Yori and Ron bowed to the old ninja in formal fashion, the mentor nodding in return.
“Shego has left on her journey, then.”
Both teenagers nodded stiffly, unhappiness plain on their faces at the mention.
“The three… excuse me, the four of you,” Sujigaki corrected, nodding to Rufus on Ron's shoulder. “Have become very close. I know it must be painful to be separated, but believe you still quite capable of completing this mission, if you choose to accept it.”
‘Wish I was as confident,’ Ron thought a little sourly. Though he'd finally grown to realize his own skills, he was still worried about just how they'd stand up. ‘Shego was the strongest one of us. It was her that took on all the really tough stuff… what if we get creamed without her?’
“We now believe that Shuri Ken has fled to Hong Kong.”
Ron felt Yori tense beside him, and fought the urge to reach out and try to comfort her. It was only a few months gone that Yori had finally told her friends that the ninja they'd seen with the squad Global Justice sent after them had actually killed her parents many years ago, and for it been labeled a betrayer against the Yamanouchi school.
“He was sent to Japan shortly after all of you returned, his new… employers… apparently dissatisfied with him. We were following him and preparing a move, where you could possibly be involved, Yori, but he apparently realized the folly of his return. He has gone to Hong Kong, where we believe he is trying to ingratiate himself with one of the Triads.” Sujigaki held out one of the folders that contained mission information, which had always previously been proffered to Shego, to Yori. “Track him down. Find out which of the Triads he is allied with. Find out how we can best punish them for daring to work with a betrayer, and teach them not to do so in the future. And eliminate the source of the problem.”
“Yes, Sujigaki-sensei,” Yori said quietly, sketching another quick bow before turning to leave.
“Um, sensei,” Ron acknowledged, bowing as well before turning to hurry after his girlfriend.
“You're going to kill him, aren't you?”
Yori paused in packing her relatively few personal possessions, a hand halfway into her bag. Then she continued, finding the proper position for the handful of kunai, then picking up her favorite teacup.
“Yes,” she said after a few moments. “That is my intention.”
Ron's expression tightened, and he moved over to kneel beside her, eyes beseeching. “Do you have to? Can't you just… bring him back to be locked up?”
Yori didn't look at Ron, not wanting to see the pain this was causing him. She knew well Ron's thoughts on killing, and even though in their last mission he had reluctantly acquiesced to the necessity of doing so, she somehow knew that this was an issue they would be dealing with for the rest of their lives, every time it came up. She wasn't sure whether to be frustrated by that or love him all the more because of it.
Instead, she raised the top of a thin box and slipped out a photograph, passing it to him before resuming her packing.
Ron blinked, accepting the photo carefully and looking at it. Master Sensei was standing in the middle, holding a black-wrapped little bundle, a tiny baby face peeking out from it. On either side of Master Sensei was a man and a woman wearing ninja garb, both of them a few years older than Ron and Yori were now, smiling at the camera.
“Aw. They look nice,” Ron said softly.
“It was the last time they were with me while they were alive,” Yori said quietly. “I cannot even remember their faces or voices.”
Ron sighed, handing the photo back. “I dunno what that must feel like, Yori, but will it really make it better to kill Ken? Or won't you just feel worse, more empty?”
“I suppose I shall have to try it and see,” Yori replied bitterly, putting the photo back in its box before sliding the box into her bag and closing it.
“Yori,” Ron whispered pleadingly, putting a hand on her back. “Please. What if killing him makes you just like him?”
Yori gave a short, derisive laugh. “Unless killing him were to for some reason cause me to kill Shego and Possible-san and flee the country, I very much doubt that.”
“… But what if it does make you a bad person, like him?” Ron pressed, strain in his voice.
Shrugging, Yori stood and put the bag over her shoulder, walking out the door. “Then I am quite capable of living with that.”
Ron propped his chin in his hand and stared out the plane window, feeling more troubled than he had in… well, about a month, but this time it was worse somehow. Shego had laid it all out on the line why the deaths at the genetics building were necessary, how they'd be preventing untold other deaths with them. Though it had still made him sick to his stomach, he'd eventually gone along with that reasoning.
But what Yori was talking about was killing for vengeance. Not to keep Ken from hurting other people, but in retaliation for what he'd taken from her. She wasn't acting like herself, hadn't been since Sujigaki-sensei had given them the mission. This was a long-term information-gathering mission… was she going to be like this the entire time?
… Could his love for her hold up under that?
He turned his head to look at Yori in the seat beside him, saw how she was staring ahead and down, sadness and pain etching lines around her eyes and thinning her lips. And he realized it could, and would. He was not a man who could retract his heart once it was given, and he would love Yori until the end, no matter how bitter or sweet that end might be. (Heh, and how cool was it that he could think of himself as a man, now?)
Ron had never been terribly close to his parents, but both sides had still made an effort. His father had once said to him (probably stealing the line from some TV show or movie), “Son, women will make a lot of trouble for you in the course of your life. That one special woman you find will make more trouble than anybody. And when she makes your life hard, you can either make yourself stop loving her, or you can just love her a whole lot more.”
Ron reached a hand out and covered one of Yori's with it. Her head jerked a little, then she looked up at him smiling gently at her. Slowly, she smiled too, eyes glistening. What he'd said to her in that hotel room a month ago was the truth. He loved her more every second of every day, and he had no intention of stopping.
Ron and Yori dropped their bags just inside the doorway and looked around. The loft was fairly spacious, a single large room with pillars here and there, one door leading to a full bath and another to a closet. A set of large windows looked out on a small fire escape that, to guess by a small planter that had been left to go to dust, had at one point served as an improvised balcony.
The room was almost entirely empty and bereft of decoration, the only items in it besides the new tenants a collection of boxes of various sizes right in the center. Yori walked over and looked at the labels before glancing over at Ron. “These are all from Kitei.”
“Oh, great, it'll be just what we need, then!” Ron said enthusiastically, walking over to open the top of one box. With a squeak and a flourish, a naked mole rat popped up. “Hey, Rufus!”
“Just what we need indeed,” Yori said with a small grin.
While Ron assembled the various bits of furniture (not that there was a lot of it), Yori began putting together her new workstation. She'd mentioned her intentions to become the group's “tech head” to Kitei, and the ninja quartermaster had included one of the better computer systems for individual use that the Yamanouchi had available in the supplies.
Attaching the cables and making sure everything was in its place in the computer desk, Yori left the computer to start up while she helped Ron with the rest. Security devices had to be installed, placement of accoutrements argued, a naked mole rat tube run assembled. By the end of it, Ron collapsed face-down and promptly fell asleep, Rufus sacked out atop his head.
Yori, however, was still buzzing with nervous energy. Part of it was that she was wondering how she was going to get to sleep without Shego's protective arms around her… never had she needed to feel protected and comforted so badly. But Ron had managed, surely she would too. They would simply have to adapt.
Still, she couldn't properly contemplate sleep. She sat down at the computer, staring at the screen, then began writing up a script for a custom boot-up screen.
Eventually, she ran the computer through a reboot, and nodded in somewhat grim satisfaction as the symbol of the Yamanouchi school appeared in silver on a field of black, blood-red characters ghosting into being along the sides of it.
‘A woman cannot live under the same sky as the killer of her parents.’
The next few days were spent acclimating to the fact that they were now essentially a young couple living in their first apartment together, besides being ninjas on a mission. As this realization settled in, they wound up not spending a lot of time out of bed. (This, and realizing that this would be a long mission, began to take some of the edge off of Yori's drive against Ken, to the point that she was able to relax a little.)
But eventually they got on track, and began touching base with known informants, deciding to first gather up information on just which Triads were operating in Hong Kong. The plan at the moment was to get a good idea of the organized crime situation in the city before searching out how Ken might be trying to fit into it.
When not gathering information, the two worked on developing their individual skills. Ron began to read a great deal, slowly at first, having difficulty keeping himself focused on anything that wasn't immediately interesting, then steadily increasing his pace, until he was devouring books voraciously, sometimes several a day. He began with Shego's suggestions, books about ancient warriors and combat philosophy, then spreading out, reading more history, more general philosophy, even beginning to read some psychology.
Yori, meanwhile, was expanding her computer skills and researching engineering, but frequently found herself frustrated at her slow progress. Ron seemed to be honing his mind like a sharp blade simply by educating himself with his reading. But Yori felt like she was stumbling, feeling as if she didn't even know where to start with building her own skills. She wasn't sure what was valuable and what wasn't, and so far her few attempts at hacking or gadget-building had been failures. (Though Ron was quite enamored of the disk that spun around emitting small puffs of colored smoke, despite the fact that it was supposed to go sliding across the floor and emit a variety of smoke clouds appropriate to the situation. Yori wasn't even sure how the colors had gotten in there.)
“Yeah, I heard of a Japanese guy trying to get in.”
Ron resisted the urge to lean in with wide eyes and ask ‘Really?!’ in a loud voice. It was a strong urge, too, but somehow he managed. Instead he took another drink of his unidentified booze and focused on not making a face. “Yeah, really?”
“Got rebuffed pretty bad by Zhiao Long's Triad, and supposed to be laying low licking his wounds.”
Internally, Ron cursed. It sounded like Ken's latest attempt to ingratiate himself had gone badly. No doubt the renegade ninja had gone to ground to wait for his next opportunity. Ron sighed silently, then settled in to coddle this contact a bit more before heading back to give Yori the bad news.
