. What were they for? That would be pure speculation, but we suspect drug and chemical manufacture for use against the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge. If your enemy is drugged, they cannot fight.” He gave Nathan a sharp smile. “We know at least some of the facilities may have been used for such practices. Since there were incidences of… drug overdoses within the enemy camps. “However, there were rumours and still are rumours of disaffected medical personnel from the war, disappearing into the jungles, making contact with the so-called Air America and joining in some of the American deserters. Of course,” he said with a smile, “there are no such records confirming or denying such things.” Attapattu rose, went to the sideboard and poured three glasses of water from a metal carafe, beaded with condensation. He brought them over and he and Sakamura gratefully accepted the cold glasses. Attapattu sat with his own glass and sipped. Nathan had yet to connect the dots, but he had a bad feeling about what the Commander had already said. He knew from his own study black ops did happen during the war, though he’d never seen the actual orders, if there had

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been any. Air America was the most secretive organisation of the war, supplying all sorts of materiel to dissidents, flying illegal missions over Cambodia, fighting a covert war against an enemy that would not quit. He also knew some of those people never returned to the States, but disappeared with gold, drugs, cash and other supplies. Whether his government hunted those… deserters after all this time, he didn’t know, but the information was interesting. “Some of those ‘operations’ worked directly against the U.S., Commander, as criminal organisations.” Nathan said and Attapattu nodded. “Yes, though not against Project Genesis.” He smiled at Nathan’s expression. “As I said, my contacts were most informative. However, the fact remains that you are searching for documentation about the Project itself, which, I’m afraid will prove elusive.” “How so?” Nathan asked. “The Thai government has spent years and a lot of money searching for various installations, both here and in Cambodia and Laos, at the border around Paoy Pet. None were ever found.” “That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, covered by the jungle. It’s a big place and all manner of sin can be hidden if you’re determined enough.” Nathan put in. “Agreed. But after all this time, any paper work would have been eaten away by damp and humidity if it was still there. The buildings themselves would be crumbling, broken down by the jungle itself. And,” he said with a faint smile, “we do have access to infra red satellite imagery. Nothing has ever turned up.” “There must still be veterans here. Soldiers who couldn’t settle back into the civilian life they came from. I’m sure Thailand provided them with the means to start again.”

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“Probably.” The commander agreed. “But how likely are they to talk to you, an army officer, when they are deserters?” He had a point. “Now, tell me what you know of all this.” Attapattu ordered, but with a smile on his face. Nathan froze. Dare he trust this man? He already knew about Project Genesis, but not the details. If he was wrong, General Cosgrove would have him court-martialled; and he’d deserve it. On the other hand, Attapattu knew much already, had contacts in one of the covert organisations back in the States. What could a little background history harm? He could gauge the Commander’s body language, find out if it was new information. If it wasn’t, he wouldn’t be compromising his mission. If it was, he’d have to give at least some of it away, though he was loathe to mention Sakamura’s absolute connection to Winter and Summer. Finally, he nodded. “From what I can find, before and during the Second World War, the Nazis worked on a project closely monitored by Hitler himself, but headed by Mengele. Josef Mengele. When Hitler demanded the Aryan race be superior to any other, he deliberately and callously set about making it a reality, and Mengele began experiments on political German prisoners. Eventually, he used Jews, Romany Gypsies, and homosexuals. He used people who had the right attributes. In some cases, people he had taken off the streets for his works.” Nathan reached to the desk and sipped his water; Sakamura remained quiet. He knew this was new information for her and he’d kept it hidden from her deliberately. “Mengele’s experiments used the application of heat, cold, to test the limits of human endurance. He used psychology against the prisoners too. But ultimately, he and Hitler wanted to create a super soldier, one that resisted all

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manner of human extreme. What he managed was a serendipitous result. He found, without ever discovering how, that some of the children he created had extraordinary abilities. He spent the rest of the war trying to reproduce his experiments, with no success. But he did have a cadre of children who could do amazing things. When Germany fell, those children went to America, under guard. I don’t know what happened to them when the arrived – those records have been lost – on purpose or accidentally.” He said with a smile and Attapattu nodded with appreciation. Nathan drained his glass, set it on the desktop. “But then the Vietnam War… er, Asian Conflict broke out, and I understand some of those children were now adult enough to be trained and used on counter-intelligence missions. Two, however, disappeared during combat. They were presumed killed, for no sign of them was ever heard of again, until two… until papers came to light indicating that two young children, with similar abilities had been bought, here in Thailand, from a woman who might be one those who disappeared.” Nathan paused. Attapattu nodded for him to continue. “Since this is the country where the children came from and they had direct contact with, we presume, one of the missing agents from Vietnam, this is where we will begin our search. It is, of course, speculation at this point, as to what happened where and how. What we do know is basically the beginning of the story and the end; we don’t know the middle, nor do we know if those original experiments are still continuing. If they are, they will stopped. For good.” The commander sat in silence, his expression thoughtful. Then he came to a decision and wrote down some words on a note pad, offered the paper to Nathan. “Talk to this man. He lives on Ko Samui.” Nathan took the slip but didn’t look at it. He folded it and put it into his top shirt pocket.

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“You know about Project Genesis, you know about Air America and the black ops. You know where I can contact a source of information I need. You know a lot about what we’re doing here. I’m beginning to suspect that you’re working very closely with my government, but that those who sent me know nothing about it. Am I close?” Attapattu lifted a shoulder. “That leads me to think,” Nathan continued, “that your government has approved all this, but it’s to be kept quiet, with no overt signals; that my own government has the same attitude, but decided to… compartmentalize. It makes me think two groups of Americans are working the same agenda for the same result.” “I wouldn’t know about that, Major Hawk.” Attapattu’s eyes were so dark as to be unreadable. “Then answer me this: do we have enemies on our tail?” “Yes, Major Hawk, you do, so I would caution you to be very careful about whom you trust. In fact, I would leave now, today, for Ko Samui.” He replied. “Any more clues?” “I can only say that many have an interest in your success – not all of them American. The… mission in Tennessee should have been handled with more delicacy. There are those who are putting the pieces together in way not to your advantage.” He stood and leaned his fists on the desktop. Nathan got to his feet, the helped Akiko to rise. “Protect Miss Sakamura with your life, Major Hawk. You are alone in the wilderness and allies may indeed be your enemy. Should you find yourself with no way out…” His eyes slid to Akiko. Nathan understood the implications: he would have to kill Sakamura. “As a last resort.” He ground out.

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“Good luck, Major Hawk, Miss Sakamura. Come and visit when this is done. My wife and I would be honoured to share a table with you.” He bowed his head. Sakamura returned his bow. “Thank you, Commander Attapattu for your time and your patience. We would be honoured to return when the weather is beautiful.” Attapattu smiled with warmth at her, but her comment confused Nathan. The lieutenant returned to escort them back to the car. The same driver waited and they rode back to the hotel in silence. Nathan kept thinking about Attapattu’s words, Should you find yourself with no way out… Could he eliminate Akiko and himself before allowing either of them to fall into enemy hands? Who followed them? Which U.S. agency did Attapattu mean? CIA or something else? What foreign agents hunted for them? The unknown enemy obviously knew about Project Genesis, understood the value of the progeny. They would probably torture him for the fun of it, use him against Akiko, and experiment on her to find out what made her tick. They’d probably enjoy playing nasty little games with her, too, and for the rest of the journey his mind came up with all sorts of horrifying scenarios, with Akiko centre stage. And he had no idea if it mattered whether Akiko was alive - or dead - for the experiments to work. Was this the fear Duquesne and Beech felt at the thought of their women in government custody? That the CIA or another organisation would experiment on them, too? It gave him chills to think his own government would countenance something like that, and yet they had sent two Genesis agents, more than two, into the Vietnam War. For how long did his government use the agents? Were they still in service to the U.S.? And Cosgrove ordered that Akiko accompany him, thus using her as a de facto government agent.

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He stared out of the window, without seeing the city. Cosgrove manipulated him and Akiko; had manipulated and blackmailed Summer and Winter into government service with the promise of freedom. And he’d been ordered to make the same offer to Akiko on the completion of the mission. The fact remained that if the enemy captured Sakamura, there’d be no rescue from the U.S. and maybe not from the Thais either, no freedom for Akiko. It occurred to him that until the information was found and destroyed, until there were no Project Genesis progeny around, Summer, Winter, Akiko and any others out there, hidden, freedom for them would remain an elusive dream; someone would always want to use them, for the good of the nation. Nathan firmed his mouth. He was an American and, right or wrong, in his country’s service to protect his nation from enemies, both domestic and foreign. If that meant keeping Akiko ‘indentured’ to the U.S., he would. The alternative... He would do as Attapattu suggested: he could not afford Sakamura to fall into the hands of the wrong people. And he’d guarantee it, he thought, and rubbed his sternum. At least it would be painless.

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Chapter Eight Back in their room, Nathan began packing and urged Akiko to do the same. “We’ll do as the Commander suggested.” He said, his voice betraying his tension as he stuffed the carry-on. Their other luggage remained packed. “Leave immediately and head to… Chang Mai.” He said, aware that he hadn’t checked for bugs, and Attapattu’s hesitation in using ‘jet lag’ with a knowing smile, made him believe there were cameras in here as well as microphones. He turned towards the bathroom. Akiko sat on the side of the bed, her carry-on bag already zippered at her feet. “I didn’t know.” She said quietly and he didn’t misunderstand her meaning. “I know, honey, and I’m sorry. But if I’d told you before hand, would you have allowed our honeymoon to be here? Or would you have chosen somewhere else?” He gave her a veiled warning glance. She sighed. “I would go where you would take me, Nathan.” She said softly and it warmed his heart. He gave her a smile, glanced at her and saw the coolness in her eyes. She was playing her part and he was having a hard time remembering that they weren’t married, nor were they likely to ever see each other again when this mission was finished. She would go back to Japan, or prison and he… he would ache for a while, eventually forget her, and then carry on with his career. That was the theory, but in his heart, he didn’t believe that. Not at all. When he was done packing, he called down for a bellboy and sat next to her, picked up her hand and held it between his own. “I know, sweetheart, I know. But Chang Mai is where we must go if we’re to catch up with her.” “Why would your Aunt come here, Nathan, when she had everything in the States?” Akiko said, taking up the false tale.

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“Well, living in Thailand has all sorts of benefits. It’s cheaper living, so her dollars will go further. It’s a beautiful country, and outside of the cities, there’s a kind of peasant population, too. That means it’s a slower lifestyle, a body can relax here, take it easy, let go of all your troubles.” He said. “And she might find your Uncle, too.” Nathan sighed. “She was devastated when he disappeared. She, like the rest of the family, expected him to return home when the fighting was over. Now, she has the resources and determination to track him down.” He chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when she catches up; she’s hell on wheels.” There was a knock on the door and Nathan gave her hand once last pat before letting the bellboy in. Downstairs, he checked out, asked for a taxi and reservation information for Chang Mai. The exceptionally beautiful Thai woman handled his questions with quiet dignity and respect. He’d have to come back here one day. The country had a brightness of colour, of spirit, of calmness and respect. The taxi arrived and the bellboy loaded their luggage into the boot, gave directions to the driver in Thai and held the car door open for them. He grinned cheekily at the handful of Baht Nathan passed him. At the airport, an attendant unloaded the bags onto a trolley and followed them into the cool air of the airport. “Stay here.” He said and went to the counter, asked and paid for two tickets to Surat Thani in the south of the country. The plane boarded a few minutes ahead of the one heading north to Chang Mai. If luck was with him, it might throw some of their pursuers off the trail; for others, they’d cotton on quick enough. He wished he had a better idea of who and how many were after them. Then again, he only had the Commander’s word others had an interest in what they were doing.

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Of course, there was the multi-talented ‘Mr Smith’. Could he be one of them? Or was he truly an agent for Cosgrove. Nathan wanted to find out, to confirm with the General, but he had no time. He checked their luggage through, kept a hold of both carry-ons. No matter where a traveller went in the world, there was every opportunity for the main luggage to go elsewhere, which was why he always had a day-pack with him. Akiko had the same plan and they virtually went from check in to the plane immediately. He kept an eye out for anyone interested in them, but he saw no one. Relieved, he sank into his seat. He leaned towards Akiko. “I didn’t see anyone tailing us. You?” His jaw dropped when she nodded. *** “We are watched even now.” She said with a small smile. Her knee ached badly and she wanted to take medication, but she had to keep her focus, keep her attention on everyone but Nathan, though she found her thoughts repeatedly returning to him. “Damn.” He muttered beside her. “Where?” “Two followed and boarded the plane. One is of Asian extraction, probably Thai - the other is a Scandinavian. He has the look of a wrestler or bodyguard about him. One is at the front of the plane, the other at the rear.” She reported. “Did you see any others?” He asked in a low voice as he buckled his seat belt and again she nodded, recalling the many dark eyes that rested on them for a second too long as they emerged from the hotel, as they exited from the taxi, as Nathan bought tickets. “They have not arrived, they are locals. Perhaps they cannot get a ticket; perhaps they have made other arrangements.” “Like calling ahead.” “It is what I would do.” She agreed and eased back in her seat.

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“Yeah, me, too.” She felt the pressure as the plane took off, closed her eyes and quelled the resulting discomfort. She hated take offs and landings. Being in the air was no bother, but the leaving and landing, always made her feel slightly ill. When they were airborne, she opened her eyes once more, stared at the seat in front of her. “How long have you know of the experiments?” She asked quietly. Nathan had to bend towards her so as not to be overheard. “I had a fair briefing before we came here.” He whispered. She nodded. Of course he would. He would not go on a mission without as much information as possible. “What else do you know?” “I know about Jennifer Ann Porter. She’s the one we’re hunting. I know you’re probably an older sister to Summer and Winter. You have too many features and mannerisms for me to doubt that.” She had to agree. At least where Winter was concerned. She’d felt the brief touch in her mind of the other twin, Summer, while in prison. Whenever she did, she shut down her thoughts via meditation. To her, it was exceptionally rude to go poking inside someone’s head without permission. She adamantly refused requests from Summer to invade her thoughts. Nor was she surprised at the women’s talents. It felt... familiar, but she couldn’t remember why. “About your talent.” Nathan murmured. “Yes?” He cleared his throat. “Are you ever going to show me? Do something with this speed of yours?” “I already have, Nathan, you just weren’t paying attention.” She said. “Oh? An example?”

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“Last night I took a very quick bath. This morning, I was packed before you. My speed is not restricted to running, Nathan. I have to use it, or it will take me over.” “Take you over?” She nodded. “Yes. When I was a teenager, I vowed not to use the speed until I had mastered the arts set for me. Through meditation and concentration, I kept it at bay. I deliberately did things in slow motion, like Tai Chi, focused on every step I took, every sweep of my hand, every movement of my body. But I could feel this pressure building at the back of my skull, knew what it was and resisted.” “But?” “But in a practice match against my Sensei, I was so focused on his moves, my moves to counter act, that I could not hold the speed back.” She remembered the horror of striking him, of doing it so fast, her hands were a blur. And she recalled she was thankful that it was unarmed combat they were practising and that they wore gloves. Jiro had been shocked at her lack of control, had chastised her even as he had praised her for her skill. “What happened?” Nathan asked, breaking into her memories. “I could not slow down for forty-eight hours. I ran, I practiced the Katanas, I meditated, I ran some more, ran until I was exhausted, until the blisters broke and my feet were bloody and still I could not slow down. It was a lesson I learned well, and have not repeated it.” “Huh.” He said. “Winter had the same problem. Not as advanced as yours, but she began doing things inadvertently when she didn’t remember she had the power.”

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Another similar facet. She thought, but remembered fighting Winter. Three times. The first fight, she’d lost. The second, she’d used a weapon, and the third had… freed the both of them, she realised. In taking her out, it gave Winter the opportunity to act against the Castellan. The aftermath had exposed Akiko’s dishonour, but it was better it was brought into daylight early, than to grow in the dark. Winter had done her a favour, after all. The thought did not enamour Winter to her, nor was she grateful. She would have found out eventually and taken her own measures against Chambers. She’d already begun to suspect his treachery when he’d locked Summer into a cell with swirling lights and discordant sounds. That had been unspeakably cruel to a telepath, and, though it upset her chi, her inner balance, she could not forgive Chambers for it. At the time, she had been formulating a plan to get out of her contract honourably. She hadn’t reached a conclusion before Winter and her lover had taken things out of her hands. It was her job, and her honour to protect Chambers until she could find a way out. She owed Winter a debt she doubted she could repay, had no idea how she could repay it, even if the woman agreed. “They’re safe now.” He murmured to her. “I know.” She replied. “It feels as if we are going into battle, with the players jockeying for positions before the opening shot is fired.” He sighed. It was a perfect analogy, for that’s exactly how it felt. The lovemaking of the night before and this morning were an affirmation of life, should one of them fall; the police commander, giving them their final orders and wishing them good luck. The men who followed them, like outriders, watching but keeping their distance and no doubt reporting back to their own camp. And Mr

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Smith? She thought about his actions. He was a… spy of sorts, but for whom? She knew he had his own agenda. Who direct this play? Who controlled those who hunted them? Another government? A separate interested party? And now they were on their way to the first point of contact. Ready to engage the enemy should he show himself. Maybe they should detain the Scandinavian, or the Thai, ask a few pointed questions. “A soldier who fights with the expectation to live, will die; a soldier who fights with the expectation of dying, will live.” She murmured for his ears alone. “More Samurai wisdom?” He asked with a grin. “It is nonetheless true. Samurai do not fear death, Nathan.” His expression sobered. “What about Ronin?” She eased back, turned to the window and he sighed. “We’ll get to Mr Stewart soon enough and find out what’s what.” “Mr Stewart?” She asked. “He’s our next contact.” He said. “And we’d better find him soon.” *** The plane landed with barely a bump and the passengers applauded. To her, it was a strange custom; one she did not join. She kept her head downcast, searched the passengers already disembarking for the two men following. In the confusion, she missed them as she and Nathan were the last to disembark. Nathan grasped her hand and led her through the concourse to the baggage claim area. “Do you see them?” He asked through tight lips.

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“No, not yet.” She replied and kept looking. She stood next to him while they waited to collect their bags, searched the crowd, but if they were anywhere, they were behind them and she could think of no good excuse to turn. She hadn’t seen them with any luggage, they would hang back, see what she and Nathan would do. For his part, Nathan acted like an impatient tourist, twitching from foot-tofoot, staring hard at the carousel as if their bags would magically appear. “C’mon, c’mon.” He muttered and earned a sympathetic glance from the elderly man standing next to him. Akiko watched the old man. Age did not preclude anyone from being a spy, she knew and as elderly as he may appear, he was a lithe and fit looking man, able to take Nathan and her out with a few well thought of moves. Her knee felt vulnerable, even with the brace on, but she had her cane, and felt better able to defend herself, thanks to the teachings of Jiro. She smiled sadly at the thought of the old master. She’d thought him elderly at their introduction, but she soon learned age was no barrier to defence or offence. And, she realised, she missed his counsel, missed his wise words and instructions, missed his praise and his punishments for failure; she missed him. But surely he’d gone to meet his ancestors by now, and they would be pleased by him. The baggage finally arrived and Nathan hauled it off the carousel. Weighed down as he was, she was now in charge of protection. He would have to drop everything before engaging and that might be too late. “This way, honey,” he chirped and led them out of the airport. There was a line of buses outside, all with different signs for different destinations. Hotel transfer buses, sleek, air-conditioned for the discerning tourist who didn’t want to be inconvenienced by the oppressive tropical heat.

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Nathan handed the bags to the driver of the local bus and walked on, sat behind the driver’s seat. Akiko followed more slowly and sat across from him. There was still no sign of those who followed them, but that didn’t mean no one did. It would take a couple of hours to get to the launch point for the ferry to Ko Samui, but she kept her vigilance, kept an eye out as the bus driver boarded, started up the ancient engine in a cough of black smoke and pulled out into traffic with little regard to who might be passing. The bus was half full, mostly of backpackers and locals. She saw no signs of lone travellers, or anyone who was interested in her or Nathan. As predicted, the bumpy, slow bus ride took two hours and she was glad to be getting off when they arrived at Ban Lak So. The sun was bright, hot, the humidity high and the skin beneath the brace itched; worse, she was starving. What she hadn’t mentioned about her speed, was it used up a lot of energy that had to be replaced. They’d had no breakfast and she’d declined any of the airline food. Nathan thanked the driver and gave him some Baht. Other passengers did, too, and then he came over to her. “The driver said we should take the ferry across. It leaves in about ten minutes. If we hurry, we’ll make it.” He was looking everywhere but at her. She knew he was trying to find the ferry and to keep an eye out for followers, but her belly mourned the loss of opportunity for food. “There it is.” He said and hefted the bags. Akiko followed in his wake, with her head bowed and stomach grumbling. Once aboard, his expression didn’t relax. His eyes searched the passengers, but as far as she was concerned, any tracker worth his salt wouldn’t allow himself to be seen. He’d blend in, be a tourist, attach himself to a group. He’d be chatting up some girls, asking the crew about the ship, the island, the

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country. He could be the businessman feigning sleep, the woman with the child sleeping in her arms, the old one fanning herself. Akiko snuggled up to him. “Relax, Nathan. There is nothing we can do and you’re being obvious when you look around, when your eyes rest for too long on any one individual. When the time comes to escape, we will.” He grinned down at her. “And you know this because…?” “We’ve yet to reach the objective. They will hang back until that part of our mission is complete. When it’s done, however, all bets are off.” “It still pays to keep an eye out, to mark who the markers are.” “Of course, but only if you’re subtle about it.” She murmured and moved in closer. “But you don’t need to look like you’re a military man on a mission; you’re supposed to be on your honeymoon, and you’ve yet to look at me.” She said and he lowered his head, stared into her eyes and moved to kiss her. “I’ve missed you.” He murmured against her mouth. “I’ve been by your side all day.” She reminded him, but his lips closed over hers. The sound of giggling broke them apart, and Akiko looked over his shoulder at two schoolgirls with their mouths covered, still giggling. “The downcast, subservient Akiko has been with me. Now, though, Sakamura, the warrior, is with me.” He didn’t take his eyes off hers. “It is Sakamura I have missed.” He said and lightly brushed her lips with his before easing back. Akiko was glad of the cool sea breeze. Her skin felt hot and achy after his touch and his words. There was no way either of them could relieve that ache. She could not afford any distraction, especially by him, she told herself and kept her head down while she surveyed the passengers.

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When they reached the quay at Ko Samui, Nathan arranged for their stay at a hotel on the other side of the island, close to Stewart’s address. They hoped onto the hotel bus for the short journey. Again, Akiko studied the surrounds from her downcast expression. The hotel foyer was open and airy, with arches and pillars along the lower level. Beyond she could see the brilliant blue of the ocean. While she would have loved to cool off in the ocean, her first priority was food. The day was waning and she could smell the enticing scents from the restaurant. “I need to eat.” She said without meaning to. “What was that?” He asked as he once again picked up the bags, the key between his teeth. She lifted her head. “I said, I need to eat.” “Ah,” he grinned. “We’ll drop off the bags and explore, how’s that?” “Tempting, but no. I need to eat now.” His expression was puzzled at first, then cleared with understanding and he nodded. “Okay, how about I take the bags to the room, and you find us a table in the restaurant?” “That is something I can accept.” She nodded regally and he chuckled. He gave her the room number then wandered away. Akiko focused on the restaurant. She limped in and a waitress came over to her. “A table for one?” She asked sadly. Akiko gave her a secretive smile. “Two. My… husband is taking care of the luggage.” She said.

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“Ah.” The waitress, who couldn’t have been out of her teens yet, smiled. “You hesitated; you must be new to marriage.” Akiko nodded and was lead out side to the outdoor area. There were plenty of tables under white umbrellas. “Come this way. I have just the table. He is handsome? Your husband?” “Very.” Akiko replied. “That is not so good. I pray he does not have a wandering eye.” She pulled out a seat for her and she sat gratefully. “No.” Akiko looked up at her with a wicked smile as the waitress handed Akiko a menu. “I make sure he comes home. He can look, but that is all he does.” “Ah, yes. I see.” The waitress said. “I shall be back with some water.” “Thank you.” She smiled and the waitress walked away. Akiko sighed over the view. There were green plants just below the railing, but she had a view of white sands and sapphire blue ocean. Along the shore, couples walked slowly, children played and joggers… jogged. It wasn’t overly crowded and she turned her eyes to the sea. There were yachts out there, bobbing in the swell, or setting sail for parts unknown. What would it be like, she wondered, to do that? To lift anchor and sail to wherever you pleased, without a care in the world or without a master to direct your actions? How many others had sat here and wondered the same thing? She realised she’d been dreaming of taking off with Nathan - he would be dressed in white shirt and trousers, she, in a sundress reclined on a bench taking in the sun. Talk about clichéd. Why would she think of it now? She shook her head; she wasn’t usually a dreamer, but this land, this island was full of dreams.

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“Hi, honey.” Nathan said form beside her. He leaned in and kissed her cheek before settling into his seat across from her. “How’s the room?” She asked. “You’ll see it soon enough.” He said and opened his menu. “Man, I’m starved.” He said with a twinkle in his eye. He ordered a seafood appetizer, followed by steak and dessert. Akiko looked up at the woman and said, “I’ll have the same.” The woman looked at her for a moment, then lowered her eyes, wrote it down and wandered away. “Sure you can eat that much?” Nathan asked. “Watch me,” she replied and he grinned. “Oh, I will, Mrs Hawk, I will.” It gave her a thrill when he said that, but she knew it to be false; knew it to be a part of their cover as newly-weds. For the rest of the meal, they spoke of inconsequential things; both were too busy watching for the enemy to focus on the fabulous food, or to engage in more complex conversation. Then the sun set and the panorama left no room for speech. It was a stunning array of gold, and orange-rimmed clouds, and it deserved silence and appreciation. When they finished their meal, Nathan pulled out her chair. “Walk with me?” He asked as the twilight fell into true night. She nodded and took his arm. Down on the beach they sat on the sand, close enough to the hotel to find safety should they come under threat but far enough that no one could overhear. Akiko sat close to him and he put his arm around her shoulders.

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“Bob Stewart is part owner of a dive and fishing business just down the beach.” He said with a nod of his head. “He’s an ex-pat Aussie who came here instead of home when the war ended. Or so the receptionist said when I asked about dive and fishing expeditions. Apparently, he’s quite successful. He runs the business while his younger partner and workmen take the boats out.” “How do you want to approach him?” She asked and breathed in his scent. “Carefully. He’s ex-SAS. He might be getting on in years, but I wouldn’t underestimate his will to survive.” “Then that’s what we’ll do.” She nodded and rested her head against his shoulder. “How’s the knee?” He asked quietly. “Aches, but I have more mobility.” “Okay. It’s time to hit the sack. You really need to rest it.” “I really need to exercise it, but so far, this trip hasn’t allowed for it.” He helped her up off the sand and hand-in-hand they went back into the hotel. “You could always use the fitness centre that’s here.” He offered. “I know I could use a swim. How about it?” “Sounds good.” She agreed with a sigh and thought of him in those skin tight Lycra Speedos. Her blood began to pump and she wondered if he’d be interested in another sort of exercise after the gym.

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Chapter Nine Akiko changed into her workout gear and they went to the fitness centre. He to swim laps, her to walk them. Akiko kept her eyes on his lithe body as he cut through the clear blue water. Lap after lap he swam and she walked until sweat bloomed on her body. When she decided she’d had enough, she stripped off her outer workout gear, laid it near her towel and dived into the pool. It was wonderfully cool without being icy. She moved away from Nathan and began to swim laps, her arms churning through the water faster than normal. Although it wasn’t late, most of the other hotel guests were out partying, or had stayed in their rooms, but she didn’t dare risk anything faster in case a guest decided that they needed some exercise, too. Besides, the friction of her moving fast through the water would slowly heat it. She revelled in the slide of water against her skin and the burn in her arm muscles as they dragged her body along. Her legs moved, but not as fast, she couldn’t risk further damage no matter how good swimming was for her knee. Finally, she pulled up. Nathan had a towel wrapped around his waist and sat on the edge of the pool, his feet dangled into the water. “I’d say you swam like a fish, but a torpedo would be closer to the mark.” He said with a strange smile. “It feels good to be in the water, able to go as fast as I like.” “As you like? Not as fast as you can?” He asked, surprised. “For that, I would need both legs in full working order.” She replied and pulled herself quickly out of the water, landing on her good leg and in a crouch. “Whoa, that looked like you jumped out.”

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“Almost the same thing.” She said and limped over to him. Her towel was behind him and she picked it up, blotted her face and then ran the towel over her body. “Hot tub?” He asked hopefully. Akiko shook her head. “I’ve had enough for one day. I am going to shower and sleep. Tomorrow, we may not get the chance for this.” “Oh, we will.” He promised with a wave of his hand. “We’re only asking questions, not storming the battlements.” “We must be prepared for every eventuality, Nathan, and a good night’s sleep is a part of that.” With a slump of his shoulders, he agreed and stood. The way he deliberately flexed his muscles almost had her reconsidering, but she needed a painkiller and that always made her sleepy. *** Their room was airy with doors leading out onto a terrace. The wooden floors were cool under her feet. She eyed the wide bed on her way to the shower. She pulled on an oversized t-shirt, took the pill and walked out. Nathan looked at her expectantly, but she glanced away and climbed into bed with his disappointed sigh in her ears. There was something wrong with him, she thought. He was constantly glancing at her, touching her, yes, that was a part of their cover, but he was also doing it when they were alone, too. Did he think this room was bugged as well? Or did it go deeper? Would she care if it did? She turned onto her side and waited for the pill to kick in. As soon as it did, she sank into sleep, the familiar, comfortable heat of Nathan behind her. The morning dawned hot and humid. She dressed in shorts and a blue tshirt, strapped on the brace with no small surge of resentment. She knew it had

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a purpose, was there to assist and support, but sometimes, she wished she could do without it. Not today, though, and not for a while. Nathan came out of the bathroom wearing khaki Bermuda shorts and a white short-sleeved shirt. He put his feet into sandals and all she could think about was getting him out of them again. With a smile, he picked up her hand and the key. “We have work to do, remember? And if I recall, I did offer last night.” “Yes, Nathan.” She mumbled and they went down to breakfast. After eating the fruit and cereal, and downing excellent coffee, they made their way down the beach to Stewart’s Dive and Fishing. Stewart, when she saw him, had a shock of white hair and a tanned, leathery and wrinkled face. He looked much older than his years, but the happy light in his blue eyes belied the aging of his skin and hair. He was a slim man dressed in long blue shorts patterned with green palm trees. Over the shorts, he wore a long blue singlet that exposed wiry brown arms. Akiko and Nathan wandered around his store, talked about whether to go fishing or diving, studied the diving gear, and waited until Stewart was alone, then approached the counter. “G’day, folks, what’ll it be today? Fishin’ or divin’?” He asked. “Neither, Mr Stewart, we’re from the US government.” Nathan said coolly. Stewart lifted a white eyebrow but his eyes kept drifting to Akiko and away again. “And?” He asked with a strained smile. Nathan leaned on the counter and lowered his voice. “We’re here about Project Genesis.”

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Though he tried not to show it, Akiko saw Stewart tremble, saw the wary light in his eyes as she stood next to Nathan. He looked at her again, and then shied away. “I don’t think I know what you mean.” Stewart said and his eyes looked around the shop as if searching for something… or, she amended, someone. “Of course, you do, Stewart.” Nathan said as if it were a normal conversation. “Nope, I don’t think I do, now if you don’t mind, I’ve got work.” He began to turn away, but Nathan’s next words stopped him. “Of course, you know Autumn McCafferty, and I’m Major Nathan Hawk, of the US Army Special Operations. Akiko flicked a glance at Nathan. Autumn… McCafferty? That wasn’t her name, she was… then she thought about it. He’d already said he thought the elder sister of the twins and they were McCaffertys. Stewart slowly turned back his lined face hard. “Don’t mess with me, matey, you won’t like the result.” “Then tell me what you know about the Project.” Stewart kept looking at Nathan, but his hands were fumbling under the counter. While Nathan was unprepared for the gun that appeared, she was not and she slapped it away from Stewart’s hand with blurred speed. It clattered to the floor and Stewart turned to her in shock. “Flash.” He murmured and tears came into his eyes. “Mr Stewart?” She asked, wondering if she’d hurt him but his face relaxed into a smile as he brushed the back on his hands across his eyes. “Are you all right?”

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“I’m fine, girl, no harm done.” He said and lifted the counter door. “Come through,” he sighed. “Obviously you’re not going to piss off until you hear about it. No point in gasbagging about it out here. Always knew someone would come along one day.” Nathan went in first, followed by Akiko. Stewart led them down a short corridor and into a large office with a couch, desk, chairs, a table, bookcases, a filing cabinet. Behind the desk was a broad, room-wide window with panes tilted outward to allow a breeze. Stewart sat behind the desk and pressed a button on his phone, lifted the handset to his ear. “Kai, take over for me.” He said then his mouth twisted. “I’m in a bloody meeting that’s why, now get your arse over here, or you’re fired!” He slammed down the phone and gave them a pained smile. “My son. Worthless git. Wants to skive off all the time with his mates, rather than do real work.” He indicated they should sit and Akiko eased into a chair. Stewart’s eyes narrowed on her. “What happened to your leg, Flash?” “Winter happened to it.” She said without bitterness. She’d come to terms with the injury and why it had to happen. It didn’t make her happy, but she’d adjusted to the reasoning behind it. For her, it was the end of one life and the beginning of a new one; at least she hoped so. “So, Stormy’s alive, too. And Sunny?” He asked, his gaze intense. “If by ‘Stormy’ and ‘Sunny’ you mean Winter and Summer,” Nathan said, “then yes, they are.” “And Mackie?” Beside her, Nathan tensed, jerked upright. “Who’s Mackie?” Akiko asked and Stewart gaped at her. “He’s your brother, of course.”

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“There are four?” Nathan asked and his stunned eyes went to Akiko’s. She shook here head. She hadn’t known either. “I don’t remember him.” She murmured. “Why don’t I remember them?” “Four children, four seasons, kind of, four talents.” He nodded to Akiko and counted off his fingers. “Autumn, Summer, Winter and Spring. I call him ‘Mackie’. I mean, jeez, who calls a boy ‘Spring’? I said as much to Johnny, but Jenny insisted...” “I don’t understand any of this.” Akiko said. She had a brother. Stewart turned his attention to her, frowned. “Four seasons, girl. Your parents were influenced by sixties culture.” His eyebrows lowered further. “Yeah, well, an idealized version of the sixties, that is. From what I understand, they never knew the outside world. Brought up in some supersecret facility until deployed.” He scratched his bristled jaw. “Problem was neither had any experience of how people worked, their motivations, that betrayal was everywhere at the time.” His eyes went distant. “Do you know where Mackie is now?” Nathan asked, and drew Stewart out of his memories. Stewart stared hard at the pair of them. “You didn’t know.” Nathan shook his head. “No.” “If it wasn’t for the fact that Flash is sitting right in front of me, I’d tell you nothing. These are dangerous times, mate, but I’ll be buggered if I don’t tell you. It’s time someone spoke up and it might as well be me.” He shook his head. “Too many secrets and too few people who know.” “What are you trying to say, Stewart?” Nathan growled. The ex-SAS man flicked his gaze between them, then eased back in his squeaky chair. “The Four Seasons – and I don’t mean the pop group – were the only successfully bred children.”

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Nathan scowled at him. “That can’t be right. I was briefed that a number of adults were... the result of Project Genesis. There have to be more progeny.” Stewart was already shaking his head. “Nah, mate, not to the skill and value of the Four Seasons. Whoever told you didn’t have all the facts.” He leaned on his elbows, focused on Akiko. “Your grandmothers were twins.” He said and she gasped. “None of the others had that close a genetic tie. I don’t need to tell you what that means.” Akiko stared back at him, unable to hide her shock. She was sister to Winter and Summer after all. She hadn’t given it much thought. Her parents were Ahiro and Hirito Sakamura, and she was happy about that. As she’d told Hawk, she had no interest in finding her birth parents. Now, Stewart’s bombshell had her reassessing that choice. If only for Winter’s and Summer’s benefit. And she had a brother. They had to find him. Nathan was shaking his head. “How the hell did all this start?” Stewart sighed. “I don’t know the beginnings, but I’ll tell you what I can.” “I meant your involvement. How do you know so much about Porter and McCafferty?” In reply, Stewart turned a picture around on his desk. Nathan leaned forward and picked it up, showed it to Akiko. She immediately focused on a man on the left of a much younger Stewart. Both men were in the dull green uniform of the army. There was no doubt the man was a relation of Winter’s, they shared the same facial structure; did Summer have the same colouring as him? Did she see anything of him in herself? Did Nathan? “That’s McCafferty. Mean bastard in a fight, and the luckiest son-of-abitch. He always seemed to move just enough not to get hit.” He looked at Akiko. “You get your speed from him. One day, he disappeared. I didn’t know what happened to him, I simply assumed that he didn’t move fast enough and

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had been done in out there. That was at Long Tan. Bugger of a fight.” He said softly, and then shook himself. “He was Army Intell attached to us for Recon. “Anyway, the war ended and we were de-mobilised back to Australia. Like every other soldier who fought there, we were despised, called baby-killers. After a while, I had enough of peace and quiet and went back. At least into Laos and Cambodia. I had friends. Anyway, who should I bump into but McCafferty. He’d done a bunk from the Marines and now he’d got married to this Jenny Porter gal, oh, must have been the late seventies? By then, of course, the heat was off disappeared soldiers, they were concerned with other stuff. But Jenny? She was pretty as a picture she was.” He turned to Akiko. “You look like her, you know.” He said gently and she gave him a tight smile. “McCafferty told me he was free. Free of orders, free of imprisonment – though I didn’t understand at the time – and free of people who would use him. Jenny was too. She’d done a runner from Air America. If she wanted to hide, no one could find her even if she was standing right next to you. It was hell to see.” He murmured, and then shuddered. “...or not. She knew what you were thinking, too. They were happy in Cambodia, but the Khmer Rouge were causing a ruckus and they headed to the border. I went with them, to act as a guard, I guess. Jenny was pregnant with you, Flash, at the time. Mackie was just a toddler and I’ve never seen a happier couple.” He sighed, and then continued. “Unfortunately, the wrong people caught up with us. A multi-national force who took us to some compound in the jungle, locked us up.” He gave Nathan a hard stare. “For years. Jenny and Johnny had four children, then decided that things had to change otherwise, you, Flash, were going to be taken to Russia and used against the US and Britain. Then once you were of an age, you were to be incarcerated to become a breeder of super-humans. Summer and Winter were destined for the same fate, Mackie was going to used as soon as he matured.”

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“Where does the experimentation come in?” Nathan asked. “I think,” Stewart said, “they were trying for a genetic profile on all the kids. God knows they drew enough blood to do so, but the technology wasn’t available.” He shuddered. “The screams of anguish from those kids... worse than the wounded men in the war. It lives with me still. Those miserable bastards.” “What happened?” Akiko asked. “How did we get separated?” “Ah, well, that was unfortunate, but had to happen. One of the guards taunted Jenny and Johnny about what the plan was for them all. They decided not to oblige the monsters and set about working up their own plan. It took months to set up. One night, Jenny hid and when a guard came to check on her, Johnny took him out. See, they’d been so co-operative – for the sake of the children – for so long, that the guards never expected Jenny or Johnny to cause a ruckus. From there, they came for me, and though I was… am… an ordinary human, they needed help with the kids. I’d like to think they rescued me because it was the right thing to do, but it was a case of me and Mai being the only ones they trusted within the complex. McCafferty took the boy. Jenny took the twins, and I took you, Flash, with Mai. She knew the jungle better than I did and she was as much a captive as us all. The important thing was that we get you all away from the complex first, split you up and send you as far away as possible, in the hope that one day you’d find each other.” He gave her a regretful smile. “I had to leave you two at Battambang since the Khmer Rouge virtually killed foreigners where they stood. Mai believed she could hide you well enough should they come along. I left you with her in the hopes she would find a safe home for you. I’m glad she succeeded. The last I heard of Jenny was that she and the twins were going to Bangkok and then back to the States. I guess she made it.”

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Nathan shook his head and told him what had happened. “I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t know where else she’d go.” “And my… brother? Mackie? What happened to him?” Akiko asked. “Oh, McCafferty said he was going to Brazil. No extradition from there. As far as I know, that’s where he is.” “So both parents might still be alive.” Stewart shrugged and stood. “I guess. Now, is there anything else I can do for you? Or can I…” The blast was as shocking as it was loud. It came from behind them. Akiko used her speed to shove Nathan to the ground before the roar of thunder blew up around them. She felt her body lift and move with the hot blast. She hit something hard, saw stars and sank into the blackness. *** When she came round, she was outside, the sun hot on her face and her body throbbing with aches and stinging cuts. She slowly sat up, checked for any major injury, but found none. She was bleeding and had more bruises than she’d like to count, felt a little singed, but no broken bones. The worst was her inability to hear anything. She saw people running around, panicked, but couldn’t hear the shouts or screams. She dragged a hand down her face, looked at the blood and wiped it on her torn and stained shirt. Then she stared at the gaping hole in the side and roof of the building. Black greasy smoke belched from the shattered window. Why... Nathan! She couldn’t see Nathan anywhere. In a panic, she staggered to her feet, swayed from dizziness and looked around. Debris was strewn across the street and Stewart lay on his side a few metres from her. She stumbled over to him, but it was clear he was dead, a

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long shard of wood had gone right through his chest, his face was covered in blood and his eyes were half open, stared into nothingness. Nathan, where was Nathan? She struggled to remember. She’d… knocked him down, and her eyes went to the window. He’s still in there. Without thought, she shifted into speed and ran to the shattered window, ignored the brutal pain in her knee, climbed in and tossed debris aside, searched for him. Akiko found him under a bookcase. She braced herself and lifted the wooden structure off him, coughed as the black smoke began to fill the room. She checked his pulse; strong, and she slumped to the ground with relief. Her fingers were slow, clumsy as she checked for injury. Like her, he had cuts and bruises, but nothing appeared life threatening, or so she hoped; he remained unconscious. She had to get him out of here. She dragged him to the window, but lacked the strength to lift him. The smoke thickened and her lungs began to hurt from breathing the noxious fumes. Help came in the form of passers-by. They lifted him over the sill and took him further away from the scene, and then they helped her through the window. Her legs wobbled when her feet touched the ground. One young surfer type held her up as she staggered towards the unconscious Nathan. She dropped down beside him and he groaned. Akiko could hear the muted shouting around her and breathed a sigh of relief, her hearing was returning. “Nathan!” She called, her voice husky from the smoke. “Nathan!” Her hands moved over him, until an older man stepped forward. “I’m a doctor. Let me check him out until the ambulance arrives.”

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Akiko shifted her leg to the side. The brace squeaked and she looked at it. Bits of metal and plastic had broken, poked through the torn materiel and Velcro. She took it off. It did its job, had saved her from further injury. She flexed her knee. It was stiff, ached with a deep throb, but it worked fine. How long, she wondered, before it didn’t work at all? Police and army turned up, ushered the onlookers away and she watched the crowd, searched for… someone, anyone. Through the western tourists, she thought she saw a flash of a familiar face, but she couldn’t place him from that one glimpse. She’d let her mind think about it and set it aside. The ambulance arrived with the fire trucks, but they were too late, flames burst from the structure and began to engulf the dive shop. What happened to Stewart’s son? Kai? Had he been inside when it went up? And was it a bomb or an accident?

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Chapter Ten Nathan felt like a tank had run him over, repeatedly. Every time he thought to move, his head pounded and nausea churned. What…? Cool hands brushed hair from his forehead and stroked his cheek. The dive shop. Stewart. The explosion. Akiko! His eyes opened and he sat up, intended to go and rescue her, but the world swirled in colours and he leaned to the side, vomited and fell back as the pounding in his head worsened. Her voice came to him, whispered in his ear. “I’m fine, Nathan. You have to rest; you took quite a beating.” Her hands continued to stroke his hot face. But he felt better for her being there and he sank back into sleep. Nathan ached all over when next he awoke. He tried to think of where he was; a hospital from the sounds of squeaking shoes and subdued, unintelligible calls over the PA system. Cool air brushed across his skin. His head didn’t hurt as much as… when? He opened his eyes slightly. There were white walls, a white ceiling through the mosquito netting. But next to him, her head on the bed, Akiko slept, clutching his hand as if it were a life preserver. She was safe and a tension he didn’t know he carried eased. As long as she was all right, his world was in balance. “Akiko.” He murmured and her head came up. She blinked her eyes, looked around then focused on him and gave him a beautiful smile. “Nathan.” She sighed with relief. “What happened?” He asked and she shifted to the side table, poured him a glass of water and handed it to him. He drank thirstily. His throat hurt and was scratchy, but after the cool water, he felt better.

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“We were talking to Bob Stewart when the shop blew up.” She said sombrely. “He’s dead.” “Damn.” He handed her the glass and she refilled it, gave it back to him. He didn’t drink it, but held it in his scraped and bruised hands. She had a bandage wrapped around her left hand and upper right arm. “You okay?” He saw gauze near the collar of her hospital scrubs as she shrugged. “A few stitches, bumps, bruises and an attitude adjustment, but I’m fine.” She said. “Attitude adjustment?” “I’m through with the subservient business and I’m going to hurt some deserving people, once I find out who did this.” She said with a gleam in her eyes. “So it was a bomb?” He asked. “Yeah. The bomb squad found various bits and pieces of it. Kai is devastated.” She sighed. “Thanking his lucky stars, too. He stayed with his friends for an extra fifteen minutes, just to piss his dad off. Then started over. He saw the building go up from down the beach. Someone had to know he’d slack off, had to know Kai’s personality; that he’d resent his father’s order to take over.” She shook her head. “We have to assume it has something to do with us.” He said gravely. “I think so, too.” “Okay,” he said with a nod. “We have to decide where we go from here.” She looked at him. “Winter and Summer were sold in Bangkok. I’m grateful for the information Stewart gave us, but I have to wonder whether we would have found all this out eventually from Jenny, should we have found her in Bangkok. Where, I might add, we were going to start looking in the first place until Commander Attapattu directed us elsewhere.”

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“This all smacks like a set up.” He murmured and winced as he shifted positions. “How soon can I get out of here?” “I don’t know, you’ll have to take it up with the doctor.” He threw the bedclothes aside. “Where are my clothes?” “Probably in the garbage. There wasn’t much left of them, Nathan.” She said and he looked at her. She was wearing the green shirt and loose pants of a hospital employee. He leaned forward and dragged in her scent. She’d bathed, too, while he still smelled like last night’s bonfire. “How long have I been here? And where is here anyway?” He asked and sat on the side of the bed. “Since yesterday; and in the hospital on Ko Samui.” “Huh.” He grunted. “Did you bring me some clothes?” Akiko smiled at him. “Now why would I do that if you were still out of it and I couldn’t know when you were going to regain consciousness?” “Because you know of my wonderful recuperative powers and decided to take a chance?” He said with a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Four hours ago, you were still puking your guts out.” She said archly. “I know this because I was holding the bucket.” Nathan’s face fell. “No more breakfast, huh?” “All gone, along with the fabulous fruit salad, though I’m pretty sure we didn’t have carrots, so where they came from, I don’t know.” She grinned at him and he returned it. “The age old mystery. So did you bring me…?” She lifted a bag off the floor and gave it to him. Inside were jeans, a t-shirt and underwear. “Shoes?”

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“Sandals, down here on the floor where they belong.” She slowly stood using the bed for assistance. “Sure you’re okay?” He asked with a frown. “Like you, I took a battering only I didn’t have a bookcase fall on top of me.” She said. “How did you escape?” “Out the window.” She said with a haunted expression. “But you were right next to me, so how…?” He stared at her with wide eyes. “The blast. You pushed me down…” She sighed. “And got blown out the window.” She finished for him. “Jesus, Sakamura, and you’re still standing?” He shook his head. “You are one tough bitch, babe.” “I don’t feel it, Nathan. I feel…” Her face displayed a variety of expressions. Then she looked away. “I’ll leave you to dress and I’ll hunt down a doctor who can sign you out.” When she’d gone, he eased out of the bed and leaned against it with one hand until the dizziness faded. Then he untied the shift he wore and dug into the bag, pulled out the t-shirt and shoved his arms through the sleeves and his head through the neck. His torso, when he glimpsed it, displayed a mottling of blue and black bruises and he winced as he moved too fast for his aching muscles. He had trouble with the briefs, but discovered if he kept a hand on the bed, he could step into one hole, then the other and tug them up. He worked the jeans up his legs in the same way, and then he slipped on the sandals. Relieved at being clothed again, he sank into the chair Akiko had vacated and waited for her return.