Yori gazed sourly at her computer screen as Ron slept on the bed behind her. Ken had gone underground, and they had no idea where. He might even decide to flee Hong Kong altogether, and they didn't have a single lead solid enough to warn them if he did.
She reached her hands for the keyboard, then growled in frustration and thumped her hands down atop the desk instead. It was pointless! She still didn't even know where to begin to look, or how to learn where! Two months of searching and attempted training, and Ken was going to slip through her fingers!
Yori slumped forward a little, repressing a sudden sob. She wanted Ron to wake up and hold her and make her feel better, despite the fact that she'd done her best to hide how badly her failures were hurting her. She wanted Shego to be here to be strong and lend her some of that strength.
She almost didn't notice when her screen changed color, dominated by a black screen and a simple white blinking cursor, like a command prompt. When she finally looked up, she blinked in surprise at the text, wiping a hand across her cheeks and reading it again.
>so 1 he4r j00 want 2 lern 2 h4ck
Yori stared at the text, and as she watched, the cursor swept across the screen, printing more English characters.
>1 c4n lern u 2 b l33t
>lern u 2 maek kewl stuph
>lern u wut u n33d 2 no
Astonished that someone had been able to penetrate the security that came standard with Yamanouchi computers, as well as her own meager attempts at shoring it up, Yori just read over the text, working a bit harder to comprehend it. Finally, she reached for the keyboard and typed back.
>Who are you?
The cursor blinked for almost a full minute, before more text appeared.
>u can call me +ux3d0l33+
The next month saw Yori's aptitude with computers and gadgets increase by leaps and bounds. The smoke disk now worked exactly like it was supposed to do, which Ron discovered when he attempted to poke one to induce it to produce the expected small puffs of colored smoke and instead wound up taking an unexpected nap for a few hours. And with the mysterious TuxedoLeet's help, she tracked Ken's movements over the past decade, from when he'd first been imprisoned to present.
When Sujigaki-sensei had said Global Justice was displeased with Ken, he hadn't been kidding. Within forty-eight hours of the assault on Kim's base, the renegade ninja had been on a flight to Japan, where he'd been air-dropped in. Not extradited to stand trial for murder and his various other crimes, just dropped in.
Yori scowled as she read of it, and for a moment was strongly tempted to leak the news that an American-based agency had violated Japanese airspace and dropped a known felon onto the island without so much as a ‘Hey guys, heads up!’ call to any sort of government office. But Global Justice was not her enemy… not yet. Their time for reckoning might come, but it was not today and not by her hands.
Ken's stay in Japan did seem to have been quite short. She traced a few financial records that revealed his attempts to access a few bank accounts, but had found them locked or empty. Shortly thereafter she uncovered the plane tickets he'd bought to flee to the mainland.
Having learned where the Triads based themselves and what businesses they frequented helped immensely as she continued her internet explorations. Organized crime needed security systems just like everyone else nowadays, and after tapping into their surveillance systems, Yori got her first look at her quarry since that day in Kim's base.
The more artful haircut and style of ponytail and his expensive suit just seemed to enhance the worthlessness of his spirit, at least in Yori's eyes. She watched him move, listened to him speak, finding every single thing about him hateful and abhorrent. It was as if everything she had ever despised had been brought to life and made manifest.
She knew that she was perhaps allowing her anger more influence than was healthy. But then, like splurging with sweets on one's birthday, you didn't hunt down the man who had betrayed and murdered your parents all that often, so perhaps this indulgence could be forgiven.
Ron peered over the top of his book as Yori watched another bit of security footage for the tenth time. He could tell she was doing her best to commit Ken's mannerisms, his way of speaking, everything that showed to memory, to better pick him apart and try to understand him. But he was truly worried about just what it was doing to her.
On the nights when she spent time trying to get inside his head, trying to memorize him so that she could recognize him no matter his appearance, she would sit at the computer staring for hours, until the early AM. When she did finally come to bed, she would curl into a tight little ball, shutting herself off from him, not wanting to let him in.
He'd only tolerated it the first few nights she'd done it, though. Afterwards, he'd rubbed her sore neck, stroked her arms, pressed against her until she would finally relax enough to turn around and pull herself close to him, pressing her face against his neck. Sometimes after that, she'd leave the videos alone for a day or two, spend more time talking to him and practicing with him.
But eventually she'd be back in front of the computer, staring, replaying, dredging for more footage. And she'd be right back in bed in that tight little ball, trying to keep him out.
Ron closed the book and rested it in his lap, watching Yori's head turn back and forth slightly with some little movement Ken made on the screen. Whatever his thoughts on vengeance were, he was almost beginning to wish they could just kill the man and be done with it, before Yori was consumed by her hunt.
Yori heard the window slide open and turned her chair, blinking as she saw Ron starting to pull up the hood of his ninja uniform. “Ron? Where are you going?”
“Out,” he announced cheerfully, Rufus scrambling up to his shoulder to wave, then leaping down into one of the pouches on Ron's belt.
She stared at him as if she'd misheard, repeating a little dumbly, “Out?”
“Yeah, out, y'know. Fresh smoggy air, scenic dirty rooftops, all that.”
“Why?” Yori asked, still feeling a little dumbfounded.
“Because eventually we might need to know how to get around this way in the city, and I'd rather not do it ‘blind’, y'know? I mean, the obstacle courses were tough, but they didn't have neon signs.” Ron shrugged. “Seemed like a good idea to me, anyway.”
Yori stared at him for another moment, then glanced at the paused video on the screen. After another few seconds of indecision, she locked her workstation and got up, starting to toss her clothes.
“What, you're coming?” he asked, all innocence.
Topless, Yori darted over to him and kissed his cheek before moving back over to grab her ninja uniform's top. “It is your honor to think you can pull one over on me, beloved.”
Yori had to admit that, smoggy though the air was, it was good to be breathing it as she leapt from rooftop to rooftop, ducking about to avoid the brightest areas. She tried to think of the last time she'd actually left their loft, and realized she couldn't. Of course she'd been trying to minimize her visibility… one Japanese person in Hong Kong asking about another one would set off a few too many question marks in all the wrong places.
Still. Ron had been right in more ways than one. He was surprisingly good at that. She gazed ahead at his black-clad form bounding just ahead of her, movements having that distinct bandy-limbed look that he assumed when he was using some aspect of Tai Shing Pek Kwar. He'd come so far from the stumbling, stammering boy she'd gotten a crush on years ago.
Ron settled in on a rooftop, in the shadow of a large air conditioning unit that seemed to be inactive at the moment. He seemed to be looking about the skyline as Yori leapt the gap and slunk over to join him.
“This is a pretty good meeting point if we ever get split up, I think. There are some good landmarks you'd be able to see from anywhere within a dozen blocks, and plenty of concealment up here.”
Yori took a look around, then nodded. “You are correct. This is an excellent fallback position.”
Ron looked at her, the smile obvious in his eyes despite his face being covered by the mask. “So, glad you came?”
“Ask me again in ten minutes,” Yori responded with a teasing lilt in her voice, pressing up against him and sliding her hands up his chest. With a press, she toppled him to his back, falling on top of him.
“Whoa! Oh yeah, we're -definitely- coming out more often!”
And after that, they did. At least every other night, they began finding their way around Hong Kong not as agents on a mission, but as ninjas learning their new environment. They learned the dark places, the shadows, the jungles made of metal and concrete in which they could lurk.
At times, when they happened across it, they stopped crime. They did so from concealment as much as possible. Yori was worried about rumors of ninja in Hong Kong getting back to Ken, but she agreed with Ron when he said that he just couldn't turn his back when he actually saw someone in trouble. It was a trait she'd fallen in love with him for, how could she begrudge it of him now?
Yori continued to learn by leaps and bounds. Most of her focus was on computer skills, and TuxedoLeet encouraged her in this.
>u wi11 lern 2 maek stuph on ur own time
>1nce u r l33t, u wi11 no how
But she felt better about things now that she was spending more of her time with Ron. She hadn't realized she'd brushed off that sweet rush of getting to be alone with him until it was gone. She still missed Shego badly, and eagerly looked forward to the day they'd all be together again, but she began to realize that this time wasn't just about killing Shuri Ken.
It was about learning to live while on a mission. To not let it eat her up inside.
So, for Ron's sake and for her own, she let go. Just a little. She limited watching the recordings, she changed her startup screen. And when she felt herself starting to boil over with rage, she would go and put her arms around Ron and her head in his lap.
Killing Ken would take a moment. Loving Ron would take up the rest of her life.
“Hey, wanna make a bet?”
Yori blinked and looked aside at Ron. The two of them were sitting on the edge of a building, looking down at a street market below. “A bet?”
“Sure.” Ron pointed down at a vendor directly below them. “I bet I can buy something from that guy there's stall, and he won't even notice I did.”
Yori tilted her head. “Steal” she would have believed, if rather un-Ronlike, but buy? “Hm. Without Rufus’ help?”
“Yup, baby, all me,” Ron replied cockily, thumping a hand lightly to his chest.
Yori considered. “And the stakes?”
“Hm. If I can't… I'll do that thing you've been saying you wanna do but I keep saying no about.”
Yori's eyebrows tried to scuttle their way up to her scalp. “You promise?”
“And if you can do so…?”
“Then you have to answer a question for me.”
Yori hmed. “Which question?”
“You'll just hafta find out, won't'cha?”
She considered for a few more moments, then nodded. “Very well. I accept your wager.”
Ron quickly fished some thin wire and a small hook out of a pouch, taking out a handful of bills and folding them carefully. He lowered the line a little, then waited.
Eventually, a tourist couple stopped by and bought some little pendant with a lightly-engraved Chinese dragon on it. Ron lowered the money further while they talked, hiding it just behind the top of the stall. When the merchant turned back to call a polite goodbye to the tourists and started to close his money-box, Ron dropped the slack he'd kept in the line, the extra length and the jar of motion releasing the money and letting it drop, scattered, into the box just before it closed.
“I am impressed,” Yori said cheerfully as Ron drew the line back up some.
“Yeah, well, y'know, I try,” Ron said, just a hint of teasing in his voice to show that the bashfulness was partly show. He let out some more slack and waited until the merchant had turned away to say something to his neighbor, then dropped the line back down, tugging the hook through a piece of jewelry and quickly pulling it up, then slowly reeling it in, not wanting the metal to flash too much with the movement.
Yori watched him pull in his prize, amused. “It seems we shall not be trying that. Yet.”
“You just keep dreaming,” Ron said with a chuckle, giving the line one last little yank and catching his prize on one hand.
“So, I promised one question answered. You may ask as you will,” Yori said with good-natured formality, bowing her head briefly.
“If you insist.” Ron looked at his fist for a moment, seeming to hesitate, then gave a little flick with his fingers, nudging the ring up between his thumb and forefinger.
Yori stared and wondered why she hadn't seen that coming.
“Yori, will you marry mOOF!” He tightened his grip on the ring as her hug knocked him backwards, and grinned sheepishly. “Aw, man, you didn't let me ask the question!”
“Yeah, that guy's definitely in with Ho Wei's guys.”
‘Jackpot.’ Ron leaned forward a little. “How'd he get in so fast? I heard the last time he tried to horn in on a Triad, they sent him running.”
“He came back with some student of his. Said in a month he'd made him so tough that he could kick any fighter in the Triad's ass. After three guys, Ho Wei believed him. He's supposed to be training some high-level enforcers for them now.”
Ron winced a little. ‘Ouch. Maybe jackpot was the wrong word to use.’
Ron opened the front door of the loft, walking in and calling, “Hey, Yori! Listen, I-!”
“Oh, Ron, good, you are here.” Yori hopped up from in front of the computer and hurried over. “Listen, I need you to go shopping, we're out of food but also I need a copy of Picturesuite. Luckily since this is Hong Kong there should be people selling bootlegs about twenty feet from the door.”
Ron blinked. “Er, yeah, okay, but listen-”
“And I need you to pick up some things, I had an idea for this little thing I could put in the center of a kunai that will really juice it up if it actually works!” Yori fished in her pocket, then held out a folded-up piece of paper. “Here's a list.”
“That's really great, Yori,” Ron agreed, taking the paper and pocketing. “But seriously, I-”
“Also, while you are out, we're almost out of cleaning supplies and you've neglected Rufus’ cage for a week.”
“Peeyoo!” Rufus sneezed from one of his plastic tubes.
Ron shifted in place nervously. “Uh.”
“And I've been researching some places locally that we could have the marriage without worrying too much, and I'd like you to drop by this one to see how it looks.” Yori leaned over to snag a printout, holding it out to Ron.
“Okay,” he murmured lamely.
“… Ron, it is your honor to not be caught dilly-dallying,” Yori prodded after a moment, making a “shoo” gesture with both hands.
“Um, sure. It's just that I found out that Ken's actually gotten in with Ho Wei's Triad by promising to train enforcers for them.”
Yori stared at him. “Dubyoo-tee-eff, Ron! This is important!” She turned and rushed back to her computer, throwing herself into the chair and starting to type feverishly. “Why did you not tell me sooner?!”
Ron slowly leaned in from one side, eyeing her suspiciously. After a moment Yori noticed and blinked, turning her head to take in his expression.
“… What? What did I say?”
“I was gonna ask you the same thing.”
“He's gone already,” Yori murmured with an acid tone in her voice.
“Look, we know he'll be back,” Ron said, not quite daring to touch Yori yet. She was sitting in her computer chair, arms folded over her chest and a scowl on her face. He wasn't entirely sure just how much of an influence Shego had been on her, and while she hadn't thrown him around for disturbing her while she was in a sufficiently bad mood, there was still the possibility. “He's left with some of their guys on a training trip. I mean, unless he's going to go and establish an entire new ninja clan in China…”
He wilted a little as Yori glared at him, holding up his hands in surrender.
“We need to focus on finding out more about Ho Wei's organization,” Yori said in a sullen tone after a few moments.
“Good idea,” Ron said, feeling relieved. That was both constructive and not at all injurious!
Yori bent over the keyboard and started to work, and eventually Ron moved off, checking through his latest shipment of books to see if any of the histories of the Triads he'd ordered had arrived. Yori barely noticed, starting the beginnings of web searches and tapping into satellites, intending to find out just where in the very large country Ken might deem best to do some condensed training of students.
>u s33m off ur g4m3
She glanced at the message from TuxedoLeet that had popped up in one corner of the screen, frowning a little and typing back tersely.
But a second later the window was flashing again, and she almost huffed as she looked at the new message.
>wut u l00kin 4 so hard?
Angrily, she typed back and closed the window.
>i said im busy!!!!11
The window stayed closed for several minutes while she worked, and she made a sound of aggravation as it popped up. She stared at it for a moment, wondering why she was having such a hard time translating, then realized that for once, her mysterious mentor was “speaking” normally.
>You… seem really edgy. Um…
>I don't mean to pry or anything, but I was wondering…
Yori waited for a few moments, then sighed and replied.
>Well. I was wondering. How long has it been since your last
The Japanese teenager drummed her fingers on the desk, then finally began prompting him.
She almost glared at the screen, and it might have been her imagination, but the font on the reply actually looked smaller.
>you know. your… period
Yori stared blankly at the screen. Well. Just because he was a computer genius didn't mean he had to be completely clueless about girls, and the tone did seem actually curious. She doubted he'd changed his style of communication just to insinuate she was angry because of PMS. She glanced over towards the bathroom, doing some mental math.
‘… Oh dear.’
Bolting out of her seat, Yori rushed to the door, grabbing her jacket. “Ron! I'm going out!”
“Uh, where?” Ron asked, looking up.
“The store! I need a… I need something!” Yori grabbed for her keys, actually launching them into the air with her hasty grab, and snatching at them several times before catching them in both hands.
“Um, okay. Want me to come with?”
“It is your honor not to!” she called as she slammed the door after herself.
Ron scratched his head, then glanced at Rufus. “You get what that was about?”
“Nuh-uh,” the naked mole rat opined, shaking his head.
Yori bounced in place in the bathroom, holding the little stick in one hand and the box in the other. She was normally not given to fidgeting, but considering the situation, some allowances had to be made.
She stared as little lines appeared on the white area, and frantically searched the back of the box. ‘What does this mean?! I should have gotten one of the ones that actually says yes or no, not a blasted barcode or something!’
Forcing herself to calm down a little, she scanned the back of the box more closely, and found the picture she needed. Then, with a long sigh, she sank down to sit on the floor and leaned back against the side of the tub, letting her head hang back and her eyes close.
She wanted to feel a little guilty for how relieved she was. To feel sad at the same time, and there was the faintest hint of that. But it was far in the background, like the faint echo of distant footsteps in a museum.
Yori raised her head and looked at the stick again. ‘Someday. Maybe even someday soon. But not this year. Not right now. The work, and this mission, has to come first.’ She looked at it for a moment more, then tossed it into the trash can. ‘My peace with my own parents will have to come before I become one.’
Ron blinked as something wrapped in bright red cellophane unfurled and settled across his head a little like one of those silly judge's wigs. He glanced back and forth, able to see that the roll was made of squares.
“Uh, Yori, what's this?”
“This is increased safety that does not involve sleeping with a kunai under your pillow.”
“Oh.” Ron blinked, reaching up to take the roll off of his head and looking at it more closely. “… Ohhhhhh.”
Yori nodded solemnly, folding her arms over her chest. “This is not negotiable.”
“Er, okay, I wasn't gonna try. I mean, I guess we should've been, it just never came up. Y'know… when other things did.” Ron looked at the packaging a bit closer, then blinked. “Cherry flavored?”
Yori looked off to the side and tapped her cheek with one finger, blushing a little. “Safe does not have to mean boring.”
“There are just too many places,” Yori said with a sigh, sitting back in her chair and rubbing her face. “Yamanouchi school has hidden itself from all manner of detection in Japan, and there is considerably less landmass to work with there. Ken could be almost anywhere, even assuming he only took his new students a few days away.”
“We'll just have to hope that his agreement to train enforcers for Ho Wei was on the up-and-up,” Ron commented from the bed, running a hand through his ever-longer hair. “I mean, as up-and-up as that sort of agreement can be. … You know what I mean.”
Yori nodded absently. “Yes, of course I do.” Which perhaps reflected on why they were together, she mused. She turned her chair around towards him. “So what have you been able to learn about Ho Wei and his Triad?”