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She wasn’t long, dragging a white coated, Thai doctor with her. Luckily, he spoke English. “You should stay here.” The doctor grumped and began his examination. “I’ll look after him.” Akiko said. “He’s my husband; he is my responsibility.” “I understand that, madam, however he was knocked unconscious, has suffered a concussion and bruises, and some cuts. We are better able to monitor his condition.” The doctor argued and shone a light into Nathan’s eyes. “I know. However, he will be better off with me beside him should he awake from nightmares. I can comfort him as no doctor can.” She said demurely and the doctor drew the painfully bright light away and turned to her. “There will be none of that for a couple of days, I’m afraid. He needs rest. You need rest, madam.” “And so we will.” She agreed with a nod. “But by the pool, under a shady umbrella with a cold, non-alcoholic drink in hand.” The doctor sighed, gave up the argument. “As you are so determined; as he is so determined, I can do nothing but to warn you that if he displays any unusual symptoms like blurred vision, headaches, or has blackouts, any change in his personality, you must return here immediately. Is that understood?” The doctor glared at her. “Yes, Doctor.” Akiko said with a smile. “Then I shall get the release and waiver papers ready for you to sign. Tourists…” He grumped and left them alone. “Well, that was telling him.” Nathan smiled. “Non-alcoholic?”

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“Non-alcoholic. With the painkillers you’re going to need, and me for that matter, any alcohol would be dangerous.” “Okay. I’ll be happy to sit under a palm tree and chill out for a day or so. How about you?” “Until we decide what our next move is, I think that’s a fine idea.” She bent down and kissed him. It was long enough to have him sigh, but short enough to frustrate him. “Oh, wait. We can’t - doctor’s orders.” She said with a cheeky smile. “Hah, wait and see, my…” he almost said love, but that couldn’t be right, could it? He couldn’t love Akiko Sakamura. It was the tense situation, and yet, he’d been feeling off balance around her ever since prison. “My…? What?” She asked, grinning impishly. “Wife. Akiko, my wife.” He finished with a faint smile and her own grin faded. She looked at him with an expression he couldn’t decipher, but it warmed his heart and eased his soul. Wife. The word sounded perfect to him. The doctor burst in with the forms and he tore his gaze from hers, grateful for the reprieve, from what, he couldn’t say. *** He felt wrecked. Totally and utterly wrecked. Akiko had called a taxi and they’d both been silent on the way back to the hotel. She couldn’t have felt any better. Blown out the God-damned window, God damn it! It was a miracle she was still alive, and with only cuts and bruises. “How’s the knee?” He asked, aware he sounded tired. “It’s fine.” She replied, but wouldn’t look at him.

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He didn’t have the energy to continue a discussion and when they arrived back at the hotel, she paid the driver and they both headed to their room. Once there, he took a shower that he was barely aware of, dried himself and tumbled, naked into the bed. Akiko joined him and they were soon asleep. He awoke to a dim room, the yellow glow from lights outside the terrace reflected off the ceiling. Aches and pains flared and he groaned. He’d slept on his back, like a dead man; and he felt like one, too. Akiko came awake; she had slept on her stomach, her arm across his waist. Now, she loomed over him in the semi-darkness, one arm on either side of his body. “Nathan?” “Just sore, that’s all. Go back to sleep.” He shifted his eyes to her and realised belatedly that she was naked, too. His reaction was as immediate as it was visceral as he slowly lowered his gaze to her breasts. The sheet covered her lower back, but as she was on her knees, he saw much, much more, including his response to her. “Um…” He lifted his right hand to rub his eyes, sure it was an illusion, but no, when he dropped his hands, it was all still right there in front of him. The question was, did he have the energy or the intestinal fortitude to see it through to the end. “Just ignore it.” “Are you sure?” She reached out and brushed the hair from his forehead. His hand gently held hers at it moved down to his bristled cheek. His eyes met hers and he slid her hand towards his mouth, gave her palm a quick, darting lick. Her eyes rounded and, he noted with satisfaction, her nipples hardened. “We… shouldn’t.” She whispered. “The doctor…” But her words faded as he did it again. His left hand rose, his fingers brushed the inside of her thigh, the curls at the top, and then he turned his hand, cupped her.

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Her intake of breath was rapid as she stared down at him with turbulent aquamarine eyes. “I feel better.” He murmured. “Not quite up to taking control, though. Would you mind?” He asked and pressed a finger into her, then two. She was wet for him already. And the idea that she would be caused a surge of blood to head straight to his groin. She slowly shook her head, her eyes had a glazed quality and he smiled at her. Akiko leaned down, laid her mouth on his; nipped his lower lip as he tried to deepen the kiss, then soothed it with her tongue. God, he wanted more of her and his fingers began to probed deeper into her, slid in and out of her. She quickly straddled him. She played with his mouth, dipping her tongue inside and tangled with his own tongue, the slick slide of velvet heat had his hips surging upward, but all he did was touch the back of his own hand. He withdrew his fingers from her, slid them up her belly to her breasts. He tweaked the nipples, used both hands to hold those luscious globes. Akiko eased back and he slid into hot, wet heat. He wanted to pound into her, slam into her flesh until she screamed, but she held still, stared down at him with half-lowered eyelids and watched him. His chest heaved and he almost begged her to move. She didn’t, she simply held him within. And then… and then, her hips rotated in tiny circles. She put her hands on his chest, slid her fingers through the light smattering of hair, crooked her fingers and her nails lightly dug into him, scrapped across his nipples and he growled, urged her on. Then she began to rock, her hips undulating as she rode him. He raised his hands, gripped her waist and rocked up into her. But her hands didn’t still.

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They traced down his belly, nails dragging across his heated skin, slid to where they were joined, and then back up again. And still she moved over him, with him. He could feel himself coming closer to the edge and fought for control, but her nails scrapped down his chest again, across his nipples and he arched into her. She threw her head back with a grimace and he felt her internal muscles grip him, squeeze him and he couldn’t stop. He thrust once, twice the exploded into her. Stars speckled his vision, his head pounded as he emptied into her. Akiko hung her head over him, her hands flat to his chest now. Her eyes, though held a secretive smile and her lips, lush and full from his mouth, tilted upwards. She continued to squeeze him with little pulses and he shuddered as he tried to get his breathing back to normal. Akiko lowered herself to him and laid a kiss on his mouth, flicked her tongue against the inside of his lip, then sat back, still holding him inside. “How do you feel now?” She asked in a husky, seductive voice. “Like I’ve died and been reborn.” He murmured and reached out to her breasts, cupped them, ran his thumbs over taut nipples. “I felt you come.” She said and he looked at her, surprised by her language. “I said I was done being submissive, Nathan.” She said with a warning gleam in her eyes. “And I’m determined for you to perform round two.” Her hips shifted and he hissed at the friction. “Oh, Jesus, round… two?” He lifted his knees to support her lower back. “Oh, yes, Major Hawk, round… two.” Her hips rocked forward and then back. “So, are you up for it?”

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He stared at her, all golden perfection, sitting astride him, him deeply embedded inside her, where, he had to admit, he wanted to be. He put his hands on her thighs, slid them up and pressed his thumbs into the creases at the top. “You’re a little voracious tonight, aren’t you?” “Nearly getting killed does that to me.” She replied. “And this is my response to it. Should you have slept through the night, I would have jumped you in the morning. But I would have done something about it.” “Yeah?” He asked and his thumbs moved in circles. “Yeah.” She said and her hips began to move again. “Are you recovered enough, or shall I do this manually?” “Manually?” he asked and felt like a parrot, repeating her words. “That’s where you go back to sleep and I take care of this by myself.” She said and looked him straight in the eye. He grinned at her wickedly. “While I’d like to see that one day, Mrs Hawk, you won’t need to do that while I’m here.” “Off.” He commanded and she pouted. She actually pouted at him and he grinned. “Oh, don’t worry; I’m not done with you yet.” He nearly groaned as she slowly raised herself off him and set her left knee on the bed. She planted her right foot on the ground. “Give me a hand up will you?” He asked and her hand immediately went to his semi-stiff erection. “Not that! Help me sit up!” She grinned, gave him a squeeze and released him. He breathed out a sigh and she hauled him upright. “Okay, then. Now, it’s my turn to play.” “Are you sure? You’ve been bashed around a lot.” She asked and her teeth worried at her lower lip. “Usually, I…” He silenced her with a kiss; a deep, tongue-probing kiss and she relaxed into his arms. He laid her down and

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continued to thrust into her mouth. She accepted him, tangled with him, her hands on his waist. Those hands shifted, as did her hips. Her fingers dug into his butt, urged him forward, but he resisted. He needed a little more time and he intended to use it for other things than simply ramming himself into her slick heat, much as he wanted to. He lifted his mouth, licked her chin. “Slowly, now.” He murmured. “God, I want you inside me.” She breathed. “And I’ll get there, just have patience.” He moved down her throat, sucked the skin into his mouth, released her moved down to her breasts. He pulled a nipple inside his mouth, curled his tongue around the nub then gently bit down. Akiko writhed beneath him and he moved to the other breast, gave it the same treatment. When she squirmed, he released her, moved down to her belly button and tongued it. Nathan shifted to between her thighs. She guessed his intentions, lifted her knee and let it fall to the side, opening herself to him. He suckled the skin on her lower belly, nudged her mound with his chin and moved lower. He breathed in her spicy scent, and then cupped her butt, separated the cheeks and lifted her to him. He used his tongue then, licked at her while holding her as she fought not to squirm. God, he loved the taste of her. She let out mewling noises, lightly gripped his hair. He used his fingers to separate the folds, jabbed his tongue into her, closed his mouth over her and sucked hard. She came, hard and fast, burst into his mouth and he swallowed the slick, tasty, honeyed liquid. But he knew she wasn’t done yet, she still had more, even has her leg slid straight. She stared down at him with a hooded expectant gaze. He moved up her body and settled himself. He pushed into her and she arched back.

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He pulled out, thrust deep with a scooping motion, rubbed himself against her, faster and harder. He felt her inner muscles throb, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze him. He all but went cross-eyed to stop himself from coming, but she writhed against him as the orgasm took her in waves. But he held himself still and rode the wave of her completion. Then he started to move again. She was tight, hot, throbbing, but he continued to thrust, then withdrew slightly, plunged deep. His breath rushed out in harsh gasps, his body was slick with sweat, as was hers, but he met her breath for breath, thrust for thrust. When he finally felt himself on the edge of exploding, he cupped her breasts, pinch the hardened nubs and allowed himself to come in one, endless, rush that dimmed his vision. He rolled to the side, stared up at the ceiling and tried to learn how to breathe again. Her hand flopped onto his stomach and she turned her head towards him. “Thank you.” She smiled sleepily. “The pleasure… my dear… was ours.” He breathed and closed his eyes.

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Chapter Eleven Akiko recognised she was in love. It wasn’t hard. Nathan had gone beyond being her master by not being a master. He treated her like an equal, even though he worried about her too much. She worried about him, too, found herself searching for that smile of his. And when his mouth curved, her heart warmed, happiness bloomed inside of her and she had to smile back. He spoke of suggestions, not orders, but that wasn’t the reason for how she felt. He cared for her, as a human being, not as a… minion. Pocklington, then Chambers had seen her as a tool, as a means to an end, nothing more, but Nathan treated her as a person, as someone worthwhile. When he looked at her… But she couldn’t let him know how she felt. They were a pretend couple, on a mission to find information. And when the job was over, he would go back to his career and she would go back to prison. The thought of incarceration grieved her because she’d no longer be able to touch him, to make wild love with him, but she’d have the memories of their time together to hold close. She still believed prison was where she belonged after her actions at Patriot’s Fort. And every morning, when the bell went off, she’d have a smile of remembrance on her face and those memories would get her through the long, hard days. She lay next to his warmth, revelled in it, in the silky hot skin pressed against hers. They’d worn each other out last night. That was another aspect of her love for him. He’d seen to her pleasure before taking his own. No other lover had done the same thing; and none of them had the stamina to keep up. Speaking of which, she was starving again. Her metabolism required regular feeding and she was determined to have a feast before they left the island.

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Akiko sighed. Stewart was dead, but he’d given them more information. They had yet to decide what to do with it. She sat up, the sheet pooling at her waist. She glanced down, saw the teeth marks on her breasts and smiled. She probably had a large hickey on her throat as well and lifted her hand to the spot. Yeah, it still felt tender; then again, it could be bruising from yesterday. She could certainly see enough of them peppering her body. Akiko lifted a hand to the back of her shoulder and wondered. Tossing the sheet aside, she went into the bathroom and had a quick shower, so she didn’t get the dressing on her arm or hand wet. She didn’t bother closing the door, or the curtain. She got out, dried off and dressed in an emerald coloured t-shirt and blue jeans, then sat on the side of the bed. Nathan was flat on his back again, staring up at the ceiling. She leaned over him, kissed his mouth lightly and he turned to her, his expression solemn. “What is it?” She asked and he blinked. “I just wondered why I feel so shattered. Then I remembered yesterday and last night.” He said, unsmiling, but he had a gleam in his eyes. “Room service?” She asked. “Room service.” He agreed and closed his eyes. “And no touching me, either or it will drop off from sheer exhaustion.” She was too famished to consider it, though the way his muscles played under his skin when he moved… No, she shook her head. Food first, then talk and after that... well... No. She admonished herself. No more playing, they had work to do and done it must be. The future would take care of itself.

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She ordered up a big breakfast for both of them and watched him sleep from the couch while she waited. When the knock came, she got up, opened the door, and the small Thai waiter pushed the trolley into the room towards the table. The scent of bacon followed the man and she sighed with pleasure. The waiter set the table, laid dishes and, as Akiko came up behind him, turned with a gun in his hand and a feral expression. Akiko shifted to speed, grabbed his wrist with one hand, his buttoned up jacket with the other and threw him over her shoulder, back slammed him onto the floor. “What the…?” She head Nathan say, but she didn’t spare him a glance. She laid her knee across the waiter’s windpipe. “Let go of the gun.” She said softly. His hand tried to move, tried to aim the weapon at her and she increased the pressure. He tried to drag in air, began to struggle in earnest. She flipped him onto his stomach, pulled his arm back and twisted it, without letting him bend the arm at the elbow. “Drop the gun, or I will dislocate your wrist, then your elbow, and then your shoulder.” She said conversationally. He huffed out a few breaths and she twisted. The crack of the bones his wrist and his howl of pain covered the thud of the gun dropping to the wooden floor. Akiko lowered his arm, bent the elbow and held it against his back. She leaned down. “Why?” “P… paid!” He squealed. “By?”

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He shook his head frantically. “By?” She asked and moved his broken wrist higher up his back. “I don’t know! I don’t know! Please!” “Akiko.” Nathan came over to them with a towel wrapped around his waist. “He doesn’t know.” She gave him a smile. “Oh, yes, he does. He simply thinks that I won’t hurt him any worse and is playing on my feminine loathing of violence.” She leaned down to the man and whispered in his ear. “He’d be wrong, for I like to cause pain.” She pressed her thumbs into the bones of his wrist lightly, enough to cause more agony for him. “Care to keep more secrets from me?” He twisted his head from side-to-side. Then he his eyes widened as he looked up at Nathan. Nathan who was bruised and battered and wearing a faint smile. The man stopped struggling as he thought he understood who gave Nathan the bruises. “Jonas.” He said, his breathing rapid. “Jonas Mainwaring!” Akiko turned to Nathan. He shrugged. “And why is he interested in us?” “I swear to God, I don’t know! He just wanted you.” “Not dead?” She asked. “No. Him, I could kill, you, Jonas wants.” “Who is he?” “W… wealthy industrialist.” The man moaned. “And he wants me for…?” “I don’t know,” he said and his voice thickened as if he was about to cry.

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“You can take a message back to him, then. You can tell him to go to hell. I am nothing to him and if he keeps it up, I’ll be hunting him. Got that?” The man nodded rapidly and she got off him, using her speed, and stood beside Nathan, her arm tucked into his and her weight off her aching knee. The man’s head turned, but he never saw her move. But he understood and he scrambled backwards as fast as he could, crossed himself rapidly and spoke a prayer in Thai. Then he bolted, held his injured wrist to his chest and ran for the door, unaware that she could have stopped him, if she wished. But she was done playing, she wanted to eat. “Breakfast?” She asked with a bright smile. “Did you have to terrorise the poor man?” He asked and escorted her to the table. “Yes.” She breathed his scent in, then the smell of bacon and eggs. “Nathan. Men do not see women as violent creatures and that is why they think they can get away with lying to us. They do not think we will hurt them. But when they come up against someone who enjoys giving pain, they… give in.” She lifted the lid on the plate, set it aside and picked up her knife and fork. “Usually very quickly.” “Remind me never to lie to you.” He said grimly and lifted the lid on his own plate. That stung, she realised. “Nathan. I don’t like the violence. That’s my point. If I can convince someone that I do, then it’s less work and less pain. It’s a means to an end, that’s all.” He looked doubtful but didn’t argue with her, didn’t comment at all except to move onto what they would do next. “Who is Jonas Mainwaring,” Nathan poured coffee for them both, “and why is he interested in you?”

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Akiko concentrated. “The name doesn’t mean anything to me. No one should be interested in me.” “Unless they know about your... talent. And that would mean they also know about Winter, Summer and Sp... Mackie. But how would this Mainwaring know? Who told him?” She thought about Sir James and his plan to move Summer and himself to South America. He must have had contacts down there and if so, who else did he tell? Could he have been planning to sell Winter in return for amnesty or a safe haven? Did the business tycoon gun down Winter because the twins had ruined his plan and come close to escape? Did he think it better to kill one twin and escape with the other, more valuable asset? Who else knew about them? Chambers. He wanted Winter to make gold for him, used her, Akiko, to capture her for him. Special Forces knew, wanted them all under government control. “Information is a valuable commodity to the right people.” She murmured. “But why try to take me the day after someone tries to blow us up?” She asked, working her way through a stack of pancakes. “Why kill Stewart and try to kill us? He’d already given us what we needed to know.” “Timing, it has to be about timing” Nathan shook his head. “Mainwaring apparently wants you alive, so that rules him out – no way he could guarantee your survival – unless he didn’t need you alive. I can only assume someone else doesn’t want the information public knowledge.” “Then whoever they are should have killed Stewart as soon as they knew we were on the way.” He tapped his bottom lip, attracting her attention. “Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe this was a spur of the moment action. Maybe that’s why Mainwaring sent his kidnapper – to protect you from further harm.”

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“So we’ve got another interested party.” Akiko murmured. “And we’re without back up.” “None that could get here in time, and we can’t call because of pure speculation.” Nathan said. “Being blown up isn’t speculation, Nathan, nor was our recent visitor.” He glared at her. “We don’t know why or who, nor are we even close to finding this compound, or Jennifer Ann Porter, or any of the information, so until we do know, we keep to the mission.” He held her gaze until she nodded. She knew it was a bad idea, that they were in over their heads, but Nathan was in charge. Once again, Akiko found herself following orders she didn’t believe were right. “We need to find out who this Mainwaring is.” He said and lifted the coffee pot, poured another cup for her. “If he’s a ‘wealthy industrialist’, he’d have the money to come after us. We’ll verify Mainwaring’s credentials first and then wait for his next move. I wonder how much he actually knows about us?” “I don’t think he’s considering you at all.” She said. “The assassin had orders to kill you, but capture me.” Akiko tilted her head. “You have checked the room for bugs, haven’t you?” Akiko asked and saw the red stain on his cheekbones. “Yes, of course I did.” He said and levelled a glare at her. “I sweep it every morning and again at night.” “Except yesterday,” she said with a slight nod. “If he’s not watching us in here, how, then, does how he know about us at all? Does he have a connection to Pocklington or Chambers or someone else who knows about Project Genesis?”

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“The only person who knows our true mission is Attapattu. But he seemed genuinely concerned about what we’re doing. And he invited us to dinner.” Nathan pointed out. “Agreed, but that does not make him a good guy, only a guy who knows how to play the enemy.” She said and drained her cup. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Nathan set his empty cup onto the saucer. “So, our plan of action is to do what we think Mainwaring wants us to do: find information on him. After that, all we can do is play it by ear.” “It sounds like a trap.” She murmured and drank the last of her coffee. “And it probably is.” He smiled, like a predator about to engage in a long and rewarding hunt. “Don’t go borrowing trouble, Sakamura, just take one disaster at a time. Okay?” He rose, held out a hand to her. “Okay.” She grumbled and put her hand in his. Her knee had held up to the pressures of speed with barely a twinge, she had a full belly of food and the man she loved walked beside her. Even the weather conspired to be gorgeous when they exited the hotel. Nathan kept her hand in his as they strolled down the boulevard, poking in shops and looking in windows. Most of it was pure tourist souvenir, but some, like the teak carvings were stunning. She was just as aware, though, of her surroundings as he was. They weren’t out here to shop, but to see who followed them, who showed more interest in a pair of American tourists than they should. Unfortunately, there were many women showing interest in Nathan. He was a handsome man, after all. She eyed him; tall, broad across the shoulders, a narrow waist, muscular thighs, all nicely packaged and emphasised by a white polo shirt and blue jeans.

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Men watched her, too, but did they see someone who was a target for tourist scams, or as a woman, or as a potential hostage for Mainwaring? It was impossible to tell. Eventually, her thoughts shifted from the wonderful morning they’d had, to the work; to the hunting down of Mainwaring. Nathan led her into an internet café. Young people from all over the world perched on stools and were deep in cyberspace. He found an empty table and began the search for their quarry. Akiko kept a surreptitious eye on the patrons. A man who wanted them to find him, would surely have a number of innocuous spies able to report to him. “Here we go.” Nathan muttered and she leaned in close to him, breathed in his citrusy scent. “Jonas Aloysius Mainwaring. Handsome bastard.” Akiko leaned in to look at the flat screen. Nathan was right: he was handsome with dark brown hair, artfully grey at the temples, brilliant blue eyes that held amusement, long dark lashes. He had a straight nose over a firm mouth that was crooked in a faint smile. His round, stubborn chin had a cleft and his whole face was evenly tanned, as if he visited a salon. He looked much younger than the fifty-six years credited to him. “If you like that suave, urbane and wealthy look.” She said and he glanced at her. She lifted her eyebrows. “Lucky for you, I don’t.” He grinned and went back to reading the bio. “Made his fortune in electronic engineering. He founded an empire in computer chips and lives… well, well… not far from here, in fact, on his own private island. Probably stuffed with security, too.” “Good to know he’s close.” She said. “But it’s not as if we’re an invasion force. Nor do we know what he’s about.”

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“Yet.” Nathan grumbled. “Though he didn’t get to where he is today by being a pussy. No, he’s ruthless, have no doubt. Still, he managed to beget two sons and a daughter. All three of whom are in the business in New York, London and Rio de Janiero. Interesting. Electronics and computer chips.” He mused. “Okay, we’ve seen the pure informational stuff, let’s search for the rumour, innuendo and speculation. See if we can’t come up with a reason for his interest in you.” He began typing into the search engine. Pages and pages of references came up; some dealing with business, others dealing with the personal. “Check out what his rivals have to say about him.” She suggested and again he turned to look at her. “Sorry, do you want me to go play somewhere else?” “No.” He merely said and turned back to the page he was loading. “Hmm… not too careful in their accusations are they? Alleged espionage, intimidation, theft of innovations. Let’s go to another page.” “He’s a busy boy. His daughter married the son of his chief rival? That’s gotta sting.” She said as she read. “But look at the bottom. They divorced acrimoniously a little more than a year later. Spousal... abuse? He had to pay out a large sum of money. Ouch, and part of his stocks, too. I’d bet he’s a bitter, bitter man right now.” “He should have acted with more honour, kept his wife happy.” She muttered. “I suspect Mr Adamson thought marrying Joanna Mainwaring would give him an advantage within Mainwaring’s company. Instead, it was the other way around.” “Joanna deliberately set out to seduce him? On her father’s order?” She asked softly. “I wouldn’t put it past him, look at this: he raided the rival’s company not long after and is now a board member. The company is now going in his

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direction.” He eased back and rubbed his lower back. “You know, this is sounding awfully familiar.” “How so?” She took over the massage, pressed her fingers into the muscles on either side of his spine. “James Pocklington was looking to take over America’s defence industry. Mainwaring deals in electronics and a lot of weaponry and communications devices rely on computer chips.” Akiko stopped her rubbing. “You’re not seriously considering he wants to take over the world? What on earth for? It would be a hellishly difficult job.” She said. “I mean look at the United Nations? They can’t agree on anything! Someone is always using their veto.” “No, but that’s rule by committees and that slows decisions down. But is it possible Mainwaring and Pocklington knew each other? That they had some sort of plan?” Nathan asked. “I don’t know, Nathan. I had nothing to do with his businesses and he absolutely did not discuss them with me.” “Mainwaring has a record of intimidation and underhanded methods, Akiko, same as Pocklington. Were they working together for an unknown goal on a global scale?” “That is a really scary thought, Nathan.” He nodded. “Yeah, it is. But it tells us nothing about why he wants you. Let’s see if we can hunt up some hobbies he might have.” “I would think him too busy to have one.” She said wryly. “A good business leader delegates, Akiko.” “He we go: he collects… antique weapons? He has an extensive, museum quality collection of medieval swords, suits of armour, shields… He’s a

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devotee of archery, too. It says here he got involved during his days at Oxford.” “That doesn’t help us much.” She said. “It gives us an insight into his frame of mind, Akiko. If he’s into antique weapons, he’s probably studied a lot of history surrounding those weapons; that means strategy as well and how to use a weapon, what environment is best, what failings it has, what superseded it and so on.” His eyes rested on the photographs of Mainwaring’s collection at his home in Somerset. “I wonder who his favourite commander is?” He asked and she knew it wasn’t an idle question. “Anything else?” “Other than he likes to practice with replicas? Not on his hobbies.” He shut down the page and looked up what businesses apart from electronics Mainwaring was involved in. The search took time and Akiko left him to order coffee. She made another sweep of the café. Most of the patrons had changed, but a few die-hards who looked like they were gaming online remained - if she judged the occasional groan or cheer correctly. She shook her head. It was the current trend and the patrons, students by the look of them, were heavily into whatever game had caught their attention. Akiko paid for their drinks and went back to the table. She set Nathan’s coffee in front of him. He was frowning again, deep in thought as his fingers flew across the keyboard. It was unnatural for her to see a man type so fast, and she recognised the sexist thought and grimaced. She didn’t interrupt, but watched the play of emotions across his face. He was disturbed by something he’d found, but she had the patience to wait. She turned away from him and watched the crowd. The youngsters should have been out enjoying the day, the sea and the sand, and yet here they were, acting as if they weren’t in a tropical paradise.