“A fair amount. I think we could actually meet with some representatives of the Triad to learn more, if we can set up the right fake identities.” Ron leaned over and grabbed one of his books, holding it up. “With the stuff in here, your skills, and maybe a line back to the Yamanouchi to have ‘em send us the documentation we can't make here, we can learn a lot more a lot more directly.”
“Excellent.” Yori nodded, glad that Ron had said “we” rather than “I”. It had been frustrating that she'd been almost totally barred from physically gathering information and making contacts. “We should begin the day after tomorrow.”
Ron looked at her oddly, then blushed and nodded. “Er, yeah. Seems fair. Um… but are you sure you wanna do this, Yori?” He slipped off the bed and walked over, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I mean, we can wait, it's not like there's a huge rush. We could always do it back in America or Japan, either way.”
“Ron, the ceremony is not important to me.” Yori stood and wrapped her arms around him, smiling. “Ceremonies are for families, in the end. We cannot be with your family, at least not now nor for the foreseeable future. I have none that I am close enough with to care. Perhaps someday in the future, we can have another ceremony for such purposes… but for now, anywhere and anything is adequate. I would not bother with even this if I did not think it would give a sense of cementing our bond.”
Ron nodded slowly, then smiled, leaning his head down to press his forehead to yours. “You're such a philosopher, know that?”
“It is your honor to be impressed by my thoughts on such things,” Yori chirped back, giggling.
And so it was that, six months into the Hong Kong mission, Ron Stoppable got married. It wasn't in a synagogue, but in a small building that had several neon signs out front and, in Vegas fashion, generally catered to tourists whose common sense had been eroded by a few too many drinks. He wore slacks and a sportcoat that didn't quite match them in color. Yori wore slacks and a very nice black blouse Kitei had sent her. Rufus handed out the rings. The stereotypically-attired Chinese man conducting the service asked them if they wanted a receipt as the last line of the ceremony.
It was still the happiest day of his life.
That night, Ron lay awake, Yori pressed against his side in sleep, her head resting one his shoulder. His fingers stroked over her hair as he looked out the window, at all the neon and rising buildings.
Hong Kong wasn't home. The loft was comfy, and a nice place to stay, but he was looking forward to being finished here and moving on, meeting up with Shego and Kim. He wondered if they'd be able to just fall right into things, or if it would take time for them to find their comfort zone. Shego seemed pretty good at cutting through the fat, though. What was it she'd said to him a few times? “Uncertainty breeds uncertainty”.
Ron turned his head to look at his sleeping wife's face. He was still worried about her frequently, but he had hope for this being a dark part in her life she'd soon be able to move on from. On the one hand, her statement that she'd be keeping her own name until Shuri Ken was dealt with made him worried about the intensity of her hatred for the man… but the fact that she'd added she fully intended to take his once her “family business” was completed encouraged him that she was looking beyond Ken's death to the rest of her life.
He squeezed her against him gently, and Yori gave a sleepy squeak and snuggled in closer to his side. Ron smiled and nuzzled her forehead. Let the mission wait just one more day. They were entitled to that much of a honeymoon.
“We've got the meeting set up,” Ron said a month later. “It's been tricky, but Ho Wei has agreed to see ‘Timmy Baritone’, son of an American mobster, and his trophy girlfriend of the moment.” He rubbed the back of his head. “Oh man, I've got ten days to learn to do a New York accent.”
“And at this meeting?” Yori pressed evenly.
“We're supposedly going to be opening up talks about helping his Triad get established in America better through New York's Chinatown. But it's a good excuse to learn more about what he does and what he's doing. We'll just have to be careful that Ken doesn't come back and spot us.”
“If Ken comes back,” Yori said in low, deadly tones, picking up one of her new kunai from her workbench and using her thumb to press the ring on the end inward. “We will be ready for him.” Then she thrust her hand out, flinging the kunai towards a board that had been put into place halfway between her and the bull's-eye set up across the room.
The kunai whistled shrilly as the tiny gyroscope installed in its main body spun it up faster and faster on its horizontal axis, making it whirl like a drill bit. It struck the board and went through it, barely slowing down, sending a shower of splinters and sawdust into the air and continuing on dead-center towards the bull's-eye.
It would have been a very dramatic capper to Yori's statement… if the kunai had stopped there. Instead it bored through the target like it had the board and imbedded itself almost up to the haft in the wall, eliciting a muffled shriek that made both Ron and Yori wince.
“Sorry about that, Mrs. Chin!” Ron called, cupping a hand to the side of his mouth.
“Perhaps I tweaked the gyroscope a little too much,” Yori murmured in a bemused tone, tapping her chin.
Rufus tugged and yanked at the kunai until he managed to get it free of the wall, then curiously put one eye to the hole it had left. Apparently, whatever he saw disagreed with him, since he turned rather green and leaned away from the hole, sticking out his tongue. “Bleh!”
“Hey, buddy, Mrs. Chin's like eighty, you shouldn't be expecting miracles.”
“Ron, stop fidgeting,” Yori murmured, tugging on the lapels of Ron's jacket to straighten them a bit more.
“Sorry, Yori, but you know that the more expensive something is the more wonky it makes me to wear it,” Ron opined, though he did his best to be still.
“You must control that impulse if you wish to look natural,” she cautioned, giving his tie one last tug before turning around to look through the latest package from Kitei.
Ron's eyes wandered downward, and he tried to not feel guilty about it considering that it was his wife he was looking at. Yori was wearing a blue kimono with gold trim and accents… at least, the top was like a kimono, with broad sleeves and a folded front. But the sash around the middle was thinner, and the lower part… well, the lower part just barely covered Yori's hips while she was standing up, the kimono having been altered into a very mini skirt. Bent over like that, she was displaying the fact that she hadn't yet put on panties.
“Now, where are the pants that go with this…?” Yori murmured absently, still looking through the various folded garments in the box.
“Uh… Yori…” Ron swallowed, wondering if he was really allowed to have an erection in pants that cost so much. “I don't think you're supposed to wear pants with it.”
Yori blinked and straightened up, turning to face Ron and running her hands down her front. “A skirt, with a top like this?”
“I think you're wearing the skirt that goes with that already,” he pointed out.
Yori blinked again, then spread her arms and looked down at herself, as if trying to get a good sense of the garment's cut. Then she blushed brightly and thrust her hands down, putting one in front and one in back. “Absolutely not!”
“Well, you're kind of supposed to be my trophy girlfriend, remember?” Ron said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head. “I guess the trophy-er you look, the less likely they are to think you're anything but arm candy.”
“But this… I… I will not be able to stop blushing!” Yori whimpered.
Ron couldn't help himself. “You're gonna have to learn to control that impulse if you wanna look natural.”
Yori's glare convinced him that just because he was presented with the perfect straight line didn't mean he actually had to make use of it. After a few moments, she heaved a sigh. “I cannot even wear modest undergarments with it, can I?”
“That might be a little contradictory, yeah,” Ron said sympathetically. It wasn't as if he wanted a lot of organized crime goons ogling his wife, but it was a little hard to think beyond how amazingly sexy she looked. Which, he supposed, was the whole intent.
Shaking her head, Yori turned to look through the box again, though to Ron's disappointment she avoided bending over. Finally she found a pair of white satin panties and held them up, giving them a dispassionate look. “I suppose it could be worse. They are not a thong.”
“That's the spirit!” Ron said encouragingly, then laughed nervously when she shot him another glare.
“What time do we have to meet with Ho Wei?” Yori asked as she bent over to step into the panties, pulling them up and snugging them into place before dropping what there was of the skirt back over them.
“Nine,” Ron answered, hard-booting his brain to force it to work despite that display. “He's having a party at one of his clubs, the uh, Party Room. Apparently he likes parties.”
Yori stepped into the elevator heels that matched her kimono-miniskirt, shifting in place just a little to find her balance. “How do non-ninja wear these without breaking an ankle?”
“What, you're asking me?”
“At least I have a few hours to learn to act like I wear this sort of thing all the time,” Yori murmured, taking a few careful steps in the shoes.
Ron watched her, and tried his very best not to grin like an idiot at the thought of Yori deciding to wear that sort of thing all the time.
The music was blaring as Ron and Yori descended the steps into the main room of the club, people dancing out on the floor and mingling around its edges. Yori was clasped to Ron's arm and was making a show of looking around and seeming impressed, but not too impressed. For his part, Ron was attempting to put forth an aura of vaguely snobbish toughness, like someone who was so full of themselves that it was hard to be impressed by anything that didn't originate with them.
Basically, he pictured Bonnie if she were a guy and macho.
They made their way to one side of the dance floor and along the bar, trying not to bump into anyone else. A lot of the women were wearing heels even more severe than Yori's, and having to deal with someone's broken ankle was not a way to make a good impression. As they went along the bar, a tall, well-dressed man with elegantly coifed hair turned and raised an eyebrow.
“Well hello, beautiful,” he practically purred.
“Hey, sorry, pal, she's taken,” Ron said a little defensively, letting his eyes narrow just a little.
“Who was talking to her?” The man stood and slipped a card into Ron's pocket, making a ‘call me’ gesture with one hand before walking off.
Ron stared down at the card sticking out of his pocket. ‘Okay, maybe a little less Bonnie and a little more macho.’ He gave Yori a look and noticed her trying to stifle giggles, and very deliberately dropped a hand and gave her a pinch somewhere that was very accessible in her new outfit. She squeaked, then gave him a look that was half abashed and half annoyed.
They finally made their way across the lower floor and went up the steps to the more private area. There was a large table set up and piled high with food and drinks, and ringed by very tough-looking men in suits and equally naughty-looking women in Chinese dresses as small as Yori's kimono cuddled up to them. On the direct opposite side of the table was the man that had to be Ho Wei, his suit even more expensive, his expression even tougher, and at least four girls dancing attendance on him.
He also had a little birthday hat perched to one side on his head, its elastic band going under his craggy chin.
“'Ey, Ho Wei man,” Ron greeted in his best New York accent. Which wasn't that great, but he was hoping it was good enough for Hong Kong. “You didn't tell us it was youse birthday or nothin’.” He nodded to the girls that pulled his and Yori's chairs out and sat down, Yori doing the same (though he could tell she desperately wanted to go through some acrobatics to avoid the inevitable flash of panty as she did).
“It is not,” Ho Wei replied in a low, raspy voice. “I -like- parties.”
‘… Haven't I met this guy before?’ Ron thought.
“Well hey, whose doesn't, huh?” Ron grinned. “Reals nice place ya gots here.”
“Thank you. And quite a nice accessory you have as well. Is she expensive?”
‘I wonder at what point I can claim blood vengeance on him as well?’ Yori thought while smiling sweetly as if she had no clue what they were saying.
“What girl ain't, right? Am I right?” Ron said, looking around the table with a smirk and getting a round of laughter from Ho Wei's mooks. ‘Ohhhh I'm so gonna pay for this.’
“If at any time you feel like some added variety,” Ho Wei said, trailing off and gesturing around. All four of his girls simultaneously made bedroom eyes at the blond with the hot ponytail.
“'Ey, y'know, sounds nice and all, but this one gets jealous. Shoulda seen the scratch marks she left the last time she caught me. An’ that was AFTER we made up, y'know?” Ron leered and patted his wife's ass. ‘Sorry, Yori!’
Yori gave a coquettish flutter of her lashes. ‘I will make you pay, Ron. Oh, how I will make you pay.’
Once the latest round of bawdy laughter had settled down, Ho Wei steepled his fingers. “Now, Timmy, you said you had a business proposition for you.”
“Oh, yeahs, unlessin’ youse don't wanna ruin your party here with talks of business stuff…?”
“It's a party. Good things happen at parties.”
“Okays then. See, my dad's business is expandin's an’ alls, an’ it's bumpin’ up ‘gainst Chinatown, see? An’ we're figurin’, y'know, there's a lot of trouble there, gettin’ signals crossed, makin’ ourselves understoods, youse know how it is.”
“Indeed. Language and cultural barriers can be high hurdles to overcome when dealing with such delicate business,” Ho Wei answered in a solemn tone, while one of his girls played with the tinsel dangling from the end of his party hat.
“Rights, exaktally. So we're figurin’, why don'ts we get some other upstandin’ fellas who knows hows ta deal wit’ dis sorta t'ing already, an’ make ourselves a little business arrangement, y'know?”
“A prudent idea.”
“So we're thinkin’, you bring some of youse's guys over, get youseself a little branch started in Chinatown. Pay us some, y'know, licensin’ fees for helpin’ youse get started and for operatin’ in our city wit’ no trouble, help youse out if you need it.”
“And should the day come that we felt the need to expand…?” Ho Wei asked, just a bit ominously.
“Hey, y'know, youse would be our good friends. We can talks about things like that. Maybe just help you expand out to anudder Chinatown or somethin’, take things as they come, y'know?”
“I see. And how to go about setting up such a business venture?”
“Well, hey, y'know, that's what I'm here for. I needs ta see how youse guys do your business, how your operation goes. I mean, my dad's sayin’, ‘I want youse ta find me some upright sorta guys’. An’ youse seem like upright guys, but y'know how it is with business, youse gotta cover yer butt, right?”
“Indeed, everyone's derriere should be properly protected. This is, after all, a business, and it is never wise to conduct business sloppily.” Ho Wei seemed to consider for a few moments, then nodded. “I shall look into things, and should I turn up no reason to be overly suspicious, we shall speak more about how I do my business.”
“Hey, youse do what youse gotta do, I totally understands,” Ron said, waving a hand in a “no big” gesture.
“We shall meet again in one week. Until then, please… enjoy the party.”
“Man, I dunno about this, Yori,” Ron said as he flopped out on the bed, his suit flung over the back of a chair. “What if they find out our backgrounds are fake?”
“Ron, Yamanouchi ninja set up those backgrounds. If Ho Wei cares to go that far, he can find information about Timmy Baritone's great-grandfather's rum running operation.” Yori stepped out of the shoes and sighed at the feel of hardwood on her bare soles. “I'm more worried about just how long I'm going to be dressing like this.”
“You could always try to make friends with the other girls,” Ron suggested. “They might know stuff.” He was quiet for a moment, before he sat up and added, shyly, “You really do look great.”
“Mm. Well… I know,” Yori allowed after a moment, putting her arms out to the side and doing a little twirl as she walked towards the bed. The wide arms of the kimono swished, the miniskirt flaring up briefly, before she stopped in front of Ron and grinned at him. “But it is not very ‘me’, is it?”
“Doesn't hurt to pretend every so often, though,” Ron said slyly, putting his hands on her waist.
“Hm. Perhaps not,” Yori agreed, sliding up to straddle Ron's lap and drape her hands over his shoulders.
“Heeeey, no fair doing that to a guy in boxers,” Ron protested quietly.
“What about a guy out of boxers?” Yori teased, eyes half-lidded as she ducked her head down to rub her nose against his.
“Mmph, you move your hips just a little more and I will be.”
“Well, Timmy, you have seen much of my operation these last few months,” Ho Wei said as two girls batted the dangly puffball on his latest party hat back and forth.
‘Yeah, and one of these days me and my friends are coming back to smash it up like one of those stupid hats in a garbage disposal,’ Ron thought grimly, though he kept the practiced insipid smile on his face.
“So, what do you think? Have you seen all that you needed to see?”
“Pretty much. Last thing is, y'know, kinda almost a curiosity sorta thing. I been wonderin’ who youse toughest guys are. Y'know, the sort you send ta make a kinda… statement.”
“Ah.” Ho Wei smiled a little. “It just so happens that you are in luck. Not two days ago an employee of mine returned, having trained some new enforcers for us. I was quite pleased with the demonstration of their abilities.”
Ron plastered an intrigued look onto his face, though that had been exactly what he wanted and expected to hear. After all, he'd pushed this specifically because they'd heard rumors of Ken's return. Beside him, he could feel Yori tense and hoped that she wasn't conveying it visibly.
“Come. We shall meet this associate of mine,” Ho Wei said, rising and starting to amble out of the booth, his men and the girls doing likewise.
Ron shot Yori a quick look that spoke volumes. They'd hoped to learn Ken's whereabouts and confirm that he was back… not immediately have a confrontation with him. But Yori was standing, too, and Ron did the same. They'd have to hope that Ken didn't recognize them and just try to bluff their way through things until they could leave.
All the same, Ron decided it was prudent to be prepared. So even as he was making some enthusiastic agreement to Ho Wei's suggestion in his bad accent, he subtly pressed the first button on his watch.
Back at the loft, Rufus started awake as Yori's computer screen began flashing yellow, the captain from Space Quest calling “Yellow alert!” repeatedly. Squealing, Rufus scrambled out of his tube and across the room, bounding up the ladder towards something attached to the ceiling that looked a lot like an overhead projector. Except that this projector had a tiny open-air cockpit on the side that faced towards the window.
Rufus took a moment to make sure that the clasps were secure on the storage areas behind him, then settled in to wait alertly. Though he couldn't help but give a few nervous squeaks at the thought that he was sitting in a very untested piece of equipment.
The group of mooks and arm candy filed into the back area of the club, making their way along a hallway and into a room done primarily in red and gold. A short flight of stairs led up to an area with a large desk, a large chair turned away to face the back wall.
“Ah, Ken!” Ho Wei called.
Yori stiffened, and Ron squeezed her hand. He knew how hard it must be for her, but they'd have to make pleasantries with Ken and then leave him be, for the moment, if at all possible.
“Ken, this is the New Yorker I told you about. He was very interested to meet you.”
“…” The chair didn't turn around, but after a few moments, a low, cold voice spoke out. “Those are ninja, you fool.”
“What?” Ho Wei blinked, then laughed, while Ron quickly pressed the second button on his watch. “Ken, you're having fun with me!”
“Do you think I cannot sense another ninja's fighting spirit? You've led these two right to me.”
At the loft, the screen changed to flashing red, a klaxon blaring and multiple voices from the sci-fi series shouting “Red alert!” Yelping, Rufus quickly pulled on a tiny pair of goggles and his miniature seatbelt, then hit the startup button.
The three holes on the inner-facing side that any casual inspector would believe to be the projector's lenses burst into flames, the glass covering the miniature jets shattering and raining to the floor. The bolts connecting the device to the ceiling popped, the whole contraption dropping briefly before the connectors dropped down as wings and the Ratjet launched forward, smashing through the loft window and banking off to the side as Rufus began homing in on the little dot indicating Ron's location.