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Did they take for granted that it would always be there or were they simply living for the moment, and head out once done battling whomever? “So, now we know.” Nathan said quietly and finally picked up his coffee. “What’s that, Nathan?” He stared at her and she shrugged. “You were so deep in whatever you were doing, I wasn’t going to interrupt. I was crowd watching instead.” “Bio-engineering and bio-mechanics.” He said with a grim smile. “He owns a number of holding companies, who in turn own subsidiaries in those types of companies, directing them I bet, in the direction he wants, not necessarily what is viable. I’ve found a medical research facility he owns in Taiwan. It specialises in gene therapy for diseases like Parkinson’s and Cystic Fibrosis, and is experimenting with spinal injuries.” “Experiments for noble causes.” She muttered. “And it tells us nothing about Project Genesis.” “Actually, it’s all here.” He tapped the screen and she bent down to look. “Global Solutions, Inc?” “Look closer at the photograph of the smiling office workers.” Nathan pointed to the top of the picture. Two men shook hands in a doorway. The photographer had focused on the happy staff, but she recognised Pocklington by the way he stood in profile, arrogant, in charge. The other man had dark hair, but she saw the similarities between him and the photo of Mainwaring. “Is there any record of mutual business dealings?” She asked. “No. I doubt the auditors of Pocklington Industries know any connection either. If Mainwaring figures some... enhanced genes could help him with his legitimate research goals, then he’d need a… live subject. Winter and Summer are too far away and too well protected. I doubt he knows about Mackie,

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though having an office in Rio is suspicious. He has offices all over the world. Pocklington has offices all over the world; and so does Global Solutions.” “And that leaves me.” “And that leaves you… right in his very own back yard.” He paused and stared at her. “No. There’s still Jennifer Porter and John McCafferty.” “If they’re still alive.” He slowly nodded. “The point is you’re here and available.” “This is all still speculation, Nathan. We can’t prove any of it.” “Not until he comes a’calling, anyway, and we’re pretty sure he’s going to do that, aren’t we?” He asked and she nodded. “Then what we have to do is check out and leave. We’ll head back to Bangkok then the States.” “Leave? Not two hours ago you were adamant that we couldn’t leave or call back up without solid proof. Proof we still don’t have.” His expression darkened. “I don’t care. If what we suspect is true, he’ll be coming for you again. I’m not risking you, Akiko.” “You’re not.” She said briskly. “Your government is, or have you forgotten the explosive device? Have you forgotten your orders to shut Project Genesis down? Or would you prefer to risk Winter or Summer?” Nathan winced and she understood he had forgotten. She pressed home her advantage. “Let me remind you that I’m an adult, able to make my own decisions without checking with you first.” “Akiko…” “No, Nathan, you wouldn’t allow me to make that kind of a decision for you, so why do you expect me to accept you doing it for me?” He glared at her. “I am your master!” He growled and Akiko reared back, shocked and hurt. She searched his expression, but there was no give in him,

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no affection for her, only hard determination. This wasn’t Nathan, the passionate lover - this was Major Hawk, authoritarian. So be it, she thought bleakly, soldier to soldier. “We’re in this mission together, Nathan. We need to work together on this and end the project, destroy any information out there. If we do not, then we may find super-soldiers in our future – and they won’t be allies.” “I only want to protect you.” He ground out. “And if I said the same? Would you leave? You heard the man, you he could kill, me, he wanted captured.” His expression softened into defeat. “I’d get justifiably pissy with you.” “So, what’s our next plan?” She asked and he gave her a sulky glance. He grabbed her hand and stood. “Come on, I need to walk.” Outside, the hot, sultry air enveloped them. He dragged her down the sidewalk, then realised what he was doing and slowed. Nathan guided them down to the beach, onto the hard sand of low tide. “We’ll walk here.” He decided and she had no complaints. With her hand tucked into his, she felt safe, though she knew that was a lie of potentially fatal proportions. “Okay.” He breathed and slowed to a stroll, as if they were simply another couple out for an early afternoon walk. “We know he sent an assassin for me. If that had worked, you’d be on your own, what would you have done?” “Killed him.” She said with deadly intent. “And been thrown into the local jail. From there, Mainwaring would have spread his largesse to see to your release, before you could contact any Embassy. You’re not a citizen of the United States, and if my reading is correct, Japan wouldn’t exactly be happy to see you since you weren’t born there. Am I right?”

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She was a stateless person. Though she had a Japanese passport, that would be cancelled once she returned because she wasn’t a citizen with a living male parent. She couldn’t ask for asylum because there were no threats against her by any government. She doubted her birth, or that of her siblings would be in any database. It meant Winter and Summer had false birth certificates. “Yes. You are correct.” She answered. “And that means we’ll have to warn Winter and Summer. They could be deported.” He spared her a glance. “Don’t worry about them. The State Department has already taking care of it. You, on the other hand, are a different case. You could end up with a criminal record if the trial goes ahead, and even if it doesn’t, your duties at Patriot’s Fort made you an undesirable in the State Department’s eyes.” She swore in Japanese, and Nathan turned to her and picked up her other hand. “I won’t let them deport you, Akiko, not if I can help it.” Akiko shook her head. “You won’t have a choice.” She said. To stay in America, to stay near him, she’d have to be convicted and sent to prison. She didn’t want to think about that. It would break her heart if she did. “Let’s deal with the here and now, not with the might be’s of the future.” He nodded, dropped her hand and continued walking. “Okay, second scenario, the one we played out. How does that work?” “The assassin failed because I acted quickly. That tells him a number of things, the least of which is his assassin is an idiot and Mainwaring will have to think of something else. But he’s too ruthless not to have chosen the man deliberately.” “Okay, I agree. What else?” “He meant for the assassin to fail, because he wanted to see how I reacted. Whether with speed, thus confirming his suspicions about me, and therefore the others; or I used normal methods and I’m not a part of the Project and he

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let’s us go without anyone being the wiser. How it went down, though, the assassin will go back and spill his guts; after that, I wouldn’t count on seeing him again.” “No, Mainwaring wouldn’t want any witnesses.” “So he’s knows I’m all about speed. He would presume that we’re aware of the threat and try to get out of Dodge; better yet, he’d assume that you being a tough, noble and duty-struck marine, you’d try and make me leave, so he’s got all the exits watched. Second, he knows I acted to save you, thus he can assume you mean something to me and use you against me.” His hand tightened around hers. “Again, I’ll have to agree with your thinking, though it pains me to admit.” “He’s got us right where he wants us.” She murmured, and his arm came around her shoulders. “And us with no way out, unless we swim and it’s a damned long way.” “What about contacting General Cosgrove?” She asked and leaned into him. “I could, but I doubt he could do anything about it. If Attapattu is on the up and up, maybe, but if the Commander isn’t, then he’d block any attempt to get to us. No, sweet pea, we are on our own for the duration.” He bent his head and kissed her hair. “Not a happy thought.” “No. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what Mainwaring’s next move is.” He said. “Think he’ll keep us waiting long?” She asked and kicked at the sand. “No. If we’re being watched, he would know we accessed information about him; he would know we left the café and walked, probably to sort out what we know and what our options would be. He’s a smart man, I’m a smart

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man, and you, thankfully, are a smart woman. There’ll be no theatrics. He’ll send men for us, soon, and we, in all likelihood, will go with them. Then we can find out what he wants.” Akiko slipped her arm around his waist. “Fine, but we still need a contingency plan. I refuse to be locked up and have some ham-fisted ahou stick needles in me.” “I refuse to let you be locked up. I refuse to be used against you, Akiko, so if it comes down to it…” “No, Nathan, that will not be an option.” She protested. “He’ll be ready for you. He’ll use a tranquiliser.” “Well, good, it’s not as if sedatives have much of an effect on my metabolism, Nathan, it works too fast for that.” “Then he’ll use something else.” He said. “Damn, Nathan, could you be more positive? We’re not even captured yet and you’re dooming us. Think positive. Think of a way out of this!” He stopped walking, an arrested expression on his face. “What is it?” She asked and laid her palm on his flat, muscled chest. “He has a connection with Pocklington and probably knows about Winter and Summer and you, right?” “Yes.” “Then Mainwaring would know how the twins came to live with Pocklington.” Akiko lifted an eyebrow. “I doubt he’d keep it to himself. He’d want Mainwaring to know he had something Mainwaring didn’t. Pocklington was all about unique acquisitions. Probably indulged in a little taunting, too.”

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“Mainwaring started his legitimate genetic research a few years after the twins went to the States. I’m guessing Pocklington told him then. Winter told him everything, about the compound, about the punishments, about the experiments. Pocklington used that to keep her in line. Maybe the men met at some business convention or something. They probably saw in each other the same ambitions, the same goals. If that’s true, the Mainwaring would rightly assume...” He lowered his gaze to hers. “The information was close by, in Thailand or Cambodia, he’d have the money and men to search for it.” He turned his head and his eyes sparkled. “And if he succeeded, that means the information is on his island and he’s ready for a live test subject: you.” “We’d have to work out how to access the information.” She said slyly. “The original project was pre-computer days, so there must be hard copy somewhere. He’d lock that away, as a back-up if nothing else. It’s precious information, too, and I bet all those other mooks are waiting for us to retrieve it. Secondly, he would have put it on a computer, for easy access for his genetic scientists. That makes it more accessible. Again, those following us will wait until we’re off the island before they pounce.” “Let’s not think about them, just yet, okay? One disaster at a time.” He grinned down at her. “Okay, just thinking ahead. But divide and conquer sounds pretty good at the moment.” “And the plan?” He shrugged, gave her a hug. “We let them take us. If we do nothing other than acquiesce, find out what he wants, then take action when we can.” “They’ll separate us.” She said. “Yes, but we have a few ideas up our sleeves.” “We do?”

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“Yeah. He only has the assassin’s word that you used hand speed to disarm him and how trustworthy is he going to be? Maybe, like me, he’ll assume your speed has to do with running, not everything else.” “Nathan, if it was the assassin’s goal to fail in the first place, Mainwaring will believe him.” His face fell. “Yeah. Okay.” He blew out a breath. “We’ll think of something.” He assured her with a smile she didn’t believe. “If we’re going to be kidnapped soon, can we eat?” She asked. He snorted a laugh. “Sure, why not?”

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Chapter Twelve Nathan decided the chilli lobster dipped in butter was the tastiest things he’d ever eaten, but still felt a condemned man’s last meal. And woman’s, he thought as he watched Akiko consume as much as he did. He liked a woman with an appetite, but wow, she packed it away with nothing to show for it on her svelte body. Nathan was glad they had this time together before Mainwaring’s people arrived, if they ever did; what they’d discussed was pure speculation. The assassin might have just pulled Mainwaring’s name out of a hat, but given the feral look on Akiko’s face as she questioned him, he didn’t think so. And that was another thing. Did he believe that she loathed violence when she was so good at it? A soldier who fights with the expectation to live, will die; a soldier who fights with the expectation of dying, will live. That’s what she’d said. Is that why she could torture the man who had attacked them? And what did that mean for the future? Their future? He put his thoughts aside. Now was not the time; there may never be a time, given her statelessness, which brought him back to General Cosgrove. Would he make arrangements for Akiko? He ran a hand through his hair. Damned if he knew, but it was also a topic for later. Akiko finally sat back with a sigh of contentment and a smile, just for him. “That was just what I needed. Calorie loaded food.” She said and her smile drooped a little as she looked over his shoulder. “Show time, I’m guessing.” Nathan didn’t look, he simply leaned forward as if ready to continue the conversation. “We’ll be together soon, Akiko, and when we are, we’ve got a lot of things to discuss.” Her eyes moved to his and he saw the questions in them, but a man sat down on his left, and another on the right stopping any further conversation.

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“Join us, please.” He said sardonically. “You say that as if you’re expecting us.” The big blond man on his right said with surprise. “I’m sure Mr Mainwaring has no doubt.” Nathan replied and lifted his coffee cup to his lips to hide the smile. From his description, he must be one of men who followed them from Bangkok. “Are you coming quietly or are we going to get rough?” Blondie said and Akiko laughed with delight. He turned to her with a frown. “What?” She leaned over and put a hand on the blond man’s forearm. “You’re being terribly clichéd, you know.” The other man, a Thai, chuckled with amusement, but said nothing. “Now, honey, don’t tease the hired help.” Nathan said to her. The blond man turned back to him. “Well?” “We’re just finish lunch, sir. I’m sure Mr Mainwaring wouldn’t mind.” “We haven’t had any instructions either way.” Blondie said and narrowed his eyes. “But you go ahead, see what happens when you keep the man waiting.” “I believe the gentleman is threatening us, dear.” Akiko said with raised eyebrows. “I believe you’re right.” Nathan replied. “Not you, the rest of the patrons here.” And he leaned back, showed his fist that held a small machine gun to Nathan. Nathan merely smiled. “I had no idea Mainwaring employed assholes who think it’s a good idea to shoot up a restaurant for no other reason than their plan didn't go the way they wanted. Guess what he’d say to that, pal?” The blond man leaned in. “You wanna find out?”

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Nathan eased back in his chair and waved his arm. “Be my guest. Shoot away.” The man’s face went red and he slowly cocked the gun, his eyes on Nathan’s. Nathan saw the absolute determination in his pale blue eyes to shoot. “I can always put a bullet in you.” The man murmured. “In a crowded restaurant, with all these witnesses. Not to mention all the cameras. Sure, do what you want.” He lifted the coffee cup again and drained it. He thought about reaching for the coffee pot again, but figured he and Akiko had played enough with the idiot. He flicked his glance away, smiled at Akiko. “Are you about done, there, hon?” “Sure am. I think it best not to keep Mr Mainwaring waiting. He is, after all, an allegedly important man.” “More important than you’ll ever know, bitch.” The blond man growled and Akiko raised an eyebrow. “One’s sense of self is always important, but to consider it above all else, is the path to self-destruction, not enlightenment.” She said with a calm smile. The Thai nodded, his eyes held appreciation for the comment, but the blond man snorted. “You are one crazy bitch.” “And in the perceived insanity, there is always a sense of truth and wisdom.” She stood as Nathan did. “Like I said: crazy. Now move it.” The Thai frowned, his black eyes filled with anger, though he made no comment. Nathan suspected he did not appreciate the way the blond man was acting, nor his words, and yet, let it slide in the pursuit of their mission. Later

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though, Nathan expected the Thai to have some serious words with the blond asshole. Nathan went to the cash register and handed over the Baht required and a nice tip. The people here were pleasant and astonishingly polite and efficient. How could he not reward those sunny smiles? Outside, the two men escorted him and Akiko to a white van and climbed in. Nathan sat on the second seat; Akiko was behind him with the Thai man. Nathan and Akiko both buckled the seat belts, but the blond didn’t think it necessary and smirked at them. “Wuss.” He sneered, and then had to hold onto the seat as the driver drove away with a squeal of tyres. Nathan saw their luggage in the back. Mainwaring had planned for this and checked them out. “So.” The blond man said. “How’s she in bed?” Nathan felt the slow burn in his stomach as he looked at the man’s face; he was being deliberately provocative and Nathan was tempted to kick the snot out of him for the implied insult, but it was Akiko who replied. “I am very, very good.” She purred and leaned forward to touch the blond man’s arm again. “I was trained by the Geishas of Japan and I was considered an… exceptional student.” She breathed while looking into the big man’s blue eyes. Nathan knew well that sex was not what the Geishas did; they were about tradition, elegance and balance, but the man had obviously no idea about what the truth was and he watched as the man’s Adam’s Apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Yeah?” Akiko slowly nodded and gave the man a smouldering look. “Yes. They were… regretful that I had to leave. They wanted me to train the new girls.”

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She gave him a seductive smile and even Nathan felt the stirring in his groin. This buffoon was probably about to pop his cork. He glanced behind and saw the Thai man smirking, appreciating what Akiko attempts to provoke his partner. Unfortunately, they arrived at the dockside, and the conversation ended. The Thai man exited first, then Nathan, Akiko and finally the blond man, though he was having trouble walking and kept his eyes on Akiko’s butt as she walked ahead of him. There’d be trouble from that one Nathan thought, but couldn’t bring himself to, quite, regret Akiko’s taunting. She was able to take care of herself. It gave him a measure of peace to realise that; they would be okay. The yacht was, of course, large and luxurious with a purring engine churning the water at the stern. He followed the Thai man up the boarding plank and Akiko followed him. At the top, he saluted the bridge and turned to the rating. “Permission to come aboard?” The rating looked surprised, but returned the salute, albeit sloppily and said. “Yeah, okay.” Nathan glared at him. “The correct response is ‘permission granted’.” The rating swallowed hard under Nathan’s ferocious expression. “Permission granted, sir.” He said and then scurried away. “Get going, mutt.” The blond man said from behind him. “Where, exactly?” Nathan turned and asked. The blond man indicated to the right with the barrel of his gun. Nathan inclined his head. “Thank you.” And he walked towards the stern of the yacht, kept going until the Thai ahead of him held up his hand for them all to stop. He opened a hatch. “In here, if you would.” He bowed slightly.

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Nathan went in first, expecting a stinking, oil tainted room; what he got was a stateroom with a bar, couches, tables screwed into the deck on either side of the queen-sized bed and teak; lots of teak. As a temporary prison, it was nice, the width of the ship in fact and he went to one of the far portholes, stared out at the sparkling blue sea. “This is nice.” He said and turned. The blond man held Akiko’s arms back, his weapon in the hands of a rating. The Thai man glanced at him then swung the baseball bat. “NO!” He cried out, but too late. The wood struck Akiko’s healing knee with a sickening, wet crack. The rating cocked the gun as he came forward. Akiko went pale, her eyes wide with agonised shock, but she didn’t make a sound. The Thai man hit the knee again as if trying for a home run. The blond man let her go with a grin and Akiko collapsed to the floor, holding the injured knee. “You motherfucking bastards.” Nathan said with deadly intent, but he was too far away to do anything and the rating and blond man backed out of the door. “Now,” the Thai man said, “she cannot escape, and thus keeping you here as well, for you will not leave her.” He said and bowed; retreated through the hatch and closed it with a thud. Nathan went to her, moved around to her back and held her in his arms, while she cried silent tears of agony. He murmured words to her, but they were useless noises of equally useless comfort. He’d known Mainwaring was ruthless, but this? Deliberately crippling Akiko? That went beyond ruthless and went straight to cruelty, to torture; and he would die for this, Nathan vowed.

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They’d miscalculated, badly. Mainwaring had no need for sedatives to keep Akiko passive, that would have been a hit and miss affair. But if he disabled her, took away her speed ability, she was like any other human, easily controlled. And the Thai man was right: he wouldn’t leave Akiko, not like this, not ever. He kept rocking her, even as he felt the vibrations of the engine increase and the gentle shift of the swell beneath the hull. “I’ll kill him for this, Akiko. Fast, slow, it won’t matter. If I get the opportunity, I will kill the faithless bastard.” It was as if she didn’t hear him, she just gripped her knee in a death hold while tears fell down her face and the muscles in her jaw bulged. What disturbed him the most was that she made no sound; none at all. He felt a little teary himself, but he held himself in check. There would be time enough for that later. And then she surprised him, held him in thrall and humbled him with her sheer courage. She levered herself up out of his arms and stared at him. “You have to go, Nathan, escape while you can.” Then she fell back into his arms and he was there to catch her. “No, I’ll not leave you.” He murmured against her hair. “We’ll do this together.” For the next hour he held her, made promises he wasn’t sure he could keep but would die trying, invented new and interesting ways to make them pay and finally, talked about what would happen once they were free of Mainwaring and the island, stroked her hair as he spoke. It astonished him, the plans he was making. “I’ll ask for a domestic job, there are plenty of positions for an intelligence officer within the Pentagon. I won’t have to travel much, and when I do, you’ll

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be coming with me. If they don’t like it, I’ll resign; take a job as a cop or… something, anything, as long as you’re with me. Somewhere near Summer and Winter. You’ll need your sisters and they’ll need you; especially when Winter’s baby is born. There’s no telling what kind of a talent that kid will have, but we’ll need to be close by to protect it. Oh, I know the twins can handle it, but we can be there as back up. And they’ll be there for our kids, too. One day, we might even be able to track down Mackie, see how he’s doing, although, if what Stewart said was true, that might be a dangerous enterprise.” He looked down at her and saw she’d fallen into an exhausted asleep. How much had she heard? And how much did she take in and understand? Nathan eyed the bed. Was it far to the island, and did he dare risk moving her? It was a moot point really, given that she’d be moved anyway, but he could make her more comfortable. He laid her down on the deck and began a search of the cabin. He needed something to use as a brace for her knee. He stood in the middle of the cabin and did a slow turn. Nathan went to the wet bar. The doors were closed with catches, but also teak bars to stop the doors from opening during rough weather. He grabbed one bar, pulled it back and kicked it off its hinges. Then he did the same with the other side, and then kicked the doors in for good measure. He went into the head and found the medicine cabinet, removed bandages and light, over-the-counter painkillers. It wasn’t much, but maybe it would take the edge off. Akiko was where he left her and he eased her onto her side, braced her knee and wrapped the bandages tightly around her leg, then he went back to the bar, opened the tiny fridge and removed a bottle of orange juice, set the drink and the drugs on the side table of the bed.

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She lifted easily into his arms and he swallowed hard as he walked to the bed, gently laid her down then lay down next to her. How could he finish this mission without her? He wondered. How could he finish it with her? He knew she was a strong woman, but her knee was a significant liability now, and Mainwaring would use it against her. Akiko would also know she was back to square one. Even when they got out of this, it would require surgery and months of therapy to get her back on her feet again, let alone able to use her speed; six months, maybe a year, if ever. Her eyes opened and stared at him, pain-glazed and hopeless. He reached across her for the tablets and juice. “I got three, better take them.” He urged and she nodded. He lifted her head and helped her. “I was wrong.” She said huskily, as if she’d been screaming and he figured it was from the strain of not screaming. “So was I, sweetheart, so was I.” He replied and brushed a sweat-dampened lock off her forehead. “I’m not going to ask you to leave me; I know you won’t, but I will ask you for an escape plan, for after we kill that miserable asshole.” “Mainwaring, the blond guy, or the Thai national?” He asked solemnly. “Any or all of them, Nathan, any or all of them.” Her eyes filled with tears again, trickled down the sides of her face. “I don’t think I can take this again. It hurt too much the last time.” She said with a shaky sigh. “It will be alright, honey, because I’m going to be with you every step of the way. You’re not alone any more.” He laid a kiss on her trembling mouth. “No, Nathan, I am alone, as alone as when I first went to Sakamura. You’ll go back, you have to; you cannot stay with me and I won’t allow you to sully

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your honour and your career by deserting. I am without a home, but I will find one. Somewhere.” “You have one, with me. I’ll never leave you, Akiko.” “And that is what he wants, Nathan. That very declaration, to convince me that co-operation is the best way. You must go now, before we are too far from land.” Her eyes pleaded with him, but he shook his head. “No, Akiko, I love you.” “Then for the sake of that love, go; if you are free, you can help. Find Mr Smith.” Nathan jerked back in surprise. He’d forgotten about the wiry Thai. Mr Smith had told him that if he ever needed help to call on him, but he’d assumed the man was not there for his, Nathan’s, benefit but his own. “Mr Smith?” “He is our only hope, Nathan.” She lifted a hand, cupped his cheek. “Whether there are men waiting for you, us,” she amended, “when we get off the island is a moot point, but if Mr Smith says call when in trouble, do it. We can deal with the others when we are able.” He knew she was right, damn her. Nathan heard the sound of the engines change and knew they’d arrived. “I don’t want to go, but if it will ease your mind, I will. I’ll find a way out and come back for you, with or without Mr Smith’s help.” He promised and she gave him a trembling smile. “Bring the medics with you.” She said and he leaned down to kiss her. She kissed him as if was goodbye, but he knew different. He wouldn’t let her remain in the hands of a madman, not for long anyway. The door to the hatch opened and the big blond man stepped in. “Come on.” He said with a smirk.

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“Guess I’m going to talk to the asshole in charge.” Nathan murmured and traced a finger down the side of her face. “Remember I love you, with all that’s in me.” He whispered and got up. Nathan slowly walked to the blond man. “When this is over, I’ll be coming for you.” He said and the blond man’s smile widened. “Fat chance asshole.” He indicated the hatch with the gun. “Believe it.” Nathan said and stepped through. He realised his mistake when all he saw was the sea, then pain and stars exploded in his vision as the bastard hit him over the back of the head with the butt of the gun. Nathan staggered forward under the impact, gripped the railing with one hand, his head with the other. His assailant simply gave him a push and he went over the side and into the water.

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Chapter Thirteen Akiko heard the splash and levered herself up, listened carefully for any shouts. Had Nathan disabled the blond man and made good his escape? She hoped so. But then the hatch swung wide and the blond man came into the cabin wearing a satisfied smile. He closed the door with a decisive click. His gaze roamed over her body and he licked his lips. Dread rose within her. If this man was here so soon after she heard the splash, then.... “What did you do?” She asked hoarsely. “Got rid of a problem.” The man smirked as he came towards her. “Now, about that Geisha training?” He asked as he put one knee on the edge of the bed. Akiko swallowed hard. Her knee throbbed painfully and her heart pounded with fear for Nathan. This man, this ahou, wanted to play with her? When she suspected he’d done something cruel and she had murder in her soul? She settled her nerves with a deep breath. Nathan was depending on her if he was the ‘problem’. “What about it?” She asked warily. “You’re going to show me what all the fuss is about, aren’t you, because if you don’t, I’m going to break the other knee.” He said with a vicious smile. “Then by all means, come closer.” She waved a hand. In this, she could be proactive. A broken knee did not take all her speed and this sick, twisted man was about to find that out. “What is it about the Geisha training do you wish to know?” She asked calmly. She couldn’t think about that splash, couldn’t think about what it meant. She had to focus on the here and now, and this giant blot on humanity.

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“I want to know if the rumours are true.” He said as he slowly moved across the bed towards her. He probably thought his movements were predatory, she thought him stupid. “And which rumours would they be?” She silently urged him closer, to come within her reach. “The ones about Geishas being able to perform the best, longest sex a man has ever had the fortune to experience.” His grin made her sick with its arousal. “They are true.” She said and inclined her head. He had the wrong idea about Geishas, but she was going to use it to her advantage. “Where would you like me to start?” She asked and lowered her gaze, submissively. “That’s what I like: a woman who knows her place.” She heard the zip lower on his pants and then he put the barrel of the pistol he held under her chin, lifted her eyes to his. “Now, you’re gonna use those Geisha tricks on me, and if there are any attempts at escape, I’ll blow you’re other knee cap away, you got it?” “Yes,” she whispered and lowered her eyes. He shifted the barrel away, leaned across her to set the gun on the teak side table. His erection bulged out from his pants, encased in white underwear and she shuddered, formed a fist of her right hand. She needed him to lean back a little and he eased into a kneeling position, his blue eyes filled with anticipation. Akiko huffed out a little breath. “First, we use touch.” She lifted her left hand held it towards his face as if to cup his jaw. He obligingly leaned closer and her fingertips brushed his chin. “A light touch to arouse the senses. Have you read the Karma Sutra?” She said in a low voice and she watched his

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throat work as he swallowed. Then he slowly nodded. “Then you know.” She murmured. His smile was slow and tension eased out of his broad shoulders. “You need to work with me here,” she said in the same seductive tone, “I cannot reach you.” He shuffled closer and her fingers brushed along his jaw, feather-light, caressing. She used her thumb to brush his lower lip. “The most sensitive part of the face is here. When lips meet, it fires the nerves and the sensation of a brief touch sends signals...” Akiko paused for effect, “elsewhere.” She breathed. He leaned towards her and her hand slipped around to his neck. She suddenly held on hard and using her speed, she slammed her fist into his throat, broke his windpipe. She shoved him backwards as his eyes widened and he clutched at his fatally damaged throat. She watched impassively as he tried to breath. He never would but she didn’t enjoy watching him die. Finally, he laid still, his head dangling over the foot of the bed. Akiko leaned to the side and picked up the gun, then she struggled to stand; her knee felt like someone had laid a branding iron on it and through it. Any attempt at putting her foot on the floor and a flare of fire shot through her leg. She hopped to the cabin hatch and stuck her head out. There was no one around so she used the railing to hop her way to the stern. Once there, she activated one of the life rafts and released it over the side. It quickly filled with air on its way down to the sea. Hopefully, Nathan would find it; please the gods, he would find it. Once it was inflated, she threw the gun and it landed with a thump into the open rubberized deck. Akiko watched as the raft bobbed in the water and slowly grew smaller. The yacht ploughed on to the unnamed island, and she breathed a sigh of relief that none of the crew saw the raft.

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She’d done what she could, but watched the bright orange raft until she could no longer see it, until a rating came up behind her and demanded to know what she was doing. She hopped around to face him, her face impassive. “There is a dead man in my cabin,” she said, “and I just happened to kill him.” *** Nathan kept his head above water, just. He kept the ship in his wavering view, slowly swam in that direction until his head cleared. He thought, when the ship was distant, that he saw an orange flash fall over the stern. Was that his imagination? Since he couldn’t see any land, he felt it behoved him to check it out. He got his spaghetti-like arms moving in that direction. Of all the scenarios he and Akiko had come up with, none of what had happened had been amongst them. And they should have known. They knew how ruthless Mainwaring was; they should have been able to come up with… He saw the orange flash again in the swell. I’ll be buggered. He thought with amazement. It was a life raft. But who, how…? He swam faster, kept his eye on the orange. With a dizzy head, he didn’t think he was making up as much distance as he hoped, but he struggled through the water. Finally, when his arms felt like they were about to give out and his head pounded like a drum, he brushed the thick rubber side. Now, all he had to do was get in the damn thing. He focused on Akiko and her act of courage and hauled himself over the side, laid flat on the bottom dragged in great gulps of air until something underneath him made his recovery uncomfortable.

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Nathan dug his hand under his body and came out holding a gun. A pistol. He stared off in the direction the boat had sailed. Akiko. Somehow, she’d managed to disable someone, toss a life raft over the side and the gun into it. He doubted he could be any prouder than he was at this moment and his heart swelled with love for this most stubborn and resourceful of women. He leaned back against the side of the raft, put his aching head in his hands. It had to be the blond guy’s gun. Only he had shown sexual interest in Akiko and she’d provoked that response in him. He would go after her – once he’d rid himself of her companion; him. She must have disabled him and, because they were on a ship in the middle of the sea, no one had thought to place a guard on her. Clever, clever woman. She’d given him hope and an opportunity; he could wish she didn’t suffer for it. He’d find out soon enough, but for now, he had transport and he needed to either head for Ko Samui or the mainland. Time to check out the supplies on this puppy, he thought and looked around his new ship. Every life raft had food supplies, but he could do without that. Flares? He didn’t want to attract the ship’s attention. Water, he could use but an outboard engine would be better. Navigational equipment would be best and he crawled across the undulating bottom to the chest at the stern of the raft. Inside, he found all he wanted and more: a diving knife, map of the gulf, a space blanket and, hallelujah, a waterproof radio and a spare battery. Now he could call for help, though how long it would take that help to arrive he didn’t know. He was about to key the radio and his finger hesitated over the button. If he called, the yacht would hear; and since they were probably the closest, come about to pick him up. That was not in the plan.

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He had to row for help, for reinforcements - for Akiko. Nathan lowered the radio back into the pocket and pulled out the collapsible oars. He also removed the map and the compass, studied both and decided on a direction. The sun was hazed by heat, by smog, by moisture and clouds were building on the horizon, but he put his back into pulling the oars through the water. He would not rest until he saw land, saw civilisation. He gritted his teeth against the pounding in his skull. And then there would be an accounting. *** Akiko couldn’t see if Nathan made it to the raft; she’d done her best for him and now she had to put aside hope, put aside the love she had for him and trust in his resilience. The crewman threw wary glances at her as he helped her back to the cabin. Akiko smiled assurances at him, but he wasn’t buying her innocent look. Inside lay the blond guy’s corpse and she didn’t really want to look at him; it was enough to know she had ended his life and the karma attached to that was going to be brutal. The crewman didn’t know what to do with her. She couldn’t sit, it would put pressure on her broken knee, but there was nowhere to lie except on the carpet. She chose that, leaned against the bulkhead near the wet bar. He removed a radio from his waist and began speaking in rapid Thai. He sounded a little distressed, she thought with a weary smile. The small Thai man who had broken her knee soon arrived. He checked on the blond man, and then looked at her with his empty black gaze. “Mr Jensen has met an unfortunate end.” He said in perfect English. “You or you’re lover?” “Me.”

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The Thai man looked around the room, opened the door to the head and then turned to look at her. “Mr Jensen did a bad thing, didn’t he, when he ordered the ship to slow.” “Yes.” She said. “I am sorry for that. I believed your companion to be an honourable man. He should not have had his life taken in this way.” Akiko kept her expression attentive; she did not want this man to know how deeply she hurt, physically or emotionally. He gave her a slight nod. “Though Mr Jensen has done much to earn this punishment, Ms Sakamura, I would have preferred for me to be involved in his dishonourable ending.” He came over and squatted in front of her, in the Thai way, but out of her reach. “But I cannot fault your method or your motive.” He was wise to remain so distant, she thought. His eyes lowered to her splinted knee, then up again. “You understand why this had to be done?” “I do. Mr Mainwaring cannot have me dashing about on his private island.” He nodded. “I do not regret the necessity of such an action.” She understood perfectly. He’d chosen the only way to keep her contained. If an enemy had an advantage, you took that advantage away. “Nor do I regret… ending your colleague’s existence. It will be up to the gods to decide my karmic burden.” She said with a slight nod. “And for me, too.” He murmured. “We understand each other.” “We do.” “Then I thank you for ending a man for whom wanton cruelty was a pleasure.”

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Akiko sighed. “It is the burden of the outlaw to do what is unsavoury so that the many may live in peace and harmony.” She said and he smiled, his teeth white and even against his darkened skin. His eyes lit with approval. “It is also for the outlaw to suffer so that the innocent may not.” He replied and his meaning was clear. Yet, she felt no trepidation. She was of the Samurai; a soldier and she was not afraid to die. Nathan would find someone new, someone of his own kind. She leaned her head back against the wet bar doors. “Yes. We understand each other.” She said and he rose. “We will be docking soon.” He said, looking down at her with an inscrutable expression. “I will send someone for you.” She thought he wanted to say more, but he simply nodded. “Thank you, sir.” She murmured and closed her eyes. She heard him give orders in Thai and more crewmen arrived. She watched through slitted eyes as they hoisted Jensen up and took him out. Akiko rolled her head towards the cabin hatch when she heard a splash as they tossed him overboard. Maybe the sharks would get him, though she didn't think they’d like the taste of such an evil, twisted soul. She didn’t care. He was gone, punished, may Hell provide him with everything he deserved. Within twenty minutes, the rumbling of the engines changed cadence and she knew they’d arrived. How far were they from Ko Samui? Or the mainland? It did not matter. Somehow, she had to complete Nathan’s mission, though how she was going to do that without being able to walk, let alone run, was beyond her powers of imagination. She felt so tired. Tired of it all, and yet, she had to keep going if she was to wipe the disgrace from her family’s name.

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She’d rest, and when the exhaustion lifted, she’d plan. Something would occur to her. Eventually. And if it did not? If she couldn’t find the information, if she couldn’t escape, then there was one last solution; all she would need was the opportunity. She felt the rumbling of the engines change through the deck. She could hear the shouting of the crew as they pulled into a dock. And she waited, nerves fluttering in her stomach, while the vibrations sent sharp daggers through her knee. Less than five minutes later, a team came for her, carrying equipment through the hatch. Any doubt her injury had been out of spite disappeared as three crewmembers gently lifted her onto the prepared stretcher. It hurt and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. None of the men looked at her as they carried her off the ship. The island was a lush green, with palm trees and jungle. Warm, humid air barely stirred a breeze under the hazy afternoon sun. Akiko raised her head. The complex ahead was set into the edge of that jungle. She could hear the monkeys within the green shroud and steamy clouds rose from the canopy. This was a wild, isolated and beautiful place and she knew that was why Mainwaring had chosen it. Yet the scene resonated within her memory, but she couldn’t pin it down. The buildings were white a scar on the environment. The colour reflected the sun, the heat and glare. Mainwaring, it seemed, wanted everyone, on every ship that passed by, to know it was the home of someone wealthy, someone who wasn’t afraid of what people said about him; someone, she saw with chagrin, who had the power to hire his own army of mercenaries patrolling the grounds in pairs. Their khaki patterned uniforms blended into the green background but she saw the black automatic weapons slung across their chests clearly enough.

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The crew walked across the pier, up a gentle slope and into the airconditioned interior. White walls were here, too; even the elevator was white. White, in her culture, was the colour of death. Anyone who had such a fascination for the colour, she thought, outside of Japan, was someone with ego, who had no social consciousness; who was, in all probability, an egomaniacal sociopath. She felt the subtle shift in the elevator and they rose, one, maybe two floors before the lift stopped and the doors opened with a quiet hum. The men carried Akiko along a corridor ending at closed doors with small windows set into them. She was taken through into a much cooler area, the size of the gym back in prison. Green streaks stained the walls and she saw only one window, with bars blocking a possible escape route. Opposite was another door, closed. A man wearing green scrubs, including a mask, turned when they came in. In front of him was a wheeled trolley and on that trolley, was a covered tray. Akiko felt a moment’s dread, before she remembered who and what she was and her resolve hardened. He said nothing, but indicated they should lay her on a bed; the only bed in the room she noted. The men shifted her from the stretcher and onto the full sized slightly elevated hospital bed. They did not look at her, did not look at the doctor, nor did they say anything. When done, they simply turned and left as quietly as they had arrived. The doctor, or so she assumed, said nothing. He stared at her with light brown eyes over his mask. She could see curls of light brown hair escaping from his cap, too, and a long, hawk-like nose. At the sides of his eyes, crow’s feet gave age to him. He did nothing but wait, stare at her as if she were a new and interesting specimen.

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Akiko stared back at him, as unwilling as he to break the quiet of the room. She heard the squeak of shoes and a woman arrived; a nurse with blue eyes that sparkled with amusement, blonde hair tied back into a pony tail, and an hourglass figure that had to be medically enhanced. Buxom didn’t quite cover it, and neither did her nurse’s uniform as it gaped to display an impressive valley between her breasts. The woman wore a mask over her lower part of her face and her eyes stared into Akiko’s as if gauging her reaction. She approached Akiko with a smile in her eyes, and then unwrapped her knee, tossed the teak splint aside. Then she picked up shears from the tray and cut away Akiko’s clothes. And still, the doctor remained silent as he watched, his expressionless eyes chilling Akiko more than the lack of heat in the room. This man was dangerous, she thought. Akiko was soon naked, but if they thought to make her vulnerable, they were wrong. She had no such hang-ups as Nathan had found out. She squelched all thoughts of him. To think of him now would make her vulnerable, and that she could not allow. The doctor tilted his head as if puzzled by something, but he shook it off and lifted a syringe from the tray and a length of yellowed rubber. The nurse held Akiko’s left arm, swabbed it with alcohol and then the doctor wrapped the rubber around her upper up tightly, waited a few seconds and plunged the needle into a distended vein at inside of her elbow. He obviously didn’t care for being gentle and Akiko stared at the nurse without expression, even as the woman winced at the unnecessary roughness.

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When he’d taken her blood, he untied the rubber length from her arm and turned away. It was the nurse who swabbed it again with alcohol. The spot stung and bled a little. Akiko simply stuck her thumb across the hole and bent her arm. The doctor returned the syringe to the tray and pushed the trolley towards the double doors. The nurse picked up her destroyed clothes and they both left without a backward glance or a word or doing anything about her knee. It served to let Akiko know where she stood, or lay as the case may be. She wasn’t human to them; she was some sort of interesting mutant to be studied. But they would get nothing from her blood, not unless they had exceptionally high-tech medical research equipment and a gene sequencer. What she was went deeper than a blood sample, or any sample, for that matter. The doctor would have to have some seriously expensive microbiology equipment to first do a DNA spread, then find the right strand of DNA, and separate the one gene that made her what she was. Even then, he’d have to be very, very good. Akiko’s father tried to find the reason – he had plenty of money to try – and he failed. Mainwaring also had the money to buy such equipment and the expertise to match. But had he hired the right people for the job? Through the barred window across from her bed, she saw the creeping of dusk in the golden haze and the air conditioning felt chilled against her skin. No one came near her, and she heard no one. She was alone in this room, this empty, cold room. As a prison, it was perfect, worse than the jail where she'd met Nathan. At least there, she could ignore people as she chose, or talk to them, like Yolanda or Jamelia or the guards or any of the prisoners. Here, there was no one. Not that she’d talk to them, or answer any questions they might have. It was about choice and they’d taken that away from her.

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Yet, she wasn’t entirely alone. She had her thoughts, remembered conversations with Nathan and she had a future to plan. She couldn’t walk, couldn’t use anything as a weapon, although she was a weapon herself, albeit a broken one. She rolled her shoulders and rotated her neck. If the people here thought her harmless, they were going to be in for a shock. Even a broken weapon had its uses; it was up to her to find out what that use was. Akiko watched as the light through the window faded to dark. Now, the only illumination was a set of spotlights that marched down the centre of the ceiling. The light didn’t quite reach the foot of the bed. The best she could do for now, was to get some well-needed rest. She struggled to get under the sheet, and by the time she did that, her knee was on fire, and she had a light sweat covering her body. It would cool, in time, but she lay back against the slightly raised bed and tried to sleep. Nathan and Mr Smith would come for her soon enough.

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Chapter Fifteen It started to rain and Nathan grimaced. Not so much rain as a torrent, he thought, and shook the water from his eyes, but he continued to row until the amount of water in the bottom of the raft alarmed him. He scooped the water with his hands to little effect and he feared he’d sink. He kept at it for near half an hour before the rain stopped as suddenly as it began. The cloud cleared and a fat gold moon appeared. Nathan kept scooping then stopped to fill his emergency kit water bottle, then continued to scoop. When the water formed a shallow puddle, he checked the compass and picked up the oars again. He kept rowing toward shore until his shoulders burned and his arms ached. He ignored the slow pounding in his head. Two concussions in as many days couldn’t be good for him. But it was nothing compared to the agony Akiko suffered. The rage in his belly burned slowly. He kept it leashed, kept down, used it for energy. He’d find her; he’d find her and God help those who captured her, for his fury would be… legion. He recognised he was not in the best of shape; getting blown up will do that, he grimaced, but he kept going. The moon was high when over his shoulder he saw the glimmering of lights. The sight spurred him on, but it was still another hour or so before he could hear the quiet shushing of the surf, saw the late night strollers on the beach. Anger pushed him on. Every stroke built on the frustration of not being able to help Akiko, not being able to take his revenge. But he would. They

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would all pay for what they’d done and for what they might be doing to her right now. And his imagination supplied all manner of torture. The raft whooshed up onto the shore and he sat there, breathing hard, his arms trembling, his shoulders aching. His hand was unsteady as he lifted the drink bottle and drank the last of the tepid water. Then he got out of the raft, stumbled and fell to his knees. He had no idea how long he’d been rowing, but he felt exhausted. The warm darkness wrapped around him, urged him to lie down and sleep, but he couldn’t that, not yet, not until Akiko was safe in his arms again. He thrust his hand into his back pocket and brought out the sweat and saltwater soaked business card Mr Smith had given him. The numbers were clear, but a little smudged by the sea water. First, he had to contact General Cosgrove and brief him; then he’d call Summer and Duncan Duquesne. He’d leave Winter out of it, there was no way he was going to call on a pregnant woman for help. Then he heard Akiko’s voice in his head chastising him for the sexist thought. Nathan choked back a sob and sat back on his heels. “Oy!” A voice called out to him. “You alright, mate?” Another Aussie by the accent, he thought and lifted his head. Sure enough a youngish man, with sun bleached hair holding the hand of his girl, wearing the loudest long board shorts he’d ever seen in red, yellow and orange with touches of pink and shirtless was walking towards him. The woman also wore board shorts with front ties, but hers were blue, she wore a blue bikini top. Her hair was just as streaked as the man’s; both wore expressions of concern as they came up to him. Nathan rubbed his eyes. “You okay?” The man asked again.

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“Just… tired.” Nathan replied. “Yank, eh? Well, you blokes do things the hard way. Wassup with the raft?” “Got away from pirates.” Nathan muttered. The woman’s eyes rounded. “Help me up?” He asked and the man dropped the woman’s hand to help him stand. “Thanks.” He gave the pair a tired smile. “This Ko Samui?” “Yeah, mate, the southern side. Chaweng Beach.” The man said curiosity colouring his tone. “I need to find a telephone.” Nathan said wearily. “One with long distance.” “Sure. There’s one up at the hotel.” The man and woman helped him into the bright interior of the hotel. He felt like a drunk being helped home, and from the looks of the other patrons, they thought so too. He ignored them and looked around the area for the telephones. The man pointed to the check-in desk. “Thanks.” He said. He smiled wearily at the Thai woman behind the counter and pulled out his wallet. The blond guy was an idiot. Who ever thought of tossing someone overboard without stripping them of identification? Maybe he thought the sharks would take care of him, but if his body had washed up somewhere instead, the wrath of the American government would have fallen upon Thailand; at least, he liked to think so. Nathan thanked the man and woman for their help, but they hung around anyway. Well, he had no reason to keep what he was about to say a secret.

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He waited while the call went through. He had no idea what time it was in Washington. “Cosgrove.” His boss growled and Nathan felt unaccountably relieved. “Major Hawk, sir.” “Hawk. What’s the update?” “Jonas Aloysius Mainwaring kidnapped Akiko.” He said without preamble and Cosgrove cursed long and hard. When the tirade ended, he said, “You were supposed to protect her Major, now what the hell happened?” Nathan spent the next few minutes explaining all they’d done, except the personal parts, and about Mackie – that explanation would take longer than he, or Akiko, had. “You do realise that the closest military detachments are in Indonesia helping to rebuild after the tsunami? And that they are ordinary troops?” Nathan felt his shoulders slump. “Nothing closer?” “Japan, Major Hawk, or Australia.” Cosgrove bit out. It would take the troops he needed too long to arrive, he thought with defeat, and he couldn’t go in after her on his own. “I… understand, sir.” He said. “You understand nothing! It is imperative you get her out of Mainwaring’s hands, or you… terminate her. You got me?” Nathan braced himself. “Sir! Yes, sir!” “Now, where was… Mr Smith during all this?” Cosgrove asked quietly. “I don’t know sir. I haven’t seen him since the hotel.”

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Cosgrove went off on another stream of cursing and Nathan pulled the phone from his ear, then back again. “Fine. You’ve still got his number?” Cosgrove finally said. “Yes, sir.” “Call him. Explain everything and what you want done. He’ll take care of the rest. And that, Major Hawk, is an order.” The phone slammed down in his ear and Nathan winced. He could fully expect a personal reaming when he returned stateside. He slowly replaced the receiver, and then lifted it again. This next phone call was going to be a little harder, he thought. The phone clicked and buzzed in his ear. Nathan took a careful survey of his surroundings, something he should have done earlier, but he saw no one but the Australian couple taking an interest in him. “Duquesne.” A male voice barked into his ear. “It’s Hawk. I need help.” He said and he explained about the kidnapping. “And we should help Sakamura… why?” Duquesne asked wryly. “Because she’s Summer’s elder sister.” Hawk stated and a moment’s silence met his words. “She’s… what?” In the background, Nathan heard Summer’s inquiry. “I’m putting you on speaker phone Hawk.” Duquesne said and Nathan heard the click. “Go ahead and say that again. If you dare.” Duquesne challenged. “I said, Akiko is Summer and Winter’s elder sister. Oh, and fyi? There’s a brother, too.” “Are you sure, Major Hawk?” Summer’s soft, calm voice asked.