All was quiet in the loft, until several seconds later, there was a pounding on one wall. “Keep it down, you darn kids!”
One last shard of glass fell out of the window and clinked to the fire escape.
The mooks, at first surprised, quickly ringed out around Ron and Yori, drawing guns and aiming them, while the girls nervously shuffled backwards.
“Timmy… say it isn't so, Timmy,” Ho Wei said in a low, wounded voice.
“Your men would be no challenge for these two. Not ninja that the Yamanouchi sent to find me.” Ken stood, but didn't turn around, the top of his body visible over the top of the chair. “But even my green students shall handle them easily.”
The door on the wall in front of Ken opened, and with slow, deliberate strides, two figures emerged. The first wore a black bodysuit, with a yellow belt and attached loincloth, padded yellow bands going up from the belt to sweep into shoulderguards, his lower face covered by a harsh-looking yellow mask. The second was dressed similarly, save in blue. They moved to stand on opposite sides of the desk, gazing evenly down at Ron and Yori.
“A little more theatrical than tradition demands, but they were intended to make an impression rather than hide,” Ken said in an offhanded manner, waving one hand. Ho Wei's goons began backing off towards the edges of the room, leaving Ron and Yori standing in the center. “Facing off against a few Yamanouchi should be an interesting test of their abilities.” With that, he started towards the open door.
“Shuri Ken!” Yori cried, starting forward, only to have a trio of glasslike throwing stars embed themselves in the floor in front of her. She glared up at the blue-clad Chinese ninja, who wagged a finger disapprovingly. Behind him, the door closed.
The Party Room's bouncer raised his head at an odd sound, then screamed like a little girl as something came flying at his head at high speed. He dove to the ground, and a pair of clubgoers just leaving for the night did the same as the Ratjet buzzed by them and through the door.
The revelers inside reacted with mixed yelps and laughter as the tiny aircraft whizzed through the club, not sure if it was some strange attack by little pink aliens or just another party favor.
The Ratjet zipped towards the entrance to the back area of the club, Rufus flipping a switch in his cockpit, then pulling the trigger on his tiny control stick. A pair of Yori's Gyrokunais spat from the front of the Ratjet, smashing through the wood on either side of the door handle. The blunt nose of the miniature aircraft hit the handle and popped the doors open.
Mooks and ninjas alike jerked their heads towards the sudden appearance of a flying box with wings, and the girls decided this seemed like a good time to scream. All the better once it flew overhead and dropped a barrage of smokebombs.
Rufus pulled a hard turn and twisted the Ratjet as the mooks began firing at him, bullets impacting the wall directly behind his little aircraft. With a squeaky little crow of victory, he pulled away from the wall as their clips ran dry and flew out over Ron and Yori, hitting the release button.
With a puff of compressed gas, a pair of metal boxes fell off the sides of the Ratjet, Ron and Yori each catching one. Giving another exultant cry, Rufus banked his now considerably more maneuverable craft and zipped back out the door, mooks chasing after him reloading their guns, screaming club girls following just to get out of the room with the smoke that was ruining their hair.
Ron and Yori dove to the sides as the other two ninja, apparently having had enough of their shenanigans, started throwing kunai and throwing stars. Both Yamanouchi passed pillars and rolled, coming to their feet already dressed in their ninja garb, Yori fastening together the last part of a collapsible ninjato and bolting it securely.
“Yori, I'll hold these guys off!” Ron called, darting forward and placing himself ahead and centered. “You go after Ken!”
Yori tossed him a quick glance, then nodded, darting around one edge of the room. The blue-clad ninja threw more translucent throwing stars at her, but she deflected them with quick swipes of her sword and kept going, throwing open the door and diving through it.
“So, hey there, guys,” Ron said in an upbeat, even tone as both Chinese ninja turned back to face him. “Don't suppose we could settle this with a few rounds of shooting zombies in the nearest arcade, huh?”
In near sync, both enemy ninjas raised their fists and cracked their knuckles.
“Yeah, I thought not.”
Yori looked around wildly as she came through the door. There was an empty sword stand and a safe with its door hanging open. Defense and his ill-gotten gains, of course that was what he would take. There was another door ajar, and she knocked it open and glanced through, seeing nothing but a small storage room and a metal fire door hanging open, a puddle from the hard rain outside starting to crawl across the tile.
She darted through and looked around the alley, spotting a fire escape ladder and quickly clambering up it. Perching on the roof, she scanned around, and finally picked out a form leaping along almost a block away. Scowling, she looked back and forth, then turned to the right and ran, jumping to a different rooftop.
Ron had been right, their nighttime explorations would be invaluable. Shuri Ken was headed for the docks, and she knew exactly where she'd be able to catch up to him.
Ron eyed the duo, waiting for one or the other to make the first move. He had to figure out how to close the distance, keep them from getting free shots as he made his way to them.
Unfortunately, the yellow ninja decided to close the distance for him. He threw out a hand, a lasso-style yellow cord flying out from the inside of the bracer on his forearm. Ron barely hand time to grab it and get his fingers under it before it was yanked tight, trying to strangle him.
“Get over here!” the yellow ninja snarled, turning his body to yank hard on the rope. Ron was pulled off his feet and sent hurtling forward, his jaw impacting against his attacker's fist as much as the other way around.
‘I am not off to a good start,’ Ron thought as he took a short trip back the other direction. Forcing his pain and the taste of blood in his mouth out of his awareness for a moment, Ron yanked hard on the rope, opening it back up and yanking it over his head, twisting himself around. When the yellow ninja yanked again, having intended to pull Ron back for another punch, the blond instead slammed his feet into the Chinese fighter's chest and knocked him backwards, Ron landing on the balls of his feet.
The blue ninja came in, using hard jabs and sharp kicks to force Ron on the defensive, the teenager using short sweeps of his arms to turn the strikes away. Then yellow was up again and making the same attack, Ron devoting his left arm to defending against him while the right covered the blue one. Luckily, their proximity to each other was cutting down their mobility just enough to make it possible, and give Ron time to assess the situation.
‘Okay, pretty standard Yamanouchi ninjutsu, the “overwhelm” variant focused on short, hard attacks meant to wear down an opponent's defenses quickly.’ Ron winced as a fist darted right past his defending arm and grazed his ear. ‘And they're not bad at it either. They're not as good as Yamanouchi elites, though, and I spent a year sparring with those! … If only there weren't two of ‘em…’
The yellow-clad ninja raised his left hand to aim a punch at Ron's face, the blue-clad ninja raising his right to do the same. As the punches came in, Ron swept his arm up, knocking blue's fist into yellow's and deflecting both, and using the opening to slam his palm across blue's jaw, letting his arm sweep up and then drop in a backhand to the side of yellow's eye. Quickly, he slid a foot forward between them and struck their chests with his palms, sending them both reeling and staggering back.
‘On the other hand,’ Ron thought, starting to grin.
Yori leapt the chasms of the city, feeling the rain beat against her face and body as she flew through the air, risking lighter landings despite the slick rooftops so that she could keep her momentum up.
She darted past a sign and saw him crossing the rooftop in front of her. With an extra push, she jumped early and barely landed on the edge, letting herself topple forward with the momentum and skid to the center of the rooftop behind him. “SHURI KEN!”
He actually stopped at the roof's edge. He held the sheathed katana in one hand, and a leather satchel in the other. The rain had slicked down his slim ponytail, the rest of his hair hanging closely around his head. The nearby sign illuminated his black silk shirt and turned his maroon suit a garish blood red.
“Face me,” Yori demanded, hating herself for the tiny tremor in her voice.
Slowly, Ken turned around, his dark eyes focusing on her. Lightning split the sky in the distance, lighting Yori's face from behind as the wind blew her rain-slick hair. Thunder boomed, the sound rolling across the rooftop like an almost physical force before fading away, leaving a silence in which Ken's voice seemed impossibly loud.
“… Hello, Yori.”
There was something almost like softness in his tone, and Yori twisted her hands on the grip of her sword, baring her teeth.
“So they sent you to do this?” Ken asked, voice much firmer now.
“They could not have -kept- me from it,” she snapped back. “I would have crawled through Hell on my knees to kill you!”
“… Heh.” Kin smiled dryly, giving his head a toss to flick his wet bangs out of his eyes. “I can't say that I blame you. I guess I feel better that it is you, after all.”
“If you feel better about it, kneel and let me take your head,” Yori said coldly, lightning and thunder punctuating the demand.
“Sorry, Yori. Maybe a long time ago, I would have done just that. But I've invested too much in staying alive to stop just because someone that deserves to kill me has come to try.”
He opened his hand, the leather bag falling to the rooftop, a roll of thunder coinciding with its impact, the red jacket thrown away to drift on the wind a half-instant afterwards. Ken raised the empty hand up to rest it on the handle of his katana, crouching. Yori's lips thinned, and she shifted her feet, waiting.
Ken lowered his head for a moment, then chuckled. “Aren't you… going to ask me why?”
“Does it matter? They're still dead,” Yori spat back.
“You tell me. Does it matter?”
“…” Yori stared at him, feeling the wind dust across her. After long seconds, she forced out, “Why?” If her voice trembled, it was only because the wind was carrying it. Rain struck against the bridge of her nose, sliding down her cheeks. At least, that's what she told herself. “Why did you do it? How could you?”