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“Yes, Summer, I am absolutely positive.” “What can we do to help?” Summer asked and she heard Duquesne whispering harshly to her. “I don’t care, Duncan. Akiko is family and we do not leave family behind. Do marines?” Duquesne swore and then sighed. “Okay. What do you need, Hawk?” “Any help you can send, but don’t tell…” “Too late.” Winter’s voice chimed in and Hawk muttered a few swear words himself. “Mrs Beech,” he said formally, “how are you feeling?” He heard Summer and Duquesne chuckle. “Call me that again, and I’ll…” the rest of her words sounded muffled. “She goes by her maiden name, Hawk, she’s a modern woman.” Justin Beech, cut in with a laugh. “There are only a few things she needs from me.” And Nathan heard the wickedness. He could feel his heart break. He could almost hear the cracking as he heard how happy the group were, and he, he had orders to rescue or kill the only woman he’d ever love. Without help, there’d be no rescue. “Nathan?” Summer asked softly and the crowd settled into silence. “What’s wrong?” He cleared his throat. “Do you remember Winter taking out Akiko’s knee?” “Yep, sure do. Hell of shot, it was too. I would have thought it healed by now.” Nathan paused. “It was, mostly. When we were taken, a Thai man, I didn’t get his name, but he’s on my death list… beat on her with a baseball bat.” Again, silence crackled over the phone line.

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“He’s crippled her; maybe permanently. And I have orders to either…” He swallowed hard, then continued, “rescue her, which I can’t do without help, or… or… terminate her.” He managed to finish. He heard a click as the speaker went off. “Nathan. I’ve cleared the room.” Summer said. “But we figure you’re gone and fallen in love with her.” “She’s my life, Summer.” He replied. “I don’t know what we can do from here.” She said quietly. “Then I’ll have to go in with some locals; and the orders will be to terminate. I… can’t do that, Summer.” He confessed and rubbed his sternum. He felt the lump. All he had to do was get into range and thump it twice, then… he blocked out the gruesome image. “I can’t leave her there to be tortured, to be experimented on. To be without her speed. She’s had enough grief, Summer. Can you or Winter imagine…?” “Don’t, Nathan. Please don’t.” “I can’t help it, Summer. I know what she’s planning. If she can’t complete the mission and find the Project Genesis information, she’ll do it. I’ve seen it in her eyes, Summer, she’ll find a way. And when she’s done it, Mainwaring will come after you, Mackie, Winter, and the baby. He won’t stop until he has the secret.” “Mackie is our brother?” “Yeah. He’s somewhere in South America.” Nathan said. “How long can you give us?” She asked with a firm tone. “I don’t know. You’ll need to get here fast. I’m calling in a local… helper. It will take time for him to get his resources together, but I doubt it will take long.” “Fine, we’ll take the private jet and be with you soon.”

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“Summer. Be aware that Mainwaring is after you as well. You must take every precaution. He’s got a lot of people here in his pay.” “He won’t expect us to enter his territory, Nathan, and we have a few tricks up our sleeves, too. Don’t worry. Both Duncan and Justin are calling in their squads, and they are no one to be messed with.” “Thank you, Summer.” He said quietly. “As you said, she’s family – probably the black sheep – but family nonetheless.” “I’ll let you go, I know you’ve got a lot to do, as have I.” He told her where he was and she promised to be with him soon. Nathan hung up, leaned against the wall. He rubbed his chest, where it ached. Akiko had done her level best to stop Winter, had fought her three times and yet, both twins were still willing to help. What was it like to have a family like that? He and his sister barely spoke mot because they didn’t love each other, but because of geographical distance. If he called her, it was as if they’d never been apart. But he wanted more, he wanted a family with Akiko. And he would have one, if only he could get to her before she did the unthinkable. A soldier who fights with the expectation to live, will die; a soldier who fights with the expectation of dying, will live. Those words now haunted him, but they gave him a measure of hope, too. He could only trust that Akiko clung to them as well. If she was expecting to die, he’d have to change her mind, and that meant getting as much help as he could. He lifted the phone one last time, stared down at the numbers and slowly punched them in. ***

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There was no position Akiko could sleep in that didn’t hurt. Even laying flat on her back caused a deep and painful throbbing. She resorted to meditation to ease past the pain, kept her concentration and focus on distancing herself from all that hurt her: her knee, her dishonour, her murder of Jensen, Nathan, even the knowledge that she had family, a birth family. She separated herself from them all. Her job was to get information and to plan to get that information out of Thailand. If she couldn’t do that, then that information had to be destroyed, and in doing so, she would destroy herself. Winter, Summer and Mackie would be safe: the twins by virtue of their husbands and wealth, Mackie by virtue of his isolation. And it was better this way. Her burden of shame doubled. What she allowed done to Summer, what she tried to do to Winter... how did she reconcile everything? Akiko sighed. If she destroyed the information, ensured all Genesis progeny were safe - would it be enough? When she opened her eyes, daylight streamed in through the window and her belly grumbled about the lack of sustenance. A trip to the bathroom was an essential. She eased off the bed. Her knee flickered with painful twinges. Her concentration was absolute in distancing her mind from her body and the pain eased. She didn’t put any weight on the limb – there was no need to aggravate the injury, or to test her concentration - and she hopped to the far door, pushed it open and saw the green-stained commode and an equally rust-stained basin. Once done, she washed her hands but ignored the metal mirror. She spent time sluicing water over her body. She felt better for the cool water, though the air-conditioning raised goosebumps over her skin. Of course, there were

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no towels, but that wasn’t a problem to her, the sheet on her bed would do, then she’d explore the room, try to find a secondary weapon and a way out. Dripping with water, she pulled the door open and struggled back to bed. She painfully eased onto the plastic mattress, used the top sheet to dry herself. By the time she lay back, sweat beaded her forehead and the muscles in her jaw ached from keeping pain filled whimpers at bay. He knee felt hot and grossly swollen to the touch, the skin tight like an overfilled and bruised balloon. Fear spiked through her. How could this be fixed? How would she cope without her speed, without the feeling of the wind across her skin, through her hair as she ran the forest tracks? She lifted a hand and brushed away the tears on her cheeks. Without her ability to run like the wind, without her honour and without a home, she was truly nothing. Even Nathan’s professed love for her was a sham, a cover story. What was left for her in this empty world? And as she wallowed in despair her belly growled with hunger. Or was it agreement? Akiko judged it was the middle of the day before the buxom, masked woman came in bearing a tray holding steaming bowl. Her stomach cramped as she caught the scent of sweetness. Without a word, the woman laid the tray across Akiko’s legs and walked away. She struggled to sit up without causing more pain, but once semicomfortable, she picked up the bowl. Oatmeal? Energy boosting sugar glittered on the surface. It was probably drugged, but she didn’t care; any drug would soon be washed away by her enhanced

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metabolism. She used two fingers to scoop the grey mixture into her salivating mouth. It was the only meal brought to her and she watched the light in the window slowly darken into night and put her thoughts away to sleep. When she came out of the bathroom the following morning, she found herself with company. Mainwaring had come to visit. He was dressed in a custom-tailored grey suit with a white shirt and blue tie that brought his eyes out beautifully. He had a careful coif, a tanned, relaxed face. His eyes travelled down her body slowly, and then up again to her face. And he doesn’t know he’s a dead man, she thought as she flicked her glance back to the bed. He was of no interest to her other than perhaps a way out. But how could she get him to open up about the complex? Ah. His ego. He’d want to talk about his plans for the future. “Let me help you.” He offered in a cultured tone that hinted at Oxford, held out his hand and approached. “Do not trouble yourself.” She said politely and made her way back. He kept his distance, folded his hands behind his back. She didn’t miss the look of admiration in his eyes as his gaze travelled over her naked body again. Akiko quelled the shudder of revulsion at the lust filling his expression. She would kill herself first. She sat on the side of the bed and lifted her leg, supporting her knee. It was heavily swollen and red, the scars of surgery shiny red and stretched in tight lines. She pulled the sheet up, covered herself from the waist down. Mainwaring came over to the foot of the bed, reached down and pressed a button. The head of the bed rose until he was comfortable, not her and her

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knee pulsed anew at the extra pressure. She could not bend her knee to ease the strain. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Autumn.” He said. Akiko remained silent, shifted her gaze from him to the window. Another sky, another day but the same prison. “You and I are going to do great things together.” He said with a smile in his voice. “We are going to create the next generation of super-humans. And from there, I will take control of any country I wish. Freedom from my control will come at a price, of course.” She said nothing, kept her gaze on the window. “And when the other two arrive, there is no telling what kind of children will be produced. Speed, telepathy, and the greatest of all, parallel shifting of objects.” Akiko kept her face expressionless as a spike of fear ricocheted through her system. He said ‘when’. Did that mean he’d already put out feelers? Or had Nathan done something despicable and called them in on this? She didn’t let her reaction show. Mainwaring hadn’t mentioned Mackie, so perhaps he was still safe. “Nothing to say?” He asked and stepped into her line of vision, glanced over his shoulder at the window. “Perhaps I should put in a blind, or have it bricked up. Better yet, I’ll have you put into restraints so you can’t move at all.” He said. “Then your attention will be on what’s important, rather than useless dreams.” Akiko didn’t bat an eyelid; she simply stared at the middle button on his jacket and kept the image of the window, and another window, in her mind. A little closer you bastard, let your arrogance help you to step forward into my reach.

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“While I appreciate silence in a woman, I also expect the common courtesy of acknowledgement.” He replied, his voice filled with strained politeness. Then you expect too much, she replied in her mind, for you are beneath my notice. He shifted away and the window came into view. But he didn’t leave, he went around the side of the bed, put one hand above and the other below her knee and pressed down. The sudden explosion of pain was as shocking as it was cruel. Akiko felt the blood leave her face, and black dots danced in her vision, but she kept her expression calm as she slowly turned to him with empty eyes. He grinned at her. “It is good you understand your helplessness, Autumn. I don’t need you up and walking to do what I want. In fact,” he increased the pressure, and her throat tightened over a scream of pure agony, “perhaps it would more… humane to have Doctor Carmichael remove this leg all together. After all, you don’t need it any more.” I am far from helpless, and you should not get so close to a resting tiger. Her fist lashed out faster than his eyes could see and slammed into his sternum. She felt the bone crack as the force of her strike knocked him off his feet. She closed her eyes as her knee flexed. Tears leaked from under her eyelids and she held her breath until the worst had passed. Akiko climbed carefully out of bed and went over to him, keeping clear of his feet. She hadn’t killed him, the angle hadn’t been quite right, and she stared down impassively as his breath sawed jaggedly in and out of his lungs. His hands clutched at his chest, his eyes filled with pain. “You would torture.” She said with a husky voice. “You would mutilate. All for your sick fantasy of making more money than anyone could spend in a lifetime. All because you want to play with other people’s lives?” She ground out, trying to ignore the agony in her leg. “You think yourself worthy of

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honour, of adulation because you have something as worthless as money? You are nothing.” She resisted, barely, the urge to spit on him. He didn’t have the breath to speak, and his eyes rolled back in his head, closed; he relaxed into unconsciousness. She could kill him now, but the karmic burden would be more than she could handle. She’d already decided to end her life. It wouldn’t wipe the blood debt, but it might ease her conscience. First, she had to find the information.

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Chapter Sixteen Akiko made her way to the door, looked through the window and saw the empty corridor. For anyone to stop her, they would have to gun her down; and that was a goal of hers anyway. Better to be dead than… the alternative. She pushed open the door and hopped to the first door on the left. It was unlocked and she went in to a lab. Again, it was empty of personnel and she glanced at the clock. It was a little past six in the morning. Akiko studied everything, but she wasn’t looking for the information, it wouldn’t be here, unless it was on the computer whirring on the desk in the far corner. What she needed was something to support her leg. And those metal stands were tall enough, she thought, and she could use the Bunsen burner tubes. She unscrewed one two-foot metal bar from its base, then another, measured them against her leg and nodded. She also unscrewed a Bunsen tube from its base and placed it under the arch of her foot. Now, to stick them together. Her gaze caught the heavy and thick role of tape. She grabbed it and continued to look around the room. Clamps? No. Cloth. She needed cloth to protect her skin and to form the top of the brace she was about to make. Something elastic, preferably. This is a laboratory, now think. What happened in laboratories? Research, experiments… her eyes landed on a cabinet, with a thick red cross painted on the surface, hanging on the wall… accidents. She hopped over and opened the cabinet. The three painkillers, she swallowed dry. They were bitter, but she choked them down. She removed a roll of bandage, wrapped it tightly around her knee to stabilise it. With the tape, she ripped off sections and wound it around the top and bottom of the metal bars. She then removed another bandage, this one elastic, and wrapped it around her thigh twice. The third bandage she drew out a

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length, folded it until it curved around her thigh. She inserted the end of each bars into the fold, the continued to wrap tightly. Then she wound the tape around her shin, held the bars in place. The gauze roll she found went around her ankle, under and over the Bunsen tube and then around the ends of the bars. It was awkward, but she was satisfied with the job. She braced her ankle with more tape. Now came the test; and she lowered her leg. The taped ends of the bar rested on the ground and she slowly pressed down. The brace shifted, pushed against the bandage on her thigh, but it held. And she felt a smile lift her lips. She was mobile again, more or less. Akiko picked up another clamp and post, unscrewed everything and taped up the end. She now had a cane and a weapon and as she glanced up at the closed door, saw a white coat to cover her nakedness. She carefully went to the door, lifted the coat and shoved her arms through it, buttoned it to above her breasts. The coat dropped down mid-thigh, enough to cover the essentials. The project had taken her a little over an hour, it was now just after seven in the morning. She had to get moving, but first… She went back to the computer and cleared the screen. Then she hunted for the information. It was, remarkably enough, listed under ‘Project Genesis’. In the top drawer of the desk, she found a thumb drive and inserted it into the slot. She copied everything. It didn’t take long and then she removed the small drive, attached a lanyard and hung it around her neck. She eyed the computer and then set the system to reformat the hard drive. She grinned as the computer asked her if she was sure. Akiko pursed her lips.

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“Um, yeah. Okay, since you asked so nicely.” And she pressed enter. “Recover that, asshole.” She muttered and made her way to the door, cracked it open and saw nothing. She had no doubt there was a server somewhere that hosted the original file, but finding it? How much time did she have before the workers turned up, before Mainwaring recovered and came after her? Her belly rumbled with emptiness and she shook her head. There’d be no food unless she found it by accident. Akiko limped to the elevator, reached out to press the down button, and then dropped her hand. That way lay freedom and no matter how much she wanted it, she had a job to do. Somewhere in this complex was Mainwaring’s office and there, she knew, she’d find the hard copies of Project Genesis. She had no clue as to where Mainwaring’s office might be, and from what she’d seen from the pier, it was a sprawling building. Ah, she thought, singular. Everything was inside the one building. To be absolutely sure of destroying the information, she’d have to come up with a way to destroy the structure before she was re-captured. But how did she do that? It was a big building and was obviously Mainwaring’s Asian base of operations. She glanced back at the laboratory door. There weren’t enough chemicals in there to do much damage, even if she knew what to mix. The tropics kept everything warm so there wouldn’t be a furnace to overload. There was air-conditioning, but how did she use that? She pressed the elevator button and it opened immediately. Guess no one was at work yet, she mused and pressed the button for the lowest level. Maybe she’d find something down there. The doors opened to the sound of hot water hissing through the pipes and the hum of a motor. She peered out into the semi-gloom and wondered why basements were always ill-lit.

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Akiko limped out into the room. Thick pipes ran overhead and to the side. Her thigh was beginning to hurt, as was the arch of her foot, but she ignored both – it wasn’t her knee – and walked down the corridor. Near the end of the walkway, was a giant motorized unit she assumed was the air-conditioning unit. Five metres beyond was door marked with ‘Store’. She broke the lock with her metal cane and opened the door. “Well, well.” She murmured and studied the stacked boxes. This had possibilities, especially since most of the boxes had the ‘flammable’ sticker stamped on them. On closer inspection, she saw it was mothballs. Naphthalene; to keep the tropical bugs away? She checked the label and grinned. Poisonous and explosive; if she could work out how. There were industrial sized bottles of ammonia, bleach, soaps, detergents, mops, brooms, cans of paint thinner, pesticides, insecticides, packs of toilet paper and hand wipes. Something in here would do the job. Her eyes kept going to the bleach, to the ammonia and her memory clicked. With a smile, she took the bottles to the air-conditioning unit, then she went back for the mothballs. *** Nathan paced. He couldn’t help himself. He wanted to go now, but Mr Smith had told him to wait until he had gathered his assets. The one good piece of news was that reinforcements were on the way from the States, but he doubted they’d get here in time. He could only berate himself for his mistakes and torture himself with what might be happening to Akiko. If the bastard felt no qualms about breaking her knee like that, he wouldn’t blink at more despicable acts.

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The hotel staff kept out of his way, even when he booked into a room, they were wary and hesitant, as if afraid of him. They should be, he thought, and paced again, for he felt a terrific rage building inside him and it had no outlet; wouldn’t have an outlet until he was on the damned island. It was now early morning; he’d been up all night, unable to relax or sleep. How could he when Akiko was in the grip of a madman? Mr Smith walked into the quiet foyer with a smile. He beckoned to Nathan. “We go, now.” He said and turned and walked out. Nathan followed. At the pier were a number of high-powered speed boats, all loaded with gear and men dressed in camouflage outfits. Nathan didn’t ask where they’d come from, or Mr Smith’s motive for helping him, all he cared about was Akiko. She was his primary mission now. The engines rumbled with subdued power as he jumped into one. The driver stepped aside and let Mr Smith take the wheel. “Hold on, Mr Hawk.” He said with a gleeful smile. Nathan had time to grip the back of the driver’s seat just before Mr Smith gunned the engine and the boat took off across the flat dark waters of the ocean. The air was warm, with the sharp tang of salt. He saw the glow of the sunrise creep over the horizon. He should feel exhausted, yet he felt energized. He wouldn’t rest until Akiko was in his arms. The boat, and the dozen behind him, buzzed and surged across the flat ocean. The chop wouldn’t arrive until later in the day. A golden sun rose hot and intense over the horizon as the armada zoomed across the glass-like surface of the sea. Nathan knew he was being impatient, but he wished the boats would move faster; hell, he was barely hanging on as it was.

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An hour and a half later, he saw a smudge on the horizon. He tapped Mr Smith on the shoulder and pointed. Mr Smith frowned, nodded and adjusted his heading slightly. The boats behind changed course and followed. As they neared the island, he saw smoke rising thick and greasy into the sky. He accepted the binoculars Mr Smith handed him and brought them up to his eyes. Nathan watched, appalled, as the shell of a devastated building came into view. It looked like an explosion had taken out the whole site, but what on earth could have caused such destruction? Even as he asked himself the question, he knew the answer. All that remained was whether she survived or not. He lowered the binoculars and chewed on his lower lip. Would she have set a bomb and then escaped? Or had she willingly sacrificed herself for the sake of completing the mission. Sickness rose in his belly, pain spiked into his chest and his throat closed as his mind gave him the answer. No! He wouldn’t give up on her yet. He’d have to see her body before he believed her dead. She had to know he was coming for her; she had to! Mr Smith drove the boat close to the pier and barked out orders in rapid, spitting Thai. The two other men he was travelling with leapt out of the boat, onto the wooden dock and Nathan followed. Mr Smith gunned the engine and pulled away to make room for the other boats. The scene suddenly erupted with gunfire and he dived into the sea, away from the boats coming in. When his head came above the water, it was like a war zone. Guns were going off, screams erupted from the wounded and he could hear the thud of

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bullets as they hit the wooden pier. He swam under it, looked on both sides, searched for a way up the slope. There wasn’t any cover, and he wasn’t going for the ladder, so he waited for Mr Smith’s men to gain the upper hand. It wasn’t long in coming and he looked up during the cessation of gunfire to see and hear, army boots thud along the boards toward the ruins. Nathan swam to the ladder and hauled himself out of the water, kept low at the top and followed the mercenaries up to the destroyed building. The troops fanned out. Around him lay the bodies of the khaki-uniformed defenders. He didn’t spare them a glance, he was more concerned with the people who were inside. The place was a wreck. He couldn’t recognise any part of it as being a particular room, but there were body parts; those he recognised and it hurt his heart to think some might be of his beloved. How had she done this? He wondered as he stepped through the rubble, careful not to step on any human remains. How could she possibly level a building like this? It was made of stone and brick, not wood and dry wall. He caught the scent of chemicals and coughed at the acrid stench. She mustn’t have been as hurt as he’d seen. But... no way. He’d seen the Thai hit her with the baseball bat, seen the shocked look on her face before she collapsed. He knew it was catastrophic, knew it in his soul, and yet somehow, she’d found a way to complete the mission: that of either gaining control of the information, or destroying it. He heard a whistle and lifted his head. Mr Smith was over to his left. He didn’t wave. Nathan had learned that was, apparently, impolite. He made his way over.

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Mr Smith had the barrel of his gun aimed at the head of a wounded defender. “Tell him.” Blood leaked out from beneath the man in an ever growing pool and Nathan knew he didn’t have long. The man winced, blood burbled from his mouth. “A… woman… without… much on… went into the jungle.” He said in heavily accented English. Spanish? Nathan wondered. The man had the colouring. “And?” Mr Smith urged. “A… and, two men follow. One is the assassin of Mainwaring, a Thai.” Nathan’s nostrils flared. “You know him?” Mr Smith asked. “He’s the one who took to… woman… with the bat.” “And the other?” Smith asked. “Mainwaring... He was… hunched over… as if in pain.” The man coughed up more blood. “He looked… pissed. Never… seen him so…” The man sighed and his head fell to the side. “I’m going after her.” Nathan said and Mr Smith handed him the automatic machine gun. “Good hunting, Mr Hawk.” Mr Smith said with a bow. “I have other work here.” Nathan checked the gun, gave Mr Smith a nod of thanks and took off around the back of the devastated building, searched for a trail. It wasn’t difficult to find: there were divots in the sand, foot prints, broken fronds of ferns. He only hoped he got to Akiko before the assassin or Mainwaring. ***

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Akiko knew someone followed her, she could sense them. A guard who escaped the carnage? Maybe. She wiped her streaming eyes and nose, gently coughed so as not to make much sound and because it hurt. She rubbed her hip. She hadn’t gone far enough, or too far, depending on your point of view, to avoid flying debris. Her hand came away sticky with blood. She knew her pursuer would catch up with her soon; her new brace was failing, the steel rod had almost pierced the bandage and the tape around her ankle was loosening with her efforts at moving. Only the tape around her shin held everything together and kept the weight off her knee. It wouldn’t last and she had to find a hide out or an ambush site before it collapsed all together, leaving her virtually helpless. But she didn’t know the jungle, this jungle. The howler monkeys whooped out warnings, indicated her passage to anyone who cared enough to listen. It was hot and humid and she had no supplies with her. Worse, all she wore was the white medical jacket and it did not protect her exposed skin from the sharp grasses or stinging nettles that lashed across her legs. She refused to panic. If and when they caught up, she would fight and she would die; there was no other choice. She accepted her fate, but she would not die quietly, nor without inflicting injury on her pursuer. Akiko stumbled over a vine and she fell, twisted sideways to protect her knee. The brace finally broke apart, with a tearing of material and tape. She lost the small bar under her foot altogether. As she lay there, her vision blurry from fumes, her lungs hurting from inhaling the noxious gases, she heard another sound: the sound of someone coming through the jungle, and in her direction.

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Damn it, she wasn’t ready! She cleared her eyes again and stared around. A white coat was a blazing beacon, but she dared not move into the forest naked, that way lay a whole lot of hurt. She struggled to stand, rested all her weight on the left foot and used two metal canes as sort of crutches, kept pushing herself forward. Akiko felt a presence behind her; not too close, but not far enough to escape from either. She didn’t turn her head; she kept going. Sweat poured off her, dampening the coat. Her breath seared in and out of her lungs, blisters grew on her palms and her body ached to lie down and rest. She couldn’t do that. What she needed, she realised, was to stop running, face her pursuer. Or, move through the jungle at an angle. That would take her to the beach. Maybe she could steal a boat, make a bid for freedom. But no. Whoever was behind her, and she suspected the Thai man, would not let her get away. Not now she’d destroyed the building; they’d want revenge. Ahead of her lay the path that slowly rose up hill. She eased to the right, intending to go around, or at least head away from the heart of the jungle, but soft, polite words stopped her. “Enough, Ms Sakamura, you will not make it.” She held onto the poles and slowly turned. The Thai man bowed his head to her. “You have accomplished much. More than I expected.” She didn’t know what to say, so she kept her mouth shut. His hand-crafted suit was unsullied, as if he hadn’t been near the explosion, but had known who caused it and where she would go. That was the only explanation for him finding her so soon.

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A smile played around his mouth. “It is time to end this, Ms Sakamura.” He drew a long knife out of the sheath at his hip. She eyed the blade then lifted her gaze to his. “I would not fight you unarmed. You have proven to be a most dangerous woman.” “This is not your fight, sir.” She said and eased down onto a moist, mossladen log. She rested the two bars next to her and massaged her thigh. “I am in Mr Mainwaring’s employ; therefore, it is my fight.” His eyes were solemn, filled with regret. “I would not have you fall back into his hands again, Ms Sakamura, he would do…” he tilted his head, “unspeakable things to you.” “You would kill me to save me from that?” “I would.” Akiko sighed. “I cannot allow that to happen. I must regain my family’s honour or the ancestors will turn away from me.” She had completed the mission. Surely, that was enough? Could she not be allowed to rest? But no, she was Samurai, brought up to protect the innocent, to suffer so the many could live in harmony. “I’m sorry to hear that, but I must do this now for my honour.” He gave her a grin. “I would not have thought anyone could escape from the building, much less destroy it, and with a serious injury as well. I bow to your courage, Ms Sakamura.” He took a step forward and dropped into a fighting stance. “We will do this now.” Akiko studied her hands. Blood seeped from the broken blisters. She shook her head and rose, picked up one of the bars and eased forward. She could not move her feet; this fight would be one of defence until, or unless, she saw an opening to strike.

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The man could easily move behind her and strike her down, but she didn’t think he would. He was as honour-bound as she and to kill from behind was a coward’s way. No, this would be face-to-face. She took the best stance she could, standing on one foot, the other resting lightly on the ground and held the bar in both hands. “Yes,” she agreed, “we will do this now, and may honour be with the victor.” Akiko bowed to him and he reciprocated. His eyes emptied of all expression as he approached her, the knife lightly held in his hand at waist height. Akiko followed his movements and waited. A battle was often lost or won with the first strike, but also with who made the last mistake. She felt her focus intensify as they watched each other. Sweat slid down the side of her face as she waited for his move. His face gleamed as well as he watched her. He had to know he had the advantage; he had more mobility, and yet he treated her like a venomous snake, searching for an opening to strike. Mainwaring blundered into the clearing with crash of foliage. “Stop, Chen!” He barked and fell to his knees, one hand held to his chest. Chen showed no sign of hearing him as he gazed at Akiko. Then on a sigh, he stood straight and stepped aside, his eyes on hers. “You are correct. It is for you to do.” He said with a bow. “There is no dishonour in this.” He went to stand next to Mainwaring. Akiko nearly fell over with relief. She did not want to fight Chen; his victory over her would come. This was a reprieve, nothing more. Mainwaring glared up at her from twenty feet away. He staggered to his feet and approached her, this time not close enough for her to do any damage. “I’m going to kill you.” He growled and pulled a pistol from his waistband. “I don’t need you alive; I need only samples from you.”

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He raised the weapon and she looked past the barrel, saw his finger begin to squeeze the trigger and braced herself for the searing pain of hot metal. Chen’s hand flicked out and knocked the gun away from Mainwaring’s hand, shoved him hard. The gunshot was loud in her ears and she started. Mainwaring staggered. He kept his footing and then turned to his henchman, his face red with fury. “Chen, you’ve gone too far this time. Either you kill her or I will kill you.” “It is for you to kill her, Mr Mainwaring, or for her to kill you. Should she succeed, then I shall challenge for her death.” Mainwaring lashed out and slapped Chen across the face. “Kill her, damn it! Do as I say!” Chen bristled, raised his hands and then lowered them, stepped back from his employer. “If you want her dead, Mr Mainwaring, then kill her yourself.” He glanced at Akiko. “Ms Sakamura, it has been a pleasure and an honour to meet you. Perhaps one day we shall meet and finish this.” Akiko bobbed her head. She represented too much of a challenge for him to resist, she could see that clearly in his eyes. And when they did meet, she would be fully fit, able to take him on. Chen nodded with complete agreement at her silent assessment. He gave her a small smile and eased back into the forest. “My contract with you is at an end, Mr Mainwaring.” “Come back here!” Mainwaring shouted as he hunted around the ground for his gun. “Come back, damn you, and do your job!” “He will not return.” Akiko said and Mainwaring sneered at her. “No matter, I can take care of you myself.” He snarled and reached into his pocket.

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She heard the click as the flick-knife opened, the blade shone with deadly intent. “Never leave home without a back up.” He grinned and stepped closer.

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Chapter Seventeen Nathan stopped dead in his tracks when he heard the gunshot and his heart jammed into his throat. “No.” He whispered, trying to gauge how far away the sound was. “No, damn it!” And he ran through the forest as fast as he could without tripping. He followed the faint path, the footsteps and drag marks. She couldn’t be dead, not yet. She’d come too far, moved too close to escape for that to happen. She would have ducked, weaved, dived, anything… She wasn’t dead! He kept going, thrashing through the undergrowth. He lifted his head and saw movement. His lip curled at the sight of the Thai man walking sedately towards him. He lifted the machine gun when the man saw him. He could gun the prick down, here, now. But something held his finger away from the trigger. “Get out of the way.” Nathan growled. “As you wish.” The man said and stepped aside. Nathan didn’t trust him and kept clear of his reach. “I should kill you now, you bastard, for what you did to her.” “Perhaps you should.” The man agreed. “And perhaps you should ask Ms Sakamura about advantages on the field of battle. You would then understand the necessity of my actions. It was not personal.” “It was very personal, but I know what she’d say. And she would not have me dishonour myself with the likes of you.” The man stiffened. “Ms Sakamura understands the code, Major Hawk, you do not. Get her to explain it to you before we meet again.” “She’s alive?”

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“For the moment. Mr Mainwaring would see her dead. I believe she hurt him.” He said with a smile. “And, I believe, she will kill him.” “If he’s armed…” The man reached into his pocket and Nathan lifted the gun higher. The man’s smile widened as he drew out a pistol halfway out of his coat pocket with two fingers on the barrel. “He will have to take her hand-to-hand, as warriors should. A gun is an unfair advantage, don’t you think?” He dropped the gun back into his pocket. “You should hurry. It is not far.” And while Nathan gaped at him, he turned and walked into the forest. Nathan blinked as the man disappeared into the foliage. “Son of a…” He took a step forward, intending to follow the man, but… he didn’t. While he longed to take the man down for what he’d done, Akiko needed him. And it wasn’t if he could get off the island. Mr Smith and his men wouldn’t let anyone escape. He shook his head in disgust, moved up the trail as quickly and as quietly as he could. *** “I’m going to slice pieces off you while you’re still alive.” Mainwaring promised and jabbed at her, as if testing her defences. “I’m going to take my time cutting you up, and I’m going to enjoy it.” He snarled. Akiko could feel her leg weaken; she’d been standing on it for too long. Every time she sought to test her knee by pressing her foot to the ground, fire erupted at the joint. She had to end this now. She blocked his strike with the bar, brought the bar full circle and smashed it into his wrist. His howl of pain gave her no satisfaction as the knife flew into the bushes. He dived at her, caught her around the waist and slammed her to the ground.

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Akiko lifted the bar, but his hands grabbed it, held on, and pushed it towards her throat. She felt weakened by a lack of food, by too much effort to escape, by the fumes she’d inhaled; and he was powered by a lust for revenge, an overwhelming desire to see her dead and the bar moved closer to her throat. The cold metal touched her hot skin and his eyes went mad with triumph, even as blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He didn’t notice, didn’t seem to feel the broken sternum. She gritted her teeth and pushed back with as much energy as she had left, but the bar didn’t budge. He used his strength to press the bar against her throat. If she hit his sternum again… but she couldn’t see how. The bar pressed down on her, cutting off her air and black spots danced in her eyes. Akiko kept trying until her arms felt like jelly, until the spots expanded and darkness filled her vision. *** “Hey, you!” Nathan barked and strode towards Mainwaring. The handsome billionaire spun around, lifted a bar of metal and leapt off Akiko. Nathan saw her arms drop to the ground, but she didn’t move. Mainwaring didn’t say a word and Nathan saw madness in the man’s eyes as he strode towards him. He lifted the gun to fire, and then thought better of it. The rage he kept banked rose and tossed the gun aside. He would kill this mongrel with his bare hands. Mainwaring swung the metal rod and Nathan ducked out of the way, kept weaving in a circle and the madman kept coming.

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As the rod swept past him, Nathan struck. He lifted one arm to block the reverse swing and slammed his fist into Mainwaring’s upper belly. The man grunted then crumpled onto the forest floor. Nathan kept his stance, waited for Mainwaring to get up, but the man didn’t move. Nathan crouched down to check for a pulse, and found one. His lip curled with disgust. “Glass belly.” Nathan scrambled over to Akiko. She was pale, sweat-sheened and he laid his ear on her chest, waited. Thump. He heard and he nearly wept with relief. Thump, he heard again and tears stung his eyes. He lifted his head and saw a red line across her throat, turned to Mainwaring, his eyes deadly. But she needed help, not him. The billionaire could rot out here for all Nathan cared. He returned his attention to Akiko. It was probably a good thing she was unconscious, he thought and tucked one arm under her knees and the other under her shoulders, lifted her into his arms. She didn’t make a sound and he held her close, kissed her forehead and set off on the long march back to the pier. *** Mr Smith waited for Nathan as he stumbled out of the forest. “You find her!” He said with a beaming smile. “We need to get her back to Ko Samui.” Nathan huffed and gently laid Akiko on the ground, stretched her legs out. “Do you have a blanket?” Mr Smith nodded. “I will send one of my men.” He gave an ear-piercing whistle, and then pumped his arm when one of the men in the boat looked up.

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“There are many bodies. Many… broken computer disks, much ruined and burned paper. How do we know, Major Hawk, if they work or not?” Nathan moved closer to Mr Smith as a man came over with a blanket, covered Akiko. “We’ll have to check everything, Mr Smith.” He said with a sigh and looked around at the devastation. “But from the looks of it, I’d say there isn’t going to be much to find that’s of any worth. Akiko did too good a job on blowing everything to Hell.” “Yes.” Mr Smith said and moved towards the edge of the structure. Nathan followed him. “I smell chemicals.” He gave Nathan a grin. “An effective job, though only half done, eh?” Nathan frowned at him, then time slowed as Mr Smith lifted his fist and punched it against Nathan’s chest right on the capsule – Nathan’s arms were too slow to stop him and he felt the buzz as the capsule sent out a signal; he tried to step back – and Mr Smith hit him again. Nathan stared at him in horror as the buzz blipped once, twice... then stopped. Time sped up and he turned towards Akiko, even as Mr Smith laughed. But nothing happened. Nothing. Happened! No crump of an explosion, no… God, he’d never get that image out of his head. “Major Hawk?” Mr Smith asked, concerned. Nathan felt his legs turn to jelly and he slumped down to the ground. Nothing happened. He put his head between his knees and breathed in and out slowly, until his vision cleared and the adrenalin stopped pumping through his veins. Nothing happened.

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Mr Smith crouched in front of him. “Okay, Major Hawk? Chest thumping, it is what comrades do, yes?” Nathan nodded then lifted his head. “Sorry. Felt dizzy for a moment. Must be the fumes.” He gave the Thai a sick smile and leaned back on his hands, stared up into the blue sky. As he lowered his head, he saw storm clouds building on the horizon. “We’d better call in the authorities.” He said. Mr Smith frowned. “Do you not want to check the disks? The papers?” “I can’t do it alone and I don’t have a laptop with me. And even with all your men searching, I doubt we’ll be able to find anything useful enough to organise into any order. Even the discs will be corroded by the chemicals. Better to bulldoze the site, let the jungle reclaim it.” Nathan slowly got to his feet. Mr Smith reached out to help him and he blew out a breath. “Thanks.” He looked around at the site and shook his head. “I don’t like this place very much.” He murmured and went back to Akiko, sat with his legs crossed next to her and picked up her cool hand. Mr Smith gave another whistle, but Nathan didn’t raise his head. He brushed her cheek, willed her to wake up. At least she was breathing. “I’m sorry, Major Hawk, but I need to take Ms Sakamura with me.” Mr Smith said and Nathan looked up at him. The Thai had a gun in his hand. Standing behind him were some of his men, casually holding their automatics. Impossible odds, he thought. He’d failed after all. “Mr Smith?” “My employers would very much like to meet Ms Sakamura.” He gave a short, sharp whistle and one of the men, a surprisingly large, broad-shouldered

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Japanese, shouldered his weapon and came over. He gently picked Akiko up in his arms, turned and walked towards the one speedboat tied to the pier. “And I’m excess baggage.” Nathan said with a twist of his lips. “Well…” He said and got up. “If I’m going to die, I’ll do it on my feet.” Mr Smith frowned. “Do you not want to know who I work for and why you are going to die?” Nathan snorted. “I already know, but cut in if I get it wrong. It’s because of what Akiko is. She and her sisters are special and your employers want that for their own use.” He lifted a shoulder. “I do not know about ‘sisters’, or if they are special, Major Hawk, but the Yakuza wants Ms Sakamura returned to Japan.” Nathan gaped at him. “Japan? Yakuza? What in...” He blew out a breath and thought back. “That’s why you were so pissed at Mainwaring capturing us.” And he had another thought. “The assassin in our room; you sent him. But he said he was working for Mainwaring.” Mr Smith nodded. “Not assassin, Major Hawk, he was to take Ms Sakamura quietly, while you slept.” His lips quirked. “He came back with an astonishing tale that we did not believe. Since we did not accept that, he was… convinced to tell the truth and we discovered he was in Mainwaring’s employ as well. Paid to watch you.” Nathan rubbed a hand across his forehead. “Why would the Yakuza be interested in Akiko? She’s no longer a citizen of Japan.” “No, but she does have the access codes to her father’s bank accounts.” “She does?” And why didn’t she tell him? His shoulders slumped as understanding hit him. Because she could have decided to escape into the jungle proper, double back for a boat and sailed out of here. Then she could

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have gone to Japan for the money and lived anywhere else in the world. She was headed to the beach when Mainwaring, and then he, caught up with her. Could any betrayal hurt any deeper than this? He rubbed his chest where his heart throbbed with a soul deep ache. “Yes. And the Yakuza would like to get them back.” Mr Smith replied. “I don’t understand any of this.” He muttered. “You were an agent sent by General Cosgrove to keep watch on us, to be called upon should we need help in our primary mission of retrieving… data. You couldn’t have known Akiko would travel with me.” “But I did, Major Hawk. General Cosgrove contacted me before you left. It was a simple matter to remind him of her origins, of her need to regain face, of how valuable she’d be on a mission like this. And the consequences of not letting her come with you.” “And that made it easier for you. Oh... you killed Stewart!” Mr Smith shook his head. “Mainwaring, not us. I do not know why.” But Nathan did: to remove the only witness to the Project; and if he and Akiko were killed, well, it didn’t matter, he could still get his tissue samples from her. That they survived was a bonus for him. “Why did you wait so long to grab Akiko?” He asked. Mr Smith lifted a shoulder. “A gift. To you and Ms Sakamura. I saw how it was between you. Before I could act, Mainwaring had you. When you contacted me, I was already working on a plan to invade the island.” Nathan snorted. “A rescue and a kidnapping.” “And now, Major Hawk, I regret that I have to kill you now.” He raised the pistol, aimed for the bridge of Nathan’s nose and fired. Nathan blinked. He heard the click of the trigger. Mr Smith fired again with the same result, looked at the weapon, and then whistled.

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The men raised their weapons, aimed at him and… click, click, click. From behind him, he heard the rustle of the jungle and he turned his head. “Drop your weapons!” Captain Duquesne ordered and black-clad men came out of the jungle, their own weapons pointed at the group. Heavy metal thudded onto the wooden pier and Smith’s men lifted their arms above their heads. Mr Smith sighed, then shrugged, did the same. Summer and a pregnant Winter followed the men with Captain Beech walking close to Winter. Winter had her fist clenched tightly. She held out her hand. “Sorry we’re late.” She gave him a sick smile. “Turbulence. Here.” She said and dropped dozens of firing pins into his hand. “How did… never mind.” He muttered and dropped the pins into his pocket. He really didn’t want to know. “Where’s Akiko?” She asked. “On the speedboat. She’s in bad shape.” He said and he turned to walk down the pier. “Cranbrook!” Captain Beech shouted. “On the boat!” Summer held out a hand, laid it on his arm to stop him. “Cranbrook will take care of her.” She said softly, but he didn’t look at her. “She’ll be fine. I can hear her.” “Hear… her?” Nathan asked and glanced at her. “Turbulent thoughts, memory flashes, remembered pain. But she’s alive.” Nathan shook his head, lowered it to stare at the bullet holes in the wooden pier. Then he decided the stress of the day was too much and sat down, leaned against a pylon and waited.

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Cranbrook finally came off the boat and walked to Captain Beech, had a conversation. “He’s calling in a medi-vac.” Summer said and sat next to him. Nathan heaved out a sigh. “Thank you. For coming to our rescue.” “It’s what family does, Nathan. Although I wish we’d been a little quicker.” He rubbed his chest. “Yeah. Well.” He looked at her, at the well of sadness there. “It’s a terrible responsibility you have.” He said and she nodded, rested her back against the same pylon. “It is, but we, Winter and I, have accepted it. If we have the chance to stop something horrible happening, we’ll do it.” “But what of the cost to you?” She gave him a smile. “We accept that, too. And, fortunately for us,” her gaze turned to her husband, “we have all the support we need.” “And the danger?” “Is minimal. We consult with the government. We, I, don’t go anywhere near danger zones. Winter, on the other hand, is banned from doing so until the baby is born.” Nathan turned his gaze to the speed boat. “Go on. We’ll start the clean up.” Summer nudged his shoulder with her own and he climbed to his feet. *** Akiko lifted the small drive in her fingers. It is such an innocuous thing that holds the secrets of life. She felt no pain. The soldier, Cranbrook, had given her morphine and she drifted in a dream-like state, pain-free for the first time in months. She felt

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disconnected, even when Nathan stepped down into the boat. She saw him, recognised him, knew she loved him, yet she couldn’t feel any connection. He was… Nathan. Major Hawk. Army Intelligence. Partner, friend, lover. Hero. He got down on his knees and leaned over her, laid his mouth on hers. It was gentle a touch, familiar and welcome. Then he leaned back. “Are you… okay?” He asked with a husky voice. His gaze travelled down the length of her body, but an army-issue blanket covered her. “Yes. That nice man gave me some morphine.” She waved the drive at him. “Got a present for you.” “The information we’ve been looking for?” He asked, but didn’t look at it. Akiko nodded. “Yup. All squeezed into this little thing.” Nathan sat, crossed his legs and reached out, but not for the drive, for her hand. “I thought I’d lost you, Akiko. Twice.” “Huh?” She blinked at him. “Once in the building, and once…” He laid her hand on his chest, on his sternum. She couldn’t remember why. “The explosive capsule?” He said and she frowned. “Mr Smith bumped the detonation capsule twice. It should have gone off, and yet, here you are.” “Oh…” She said. “’s gone.” “Gone?” She gave him a wink, but it felt slow. “Back at Stewart’s Dive and Fishing? When it went ‘boom’? Bruises, cuts and… I went out the window backwards and a piece of glass cut that sucker right out o’ there.” His expression went all weird.

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“You didn’t say anything.” “Nup. You were all puking and sick.” Her bottom lip trembled and tears shimmered in her eyes. “I didn’t know if you were going to live and then we got back to the hotel and… one thing led to another…. And I decided not to tell you, then I forgot.” “How did you destroy the building?” He asked with a slight smile. “Um…” She thought back. “Nap... Naf... Nathe... mothballs an’ a li’l of dis an’ a li’l o’ dat in the air-conditioning system. One ignition source later an’...” She gave him a big smile. “I think I used too much.” Nathan snorted. “It did the job.” Her smile slowly faded. “I think I killed a lot of people.” “Who were going to do unspeakable things to you.” “Doesn’ matter. The why, I mean. I will never lose the karmic debt of taking so many lives.” She heard a strange sound, a whup, whup, noise and Nathan lifted his head. “Looks like your ride is here.” “Where’m I going?” He lowered his head, smiled at her. “Somewhere safe. You’re going to a place where they’ll fix your knee properly and psychopaths won’t be hunting you.” He lifted her hand to his cheek. “Will you be there?” She asked. “Always.” He promised. *** Akiko remembered the conversation as she lay in another bed.

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Somewhere safe. Her lip curled in a sneer as she gazed across the room to the barred windows. She looked to the left where two prison guards stood with stun guns straps to their hips. Between her and them lay two other patients in the hospital wing. No place safer than back in jail awaiting trial. Although this time, she had a top rated surgeon to fix the damage, and she had crutches. But they didn’t trust her not to try and escape, that’s what the guards were for. She had no reason to escape; her punishment was just. She killed many people on the island and her soul felt the stain of those deaths. With no word from Nathan, nor the government, she felt the sting of abandonment. The completion of the mission was a small light in an otherwise bleak world for her. Akiko picked up the latest of her letters to be returned. In all, a dozen came back, unopened, unread. The memory of the phone calls brought a flush of humiliation to her cheeks. “Major Hawk is unavailable.” Each time the answer stayed the same, but with increasing terseness until she got the point. He didn’t want to talk to her, didn’t want to have any contact with her, didn’t want her at all. Her eyes went to the prison bars. I am where I belong. The door opened and one of the guards tilted his head, then nodded. “Visitor for you, Sakamura.” He said and walked over to her, his companion stayed where he was but took out the stun gun. Garner unlocked the handcuffs from the bed railing. Then he stood back out of reach. Akiko tossed the covers aside and levered herself up with the crutches. She didn’t want to think Nathan had come to… what? Debrief her? Declare

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undying love for her? Explain? The memories swam into her mind and she shut them down. The last time she’d seen him was from inside a medi-vac helicopter. He stood outside, wearing a grim expression. From there, she’d been transported to Bangkok, where they stabilized her knee, then State-side, for surgery and finally here, back to prison. She didn’t think she could maintain her emotional distance from him. Already she felt the tightness in her chest, the longing for him, for his voice, his arms and she paused. “Who is it?” Garner shrugged. “If you don’t want to see them, we can let them know.” Akiko took a deep breath. She was better than this, knew better, too, than to allow her control to slip. And yet she felt a little weepy with anticipation at seeing him again. A smile twitched at her mouth as she remembered the first time they met. At least this time, she had no intention of stripping off the utilitarian grey sweat-suit. “Okay.” She said. “I’ll see them.” Garner walked behind her, the other guard, Suarez ahead. She moved a little faster as they approached the door to the visitor’s area and forced herself to go slower. But the man behind the wire-encased glass was a stranger to her; an Oriental, who wore an immaculate dark suit and tie. Even his shirt was black. He picked up his phone, put it to his ear and waited for her to do the same. She settled herself into the seat and picked up the phone. “I am Akiko Sakamura.” He nodded. “I know. I am… Mr… Mishikowa.” He said in Japanese

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“How can I help you, Mr Mishikowa.” She replied in the same language. Oh, it had been too long since she heard the lyrical sounds of home. “I trust your… rehabilitation is proceeding well?” He asked instead. “Yes.” She said, puzzled. She knew he didn’t mean her incarceration, that would have been rude. “The surgery went well, although it will take some months to return to normal.” He gave her a slight smile, as if he knew of her nature. “I am glad, though I am sure you would compensate should something… unfortunate happen.” “Unfortunate?” He ignored the question. “I represent those who financed your father’s bid for the Diet.” She kept silent. She knew little of Ahiro’s career. By that time, she was learning from her mother and from Jiro and it took all her concentration to learn the lessons to their satisfaction. Another smile twitched at his mouth. “Since your father’s… unfortunate demise, we have been unable to recoup the money invested in him. We hope that you will help us in our endeavours.” Akiko frowned. “I don’t understand. How could I help you? Since his death, I am no longer a citizen, no longer welcome in the country unless it is as a visitor.” She said. “And we are most sorry for that.” He said and bowed his head slightly. “He gave you a lesson in memory, did he not?” Akiko thought back. Ahiro wanted her to expand her mental capacity. She recalled an exercise where he laid out objects on a table and covered them with a cloth. Then pulled the cloth away and he gave her ten seconds to remember the objects.