“A master gave me the order. A master who had promised me not only the honor of staying with the Yamanouchi, but money. A way out of the poverty my family had fallen into. So you see… when your parents stepped in, and the master gave the order, I simply reacted without hesitation. For in that moment… your parents had come to personify the barrier between myself and every dream I had.”
“… Then it was both.” Yori lowered her head a little. “You blindly followed your master's orders, as well as lusting after material things.”
“Yes. The real world is so beautifully complicated, isn't it?” Ken chuckled sourly again. “From the moment I reacted to that order, my life's course has been set. As has yours, apparently.”
“No.” Yori's voice was firm now, carrying above the sound of the rain pelting the rooftops. Lightning sliced through the blackness and thunder roared for a seeming eternity, before she continued. “This moment in my life. This was set. But when tonight is done, I will move on. I will find a new direction, and I will live. Your course ends here.”
“Heh. Alright then, Yori.” Ken's thumb pressed on the guard of his katana, a tiny clack signaling that a sliver of the blade had been revealed. “Let's just see what's greater. Your will to live… or my drive to survive.”
Ron grabbed one ninja's wrist and pulled it forward, then yanked it around, actually wrapping it around the other's extended arm before dropping into a sweep, knocking them both to the ground. He did a quick series of backflips, knowing when the yellow one had gotten up because kunai began to impact the floor just behind him, the blue ninja yelling and actually coming at him.
‘Oh please oh please oh please tell me they're actually this stupid!’
He stopped his flipping and let the blue ninja come at him, ducking away from angry punches, then spinning around, putting himself between the two.
“C'mere!” the yellow ninja snarled, hurling out his lasso again.
‘Oh they are SO that stupid!’
Ron quickly snagged the rope behind the loop and slipped it forward over the blue ninja's head, then hit the deck. Blue's eyes widened just before yellow yanked hard, causing him to go flying. Yellow's eyes widened as well as he realized just what he'd snagged, managing to drop his punch. The two Chinese ninja's heads met with a sound remarkably like that of a bowling ball clunking against one another on the shelf.
Leaping to his feet, Ron ran across the room, pausing near the downed ninja long enough to be sure they were actually out, before hurrying for the door. “Don't worry, guys, stuff like that happens to the best of us.”
He emerged into the rain and looked around, then quickly clambered up the fire escape to the rooftop and looked again. There was no sign of either Ken or Yori. Ron cursed under his breath, wishing he'd thought to make her conceal a locator beacon of her own, then turned and leapt across the rooftops. He'd have to head for the fallback position and hope she rendezvoused there for one reason or another.
As much as he wanted to be there to help her, it looked like this would be Yori's fight.
Lightning reflected off of Ken's blade as it whisked out of the sheath, both ninja howling battle cries as they came in, blade striking against blade. Yori darted to one side and Ken turned to follow, coming in fast again and slashing from the side.
Yori let him, blocking the slash with her own sword before cutting down at his shoulder, and pressing in as he dropped back to avoid it. She knew she had to keep him from gaining enough ground to pull out the ranged weapons he must have. He might be deadly with a sword, but he would be absolutely murderous with kunai or throwing stars.
Metal clanged on metal like a blacksmith's hammer on an anvil, ringing across the rooftop as Yori and Ken fought. Sword blades cut swaths through the sheets of rain water to cause small explosions of droplets as the edges collided, the best alloys money could buy clashing with ancestral steel.
Ken's sword was knocked back by a particularly hard strike from Yori, the katana leaned away from his body and held with one hand. He grabbed it back with the other in a different grip, swinging down and then up, Yori barely dodging as the edge of the sword cut across the shoulder of her ninja gi.
There was no banter. No further recounting of why, how, or when. There was only the grim knowledge that one of them was going to die.
Yori's sword sliced shallowly across Ken's chest, and he staggered back, open for a moment, the female ninja chancing a stab right for his heart. He smacked the sword away with his own and sliced at her neck one-handed, making her duck and fall back. His free hand darted for his pocket, but Yori came in and slashed for his wrist, making him throw his arm wide and grab the grip of his katana again.
Ken ducked back and crouched, swinging the katana around and sheathing it again, then bursting forward, unsheathing it in a swift cut at Yori's neck. She dropped back, falling to the roof and swinging her feet up, slamming them to his stomach and propelling him through the air.
Grunting, the older ninja rolled and came to his feet, Yori twisting and doing the same, a hand at her belt. Scowling, Ken raised his sword and charged her again, starting to swing it down. Yori's hand flicked through the air, a high-pitched shriek accompanying the kunai's flight through the air. The tip of it struck the blade, finding a chip put there earlier in the fight.
The centuries-old sword practically exploded, shattering into hundreds of shards that went flying, Ken yowling in pain and staggering back as the splinters of steel sliced into his skin. His back thudded against the side of an air vent, legs failing under him and dropping him to his knees.
He went silent as he felt the tip of Yori's ninjato at his throat. Slowly, he tilted his head up to look at her, letting the broken sword fall from his fingers.
“You fought like a samurai,” Yori said quietly, gaze steady and boring into his own.
“There are no more samurai, Yori. You should know that,” Ken said with a bitter smile. “No more samurai tradition, no more samurai honor. Just pale imitations kept for the sake of ‘culture’. The only honor I could seek was as a ninja, and carry my family traditions with me. And even then…” Ken trailed off, then lifted his chin a bit more, enough to make the point of Yori's sword dimple the skin of his throat.
“…” Yori stared down at him, lips thinning.
“Your father was always a better man than me. I wanted to be more like him, but in the end I could never measure up to him. Or even defeat him. All I could do was kill him. And now, you can kill me.”
“… My…” Yori tightened her grip on the sword, rain running down the metal length of the blade to follow the path of the hollow of Ken's throat. “My husband urged me not to kill you. He does not feel that this… that killing for vengeance is right. That it is not something heroes should do. At times, I have found myself considering his words.”
“Heh… he's probably right,” Ken allowed, fingers twitching nervously. “Heroes shouldn't kill for vengeance.”
His hand shot up, throwing the shard of his sword right at Yori's eye. But she was already in motion as his hand came up, turning to the side and dropping down, sword cutting through air, rain, and then flesh.
Ken's eyes widened as his throat opened up and gushed blood into the night with such force that it made it through the rain, spraying across Yori's face and the front of her body as his hands came up towards the wound. His hands stopped halfway and quivered, then dropped as he went limp, falling to one side and staring at nothing as the rest of his lifeblood poured out onto the rooftop to be diluted in the rain.
Yori straightened up, glaring down at Ken's body as his blood dripped from her bangs. “My parents gave birth to a ninja. Not a hero.”
Ron looked up at the sky as the rain quickly slowed and then stopped, just like someone had turned the handle on a faucet. The clouds began to lighten, allowing a scant bit of dawn's light through their substance to turn the wet morning dim and grey.
“Well, at least it stopped raining, huh?” he commented quietly, running a hand through his wet hair.
“Yuh-HUH!” Rufus agreed, using a tiny bucket to start bailing out the cockpit of the Ratjet, which he'd landed atop the air conditioning unit Ron was leaning against.
Ron stood and walked a bit away from the air conditioner, turning to gaze off across the skyline. Then something tickled at the back of his senses, and he blinked, turning around.
Yori was standing there, gaze slightly downcast, expression blank. The water dripping off of her was stained slightly pink, falling to the rooftop to blend in with the rest of the dark concrete.
“Y-Yori.” Ron's eyes widened a little. “Are you alright?!”
She nodded once, just the barest bob of her head up and down.
“Did you…?” Ron trailed off, then reached a hand out towards her. “I mean… is it…?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “It's over.”
Yori released her grip on the ninjato and let it fall to the rooftop with a clatter, not even seeming to notice she'd done it. After half a heartbeat's hesitation, Ron went to her and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly. She pressed her face against his shoulder, but did not cry.
“So is it… is it okay now?” Ron asked quietly, laying a hand on the back of his wife's head. “Is it better? … Is it worse?”
“It is simply over, beloved,” Yori murmured against his shoulder. “And I want to go home.”
Ten months to the day after Ron Stoppable and Yori Kokuei had walked down the steps from the elite Yamanouchi ninja school, Ron and Yori Stoppable walked up them, the gates swinging open silently as they approached.
Inside the empty courtyard stood not only Master Sujigaki, but Master Sensei as well, the little old man with his hands tucked under his long, elegant white beard.
“Hey, Master Sensei,” Ron said in a tired but happy voice, bowing. “It's been a long time.”
“That it has, Ronald. I am very gratified to see you again, after hearing of the fine ninja you have become.” Master Sensei bowed his head briefly to the blond.
“Master Sensei,” Yori greeted, giving her own bow.
“And far too long since we have talked, Yori.” Master Sensei bowed his head again, though raised it more quickly, actually opening his eyes to gaze on his longtime student.
“It is done with, then,” Sujigaki-sensei stated, rather than asked.
Yori nodded, reaching into the pack behind her and drawing out Shuri Ken's katana, the broken blade slid into the sheath to give it the appearance, if not reality, of being whole.
“Ho Wei's Triad still might have a few ninja trainees,” Ron added. “But we thought it best to report back rather than try to take on the entirety of Chinese organized crime.”