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“Yes, he did. How did you know?” Again, he ignored her question, but she was beginning to feel uneasy. “Objects, alpha-numeric codes, music, faces, names…” With every word, she remembered the exercises, but what did they have to do with this man? “He wanted you to have near total recall. To go with your other… attributes.” She kept silent. Mr Mishikowa would get to the point eventually. “We arranged for your placement with Ahiro.” He said and she felt a chill down her spine. Stewart wouldn’t have, but then she remembered he’d said he’d given her to a Vietnamese woman… “We watched you grow, saw to your education. We helped your parents when it was needed, ensured Ahiro’s success.” “What are you saying?” She asked faintly, but he shook his head. “It matters not. It is in the past. You are now, how you say, ‘too hot to handle’. But we will accept recompense and then all debts are paid in full.” He took out a small notebook and a pen, prepared to write. Akiko stared at him. “You want money? But I have none! How much is this debt?” Again he gave her a small smile. “If you please, would you repeat the alpha-numeric codes. Just the first one; the second is yours to do with as you wish, nishikaze.” And just like that, as if he’d spoken a key phrase, the letters and numbers spilled out. She clapped a hand over her mouth, stunned. Nishikaze, the west wind.

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“Thank you, Akiko.” He closed his notebook, returned it to his pocket and gave her a big smile. “We will see that the extra funds are transferred to your own account.” Akiko simply stared at him as other memories cascaded through her mind. Mai, and their escape through the jungle, her murder; Mr Yakuza and his empty eyes and satisfied smile; meeting Mr Sakamura for the first time and staring at him, frightened and demanding to see her father, the slap she received for bad manners; the... compound! “Good fortune, Miss Akiko.” Mr Mishikowa said. “We are sorry to lose you.” He hung up the phone and bowed, then walked away. *** Major Nathan Hawk paced the corridor outside the courtroom. What was taking them so long? He shook his head. Akiko was going to be pissed at him. If he’d known the powers-that-be were going to return her to prison, he would never have let her board the chopper alone. But he’d had no say. In fact, General Cosgrove ordered him into debriefing immediately on his return. Then it was back to Thailand to debrief Attapattu, then the Thai government ministers, then assignment to London on a separate issue, and then to Moscow, Johannesburg and Wellington. The countdown to Akiko’s court appearance slowly ticked at the back of his mind. It was as if the General wanted him out of the country for a few months. With every assignment, the ticking grew louder. He could have contacted Summer to find out how Akiko was doing, but something stopped him at the last minute. He didn’t know these women; their husbands, yes, but he refused to use them.

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As soon as his plane from New Zealand touched down, he was up and out. He’d taken time to shower and change before driving to the courthouse. Would she forgive him? How did she look? Would she be found guilty? Damn it, had she given in and appointed a lawyer? He’d wait for her if they sent her to prison. He would, damn it! He paced back again and glared at the tall wooden doors and the sheriff who guarded it. Nathan folded his arms and leaned against the marble wall. The prosecution had an air-tight case and he knew it. Chambers may have been killed by an exploding gun, but no documents were destroyed. Akiko was going to jail. Was there anything he could do about it? Plead with Cosgrove? The Attorney-General, maybe? His heart sank. Akiko and her sisters were too dangerous to be free. Even now, Winter and Summer were under contract to the government. Akiko was not, and she’d taken part in a criminal enterprise. But he couldn’t walk away. He’d find a way to get her out. The doors opened and people wandered out. He didn’t want to look, but he dragged in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. And there she was. Dressed in a black skirt and jacket with a white shirt and black shoes. He saw the brace on her knee and the cane, then lifted his eyes to her face. She looked a little lost, as if she didn’t know what to do with herself. “Akiko.” He said quietly and she turned her head towards him. Her mouth tightened and her eyes went blank, empty of all expression. “Major Hawk.” She said. Major…? Uh oh. He cleared his throat. “The verdict?”

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“Guilty on some charges; not guilty on others.” “But you’re…” “Time served and service to the government. They went easy on me, easier than I expected, or deserved.” She turned away from him and limped down the corridor, the rubber bottom of the cane squeaking. Nathan caught up, walked with her. “May I drive you somewhere?” He asked and she stopped. “Why?” “Why?” Impatience rose to the surface. He gripped her arm. “Because I…” He looked around. This wasn’t the place for the conversation he wanted to have with her. “Look, Sakamura… Akiko…” Damn it. “We have some talking to do and I don’t want to do it here.” He felt her muscles tense. “There are things you need to know, things I need to say to…” “Winter. Summer.” She said and he turned to the two smiling women coming up the stairs. Summer held Winter’s arm. “You are well?” “I am.” Summer said with a gleam in her eye and a nod to Nathan. “I will be once junior decides to come out and play.” Winter grumbled, but placed a hand over her protruding belly. “And he can’t come out soon enough.” Summer gave Akiko a hug. Akiko kept her arms by her sides. “I’m glad it went well.” She said. “Time to go home.” Nathan stood back, disappointed. Follow us, you idiot, we’re going to Patriot’s Fort. He heard in his mind and he stared at Summer. You’ll have plenty of time to say what needs to be said there.

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He opened his mouth, but all three sisters went down the stairs, keeping to the slow pace of Akiko. Well? Are you coming or not? And Summer glanced back at him with a grin. Nathan shoved his hands into his pants pockets and followed. Who was he to deny a mind reader? Indeed. Summer said, and tossed him a wink. *** Akiko wanted to turn back to Nathan, to ask why he’d abandoned her. But it didn’t matter. Nothing of what they had together mattered; it was a part of the mission. She understood that now. It was why he’d stayed away. He had no need of her, it was all pretend to him. A means to an end, then gone on his merry way to the next mission. With no letter, no phone call or a visit, it was the only explanation. He didn’t love her; didn’t want her. His appearance today could only mean he wanted to let her down easy. But… it was too late for that, much too late. Summer kept glancing at her, concern in her eyes. “Keep away from my thoughts.” She warned and Summer lifted a shoulder. “I think you’re wrong.” Summer said and climbed into the driver’s seat of the SUV. “It matters not what you think, only what I think.” Winter hauled her bulk into the passenger seat and Akiko awkwardly got into the rear seat. “Flash, you’re a free woman now.” Winter winced. “So don’t be a bitch about it.”

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“You do not understand.” Akiko rubbed her thigh, above her knee to ease the ache. “What’s not to understand? You save the world, the nation is grateful and you get out of jail. Oh, I forgot. You also regained your honour.” “As I said: you do not understand.” Akiko said quietly and turned to watch the city streets. “Well, jeez, we’re family, now. You’ve had enough time to come to terms with it. Talk to us, maybe we can find a solution.” Akiko’s eyebrows rose and she turned back. Family? Talk? She shook her head. Her family, father and mother, were back in Japan; one dead and one out of reach. Why didn’t they understand that? “Summer. This is not the way home. Where are we going?” Akiko asked instead. “The hospital. Winter is having labour pains.” “Am not.” Winter sneered and then winced. “It’s just…” “Am too.” “Am not!” Summer sighed and pulled into the parking lot. “If I can feel them – not a comfortable feeling, by the way – then you most certainly are.” Akiko leaned back against the headrest, closed her eyes and prayed for strength. Both sisters visited her in jail, spoke of inconsequential things. Neither twin spoke of the case, the mission or Nathan and at the end of each visit, she wondered why they’d come. Summer said it was because they were family, but Akiko didn’t know how to interact on a sisterly level. She’d never been an elder sister. These two were strangers to her.

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They bore little resemblance to the small children she remembered from the compound. And the most bitter pill of all was ‘Mr Yakuza’ who used a hypnotist to make her forget everything. To make her more compliant to his needs, to accept the Sakamuras. Summer got out of the car and came around to help Winter out. “It’s just a little back… uh, oh.” “Come on. Baby wants out.” Summer said and their voices faded as they walked to the Emergency room. Are you coming? Summer asked. “No.” Akiko replied and she felt her sister’s acute disappointment before the link disappeared. She fell into a light doze, tired and heartsick. Would the longing never leave her? Images of Nathan flickered through her mind, refused to vanish. His smile, the light in his eyes when they made love, the concern for her, the stubborn jut of his jaw… A light tap on the window jerked her out of sleep. Nathan lifted his eyebrows in question and she pressed the button to lower the window. “Winter’s having a baby.” “And you’re out here because…” “It has nothing to do with me.” She replied. “Uh, huh.” He frowned. “The fact you’re related, that it’s your nephew coming into the world means nothing?” Akiko lifted a hand and rubbed her forehead. “Go away, Major Hawk. I don’t need you or anyone else telling me how I should feel. I got enough of that in group therapy while in prison.” Nathan leaned his forearms on the side of the car. “How long is this pity party going to last, do you think?”

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In reply, she pressed the button to raise the window. Nathan let her. Then he pulled the door open and dragged her out, pinned her to the side of the car with his big body, held her wrists. “Let me go.” She ground out. “Or so help me…” His mouth came down on hers as a reply and she stiffened. His lips seduced, his tongue persuaded and his groan of need urged a response from her. She ignored the spike of betrayed pain in her heart and kissed him back. His hands released her wrists, lifted to cup her face and she turned away. “Why do you hurt me this way?” She asked softly, her heart breaking. She knew she couldn’t have him; knew he felt nothing for her, would leave again. “Why must you torture me?” *** Nathan froze. Hurt? Torture? But he saw the bleak expression in her shimmering aquamarine eyes and sighed, dropped his hands and stepped back. “Akiko… Sakamura…” “I understand, Nathan. I understand that a tense mission can sometimes cause two people to… come together, to make promises that are well meaning, but are, in the end… empty.” She slid away from him, towards the back of the SUV. “What are you talking about?” He asked and matched her slide. “You said you would be with me always.” “I was away on missions. I tried to get back to you, but…” “You said I would go some place safe, but prison isn’t where I expected.” She said and her eyes began to heat with anger. “It was only until the trial.” He said, and then wished he hadn’t as her eyes fired.

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“You. Left. Me!” Nathan reached out and held her upper arms. “I didn’t leave you!” He shouted, then relented. “Well, I suppose, technically… It couldn’t be helped. Akiko, I love you. I would do almost anything for you. I got here as fast as I could. Surely you understand I have a duty to this nation.” She shrugged his hands off. “Where were the letters? The phone calls? The messages, Nathan? I wrote to you. I waited for you, needed you to be with me, if only for moral support. The surgery, the pre-trial, the fear.” She shook her head. “I heard nothing from you. I got the point, Nathan. The mission was over, done with, a success. I didn’t need any thanks, or applause. I needed you and all I got was emptiness, aversion, silence. No, Nathan. I don’t believe you. I got over you, like you forgot me.” “I didn’t…” He could feel his heart cracking, his throat closed up. She reached into the pocket of her jacket and slammed a bundle of paper against his chest. “Here, since you were too cowardly to open them. Read them now, if you dare. But leave me the hell alone!” And she limped away from him towards the hospital. Nathan stared down at the letters, all addressed to him, all with ‘return to sender’ stamped clearly on them. He never received them. The address was correct so why were they stamped like this? Nathan watched her limp through the doors, then stared down at the letters. Better questions would be who returned them and why. She thought he didn’t want her, thought their time together a moment of temporary passion because of the danger of the mission. Nothing he said now would convince her otherwise. She’d think he was using her again.

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Oh, she was right: he should have sent her a message or two, a letter, something to let her know he thought of her all the time… A smile slowly grew and he walked back to his car. *** Akiko stared down at the red bundle wrapped in a white blanket in Winter’s arms. How anyone could think this wrinkled, tight-faced little creature was gorgeous was beyond her. She supposed the child would grow into something admirable, but for now, it looked like an alien. Summer crooned and sighed. Captain Beech couldn’t stop smiling and stood as if he’d done all the work. Captain Duquesne looked equally pleased and Winter, the mother of this tiny being, couldn’t keep her eyes off the screwed-up face. She felt like an outsider, as if she shouldn’t be here with these people, didn’t deserve to be. She wasn’t family no matter what they said or what her returned memories told her and tiredness draped around her. “Well, I guess I’d better get back to the Fort.” Summer said. “Akiko needs a lift.” “I can get a taxi.” She said automatically. “I’m sure you could, but I’ll take you back anyway.” She leaned down and kissed the baby’s head, then her husband, whispered something to him that made his face redden. “I’ll be return later.” Winter nodded without taking her eyes of the baby. Outside, Akiko saw no sign of Nathan. “Expecting someone?” Summer asked as they walked to the car. “No.” Akiko climbed in and Summer said nothing until they were out of the city.

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“If you still love Nathan, you should say something.” “Keep out of my head.” Akiko said without turning. “Tragedy is written all over your face, sister mine, I don’t need to read your mind.” “It is over.” Summer sighed. “What will you do now?” “It occurs to me I should return to Japan, but I am…” She rubbed her thigh again. “I have no citizenship. For anywhere. I am without a country.” “You could accept the consultancy role with General Cosgrove.” Summer said. “I don’t know I have anything of worth to him.” Her sister snorted. “You have an in with the Yakuza. You could consult for the Asian Crime Task Force. You could… hmm… catch bad guys, join Winter and I, a number of things.” “It is something I will have to consider.” Akiko said and Summer sank into silence. *** For her first night of freedom, Akiko went to bed early. She did not want to celebrate the birth of the next generation, she did not want to celebrate her release; she did not want to ‘socialise’ with anyone. Towards dawn, she jerked out of sleep, gasping for air. She stared around her room, searched for an intruder, then slumped back against the pillows. Mainwaring wasn’t trying to choke the life out of her. Oh, but she’d remember the maniacal glee in his eyes for the rest of her life and rubbed her throat. He was currently residing in a Thai prison awaiting trial and extradition to the U.S.

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She swung her legs over the side of the bed and got up. A couple of hours’ therapy would clear her mind. In the gym, she set the running machine to walk as a warm up. Then she increased the pace until she was lightly jogging. It would take another month for her to run without pain and when she did, she’d need an outside course. She followed the run with weight training, then swam three miles in the pool. Refreshed, she checked the time. Breakfast awaited and her stomach rumbled. “Bien. I wonder when you appear.” Louis murmured and placed a stack of pancakes before her. “Eat.” “Thank you.” She said and dove in. “This come for you.” Louis placed an envelope before her. She didn’t recognise the handwriting, but it appeared masculine with sure strokes. She reached out of it but Louis placed a finger on it. “Eat, then read. You are too thin.” She lifted an eyebrow, but finished the pancakes. Again she reached out as Henri whipped the plate away and set bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast before her. “Eat! Then read.” Akiko blew out a breath and did as he asked. Then she sat back and waited. “You eat, now you can read.” Louis grinned at her. She opened the envelope and pulled out two sheets of paper. Dear Sakamura. She read. I received your letter today and I’m sorry the authorities saw fit to put you back in prison. I’ve contacted General Cosgrove about this most egregious error. He said it was the safest place for you since the Yakuza are trying to reach you. You’ll remember Mr Smith, the guy who helped us? Well, he was supposed to take you to them, but… it didn’t work out that way. They won’t be bothering you any more. As to the research you

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recovered, I’ve been assured it has been destroyed, so hopefully, no more genetic experimentation. But enough about the mission. I’m in London at an anti-terrorism conference. I told the General I needed to be with you, but he said it was all taken care of, that I needn’t worry; but I do anyway. He gave me updates on your condition and I’m glad the surgery went well. While I’m pleased you’ll soon be back to your old speedy self, there are some things that don’t require haste. I want slow and easy, like that first night in Bangkok. Oh, how I imagined you in the bath, the slow stroke of the wash cloth gliding over wet skin and wished I was doing the stroking. Yeah, I remember. I can’t write anymore or I’ll embarrass myself, and they’re calling us back in. I miss you. I miss your touch, your smile and your fierce nature. I want to wrap myself in you, rest with you, wake with you. I’ll be heading home in the next week and I can’t wait. Dream of me, as I dream of you. Love, Nathan. Akiko read the letter three times before she lowered it. What was he up to? “Here.” Louis held out a tissue and she took it from him, dabbed her eyes. “I ‘ope it is not bad news?” She cleared her throat. “I don’t know what to make of it.” She said and folded the letter, put it back in the envelope. “Thank you for breakfast, Louis.” She said and wandered out of the kitchen. With her exercise regime done for the day and no job to go to, she was at a loss. Her life in prison was regimented with food, exercise, therapy, rehab classes and more time in her cell. Now she was free, with no contract to fulfil, no master to serve, she couldn’t think of a single thing to do.

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Akiko, would you come to the office, please? Summer’s voice sounded in her head and her lip curled. But she made her way up the stairs to the office her previous boss used. Summer sat behind the lake of a desk, controlling the Pocklington empire as she’d been raised to do. “You have two letters here.” Summer said and pushed the envelopes towards her. Akiko eased into the visitor’s seat. The first looked official so she opened it. “General Cosgrove is offering me a contract.” She said. “He wants me to join the American forces in Afghanistan.” “Afghanistan? What on earth for?” “He thinks I’ll be able to disarm any… malcontents before it gets too nasty. Get to enemy troops.” She lifted her head. “I would have thought that was Winter’s arena, not mine.” Summer leaned back in her chair. “I can see why he’d want you. The insurgents disappear into the community. If you can get to them before they do...” Akiko slowly nodded. “And you are a Samurai.” “Yes.” “Might be an opportunity for you to…” Summer hesitated but Akiko knew what she was going to say. She could save lives, maybe redeem the karma debt. But to be so far away from...? She shook her head. Nathan didn’t love her. What did she have to keep her here?

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“It will be dangerous, Akiko.” “Yes.” She agreed, but to do what she’d spent a lifetime training for? “What about Nathan?” Her eyes focused on Summer. “What about him?” “What are you going to tell him?” Her thoughts went to the letter he’d written and her eyes dropped. “This has nothing to do with him. The offer was made to me.” Summer thrust back her chair and stood. “He. Loves. You! Damn it! What does it take to get through to you?” Akiko stood and drew herself up, righteous fury burning through her calm. “He left me in prison when he promised to be with me always. He abandoned me, why should I forgive that? Why should I forgive the broken promises, the shattered trust, the fucking heart break?” Tears shimmered in her vision. “Why should I believe him when all I got from him was silence?” “Because you’re in love with him!” Summer shouted at her. “And it wasn’t enough to keep him with me, was it, Summer.” Her sister firmed her lips, but didn’t reply. “I’ll contact General Cosgrove, accept the assignment.” Akiko said quietly and walked out. *** “You’d better do something, and do it quick.” Duncan drank down half his beer. “Why?” Nathan asked and tossed back the bourbon, felt the mellow liquid warm his belly. He ignored the noise of the other patrons at the bar, focused on getting as drunk as possible, as soon as possible.

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“Because, pal of mine, my wife is making my life hell. And if I have to live with the misery, so do you.” “She’s your wife.” He refilled his glass and studied the clear dark amber colour. “And Akiko is my sister-in-law, family, though how she…” Duncan shook his head in disgust. “I don’t care what you do, but do something.” Nathan curled both hands around the drink and brooded. “She won’t return my calls, answer my letters or let me see her. What more do you want me to do?” “Nathan, you’re Special Ops Intelligence, though you’ve been acting stupid for some time now. More like an oxymoron than...” “Hey, now.” Nathan protested but Duncan kept on going. “You have a deadline before my wife, the lovely Summer, does something really dumb to stop Akiko from going. Two days, Nathan. Two days or…” Nathan sat up. “Going? Where’s she going?” Duncan eyed him. “Where have you been? Or haven’t you been listening? She’s got orders to Afghanistan. To join some combat unit.” Nathan felt the blood leave his face, drain right to his shoes. “Af… Oh, no. Not ever. No way! No how! Over my thoroughly dead body!” He slid off the stool, tossed some money onto the bar, then paused. “You’d better tell your wife to leave the premises, because there is going to be some righteous words spoken.” Duncan grinned as his friend stormed out of the bar. Patrons quickly got out of his way. Honey, how about a date? He projected to Summer up the mountain. You know I love you, D., but why the sudden offer?

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Because Nathan is on his way, and he is supremely pissed at Akiko. Ah. You told him. Did you expect anything else when you suggested we boys go out for a drink? No, sweetie. I’m on my way. Duncan grinned and paid the tab. There’s was a little hotel just down the road Sandy and Winter swore by. Maybe Summer was up for a sleep over. *** Akiko didn’t own much, never had; material things got in the way. People, she thought, spent too much time trying to hold on to things that didn’t matter and not enough on what was important. She stared down at her single duffel: clothes and toiletries. Nothing more. It was time. Two days was forty-eight hours too long in this house with these happy people. They didn’t need her and she didn’t need the reminder of her losses. She slung the duffel over her shoulder, walked through the door of her bedroom without looking back. The challenge of Afghanistan waited. There, she’d do some good, save the lives of soldiers, maybe find some peace of mind. Refocus and try to forget Nathan. She’d spend the extra time researching the situation before reporting for duty. Akiko made her way downstairs and stopped in the foyer. The house was silent, as if empty of people. Good. Goodbyes depressed her even as they lifted her. To move on to a new challenge always created an eagerness within her. “Going somewhere?” A familiar voice said and the front doors slammed shut.

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“Yes.” She replied coolly to the fiery-eyed man. “Duty calls.” “Duty.” Nathan spat and approached. The scent of alcohol drifted towards her. He stopped in front of her, glaring. “And what of your duty to me?” “I have none.” She moved to walk around him but he blocked her. “Least of all to a drunk!” “Oh yes, you do. And drunk or not, you will listen.” Akiko used her speed to dodge around him and opened the door. She wasn’t having this conversation. She opened it. “I saved your life; you owe me.” Akiko slowly turned, outraged he would use her code against her. “Saved my life?” She snorted. “Nathan, you destroyed it.” “And yet, here you stand.” His eyes travelled from the top of her head to her booted feet, contempt clear in his gaze. “Here you stand, whole, free and ready to walk out on the best thing you ever had.” Akiko bristled. “This is not my family.” His eyes narrowed as he slowly walked towards her, as if she were a shy animal ready to bolt. “I didn’t mean them. I meant me.” His arrogance staggered her. “You?” But then, he did wear the same expression of indifference as when they’d first met. She turned away, hid her expression. She missed him. Missed the warmth and strength of his arms, the talks, the glow in his eyes when he looked at her from across a table and… she missed him so much it was a physical pain permanently lodged in her chest. “I can’t.” She murmured and reached for control. If she lost it…

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“Can’t what?” He asked from close behind her. He didn’t touch her, though she longed for the connection. “Can’t do this again.” “Help me understand what ‘this’ is.” He stood so close she felt his breath on her hair. Akiko stared out into the night. “I can’t let you seduce me again. I can’t fall in love with you again. I can’t stand the…” “Who are you now, I wonder?” Nathan asked softly. “Sakamura, the fierce warrior; Akiko, the subservient Eastern woman or Autumn, the reckless sibling?” “No one. I am no one.” Tears blurred her vision and she hung her head. “I am nothing.” “No, not no one.” His hands cupped her upper arms. “You’re my other half, my companion, my sounding board, lover, partner.” He turned her around and lifted a hand to her chin, raised her head. “You are everything. To me. And without you, I can’t function properly. I don’t sleep because you’re not there beside me. I can’t look at my shower without seeing you there. I can’t walk in public because I see you everywhere. I think of you all of the time. I hurt when you’re not near me. I don’t know how to heal the pain. And I can’t stop missing you. In short, Akiko, Autumn, Sakamura, I love you and should you leave me, I would follow you.” “Nathan.” “I’ll resign my commission, come with you to Afghanistan, only… don’t leave without me.” She couldn’t help but see the naked, raw desperation in his eyes and she couldn’t speak over the thickness lodged in her throat.

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Autumn’s Fall

Nathan reached into the back pocket of his jeans, pulled out a bundle of letters. “Read them. Before you go, just… read them.” He pushed them into her hand. The tension across her shoulders eased. She didn’t need to read his words. She understood what they contained: replies to each of her own letters. “You sound like a stalker.” She said as a calmness settled over her and the chaotic thoughts of the past few months smoothed into order. “If that’s what it takes.” He nodded. “I made a promise to you I couldn’t keep and it hurt you. For that, I’m sorry. But I will make a promise I can keep: I will love you for the rest of our lives. I will honour you and any children we make. I will demand to Cosgrove that we be partners or I will resign.” “You’d… give up the Special Forces for me?” His arms slid around her. “In a heartbeat.” “I could do a lot of good in Afghanistan.” “Delay the mission until I can join you, then.” She saw the absolute certainty in his eyes, the determination. “Okay.” “Okay?” Akiko sighed. “If we are to embark on the greatest mission of our lives, then I think a little compromise is in order.” She said and he blinked at her. She dropped the bag and slid her arms around his neck. “I love you, Nathan Hawk. I never stopped. I don’t think it is within my power to ever stop.” Nathan smiled, lowered his head and paused. “There is one thing I absolutely have to know, one thing that’s had my imagination firing.” “And what’s that?” She asked with a smile. “How, exactly, did your mother teach you to be a woman?”

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