“A very prudent decision,” Sujigaki agreed, his tone faintly wry. “We shall assign others to ferret out the vestiges of Ken's teachings. After all, there are still other ninja in this school who need something to do with themselves.”
“Tell me, child,” Master Sensei said gently, after all four had remained silent for long moments. “The end of this… does it make you happy?”
Yori shook her head, voice still soft. “No, Master Sensei.”
“No. I simply feel… that it is finished.” Yori closed her eyes for a moment, before looking again at the ninja master who had raised her. “In the end, I saw Shuri Ken for what he was, a flawed and broken man who had failed at everything he tried for in life. In a way I pitied him, but the blame for every decision he had made still rested with him. I ended his life because it was the punishment he had earned, and because I knew that I would never move past what he had done if I did not. It did not make me happy… just relieved that it was over.”
“Perhaps it is all for the best,” Master Sensei agreed softly. “It is not well to find happiness in such a thing, but the beginnings of peace are a worthy enough prize.”
“The hardships of generations may fall upon a single man,” Sujigaki added, unsheathing the broken katana and eyeing the jagged end of the once noble blade. “How he bears up under it is the measure of his own strength.”
“I condemn him for his actions,” Yori corrected, shaking her head. “Not for his lack of strength.”
“… Just so.” Sujigaki resheathed the broken sword. “Then perhaps the measure of a man is in how he chooses to fail, if he must indeed fail.”
Yori nodded. “I think that is the truth of it.”
“Perhaps you shall take more from this experience than resolution after all,” Master Sensei mused. “Besides a new husband, that is.”
“Ah.” Yori and Ron both blushed, trading a glance, before Yori looked back at the old ninja master. “I had intended to tell you, just… at a more opportune time, Master Sensei.”
“Then perhaps you should remember to take off those wedding bands when you do not wish people to know,” Master Sensei replied, eyes twinkling.
Blinking, the couple both raised their hands to look at the gold rings around their fingers, then slapped the raised hands against their foreheads in unison. Rufus, from Ron's pocket, shook his head and squeak-mumbled something about peas and pods.
“I have faith you will be very good to her, Ronald,” Master Sensei said, walking over to take one of Ron's hands and pat the back of it, then doing the same with Yori. “And you to him, Yori.”
“Thank you, Master Sensei,” they both murmured, bowing again.
“So what now, Sujigaki-sensei?” Ron asked, looking towards the other ninja master.
“Now? Your training is complete. Your final mission done.” Sujigaki gestured a bit with the sword, indicating the elite school. “Neither of Yamanouchi's schools has anything left to offer you… save a safe haven should you need one, and a home whenever you desire one.”
“You will always be Yamanouchi ninja,” Master Sensei picked up. “But now, we release you to the world to follow your own hearts and seek your own causes. We have faith that they will be honorable ones.”
“Take your rest. Make your goodbyes,” Sujigaki-sensei counseled. “And then go in search of the rest of your lives… or to meet the life you know is waiting for you.”
Ron slid open the back door and stepped out onto the small patio, the wood feeling just a little rough on his bare feet. The house's back yard was just large enough for a koi pond and a shade tree. He walked over to the pond and looked in, noticing an exceptionally large fish simply lurking in the middle of the pond as if bored.
“Wow, you're huge,” Ron said in a complimentary tone. “I thought only some basic upkeep was being done on this place, what've you been eating?” The blonde looked around the pond for a moment, then realized that the large koi was the -only- fish in the pond. “… Ohhhh.”
Rufus poked his head out to peer at the water as well. If the fish had eyebrows, they would have perked, its dark black eyes fixing right on the naked mole rat. With a yelp, Rufus ducked back into Ron's pocket.
“Ron? Where are you?”
“Out here!” Ron called back, walking over to knock lightly on the tree with his first knuckles.
Yori padded out the back door, smiling just a little at Ron examining the tree. “Find anything interesting?”
“Other than Humongo the Kannibal Koi there, nah, not really.” Ron looked around the little back yard, hmming. “It is pretty nice, though. This was really your parents’ house?”
“Yes. They didn't stay here all that much… they were at Yamanouchi often. But this home is one of the family estates, and it was left to them. One of my relatives has been having it kept up a bit in case I wanted it when I grew up.”
Ron nodded, turning to eye the small two-story home and wondering how best to replace a shutter that was sagging a little to one side. Yori walked over and slid her arms around his middle, resting her cheek against the front of his shoulder.
“… We could live here,” she noted quietly. “We could send Shego and Possible-san our regrets. Settle down to live happily, perhaps find normal work, as well as assisting Yamanouchi on occasion.”
“Huh. Yeah, yeah we could,” Ron replied thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “That'd actually be pretty nice. Looked like there were enough bedrooms for kids, too.”
“Mm-hm. There's a park nearby, and some good schools. You could teach English… and gym,” she added with a warm, teasing lilt in her voice.
“Whoa, Ron Stoppable teaching English and Athletics. I dunno if the world could take the irony,” the blond replied with a snicker.
They were both silent for several minutes, holding each other and gazing up at the little house that would just need a bit of love to become a home.
“I'll call my great-uncle and tell him his grandson who just got married can have it,” Yori murmured.
“Yeah, I'm gonna go order some do-it-yourself books so we can turn it over in good condition,” Ron agreed, gently drawing away from Yori and heading inside.
Ron thanked the delivery man and walked inside, arms piled high with packages. He set them on the little table in the entry hall, Yori making her way over.
“Dee-eye-why book for me,” Ron announced, setting the package aside. “Letter for Yori.”
“Thank you,” Yori said sweetly, snagging the envelope from her great-uncle.
“Uh… package for Rufus?” Ron said quizzically, holding out a squarish bundle about half again the dimensions of a large book.
“Oooogimmegimme!” Rufus chirped, bouncing up and down and waving his paws excitedly. Ron shrugged and passed the package to Rufus in midair, the naked mole rat squeaking and abruptly dropping back to the ground with the weight of his acquisition.
Ron meandered into the room he and Yori were sharing, holding his hands out from his sides in an attempt to avoid getting any more paint on himself than he already had, pointless as that might be. He blinked at the laptop sitting open at the end of the futon, turning to call, “Honey, I thought you were taking a break from the net!”
“I -am-!” Yori called from downstairs, sounding faintly indignant.
“Well you can't tell from this,” Ron muttered, nudging the laptop closed with his toes.
From under the pillow, Rufus gave a little huff of indignation.
“Book for me. Letter for Yori.”
“Thank you, dear.”
“… Package for Rufus.”
“… Letter for Rufus.”
“Large manilla envelope for Rufus? What the heck?”
“Ron, does it seem…” Yori rubbed her chin a little as she watched Rufus snoozing in his exercise wheel.
“… Does it seem as if Rufus is up to something?”
“Uh, up to something?” Ron bent over and peered into the plastic habitat, then hmmmed. “Although now that you mention it, he's been getting more mail than usual.”
Yori pondered what Rufus’ normal mail volume would have been like when he was back in Middleton, then briefly wondered if perhaps there was such a thing as spending too much time around one's spouse and pet. “But why would Rufus be up to something?”
“Darned if I know,” Ron said, shrugging and straightening up. “Maybe it's just fans of his from that online game he used to play, wondering where he is.”
“… In Japanese?”
“Well, it's a global game, sweetie.”
Yori rubbed her forehead. It was almost worse that she knew Ron wasn't insane. She adored Rufus, but sometimes her rational mind still had a hard time catching up to the fact that he was a rodent who played computer games.
“Besides, Rufus isn't the plotting sort, what's he gonna plot about? Something evil to do to Humongo?”
“I suppose you're right,” Yori allowed, turning and wandering out of the room, Ron following after her a moment later.
Rufus slowly peeked one eye open and snickered softly. Then he gave a little chirr, looking thoughtful for a moment. “Hm, fishfry?”
Late at night, Rufus edged his way out of the window and over to an outer beam, carefully making his way down it. He'd put on the ninja outfit he'd made for himself not long ago, a thin strip of pink around his eyes and the pink of his tail the only things to give him away.
He scampered across the lawn, making a few thoughtful sounds as he looked up at the shade tree. Bounding over to the trunk, he climbed up to one of the branches, then made an excited sound and ran out on one of the leaves, stretching a paw out towards one leaf in particular.
Unfortunately, the leaf had grown on one of the newer, thinner branches, which slowly bent downward under even the naked mole rat's slight weight. Unnoticed, his tail angled until it almost touched the surface of the water.
“Nyaha!” Rufus cried, grabbing hold of the base of the leaf.
At that moment, Humongo leapt from the water, heaving his great mass up into the air, not content to just nibble for the pink wormlike thing, but intending to trounce it from above. Rufus screamed, reflexively yanking on the leaf and detaching it from the branch. In violation of all laws of physics, the branch's “lightened load” allowed it to fling back upwards to its proper place, lifting Rufus out of Humongo's path and catapulting him back through the window.
Rufus landed with an oof on the pillow and sat up, wobbling back and forth in dazed fashion. Ron lifted his head with a yawn, and waved dismissively. “Rufus, buddy, go back to sleep.” Then he let his head drop and was soon snoring again, Yori somehow blissfully seeming to not notice.
Rufus eyed his friend and owner as if having some serious doubt about his fitness as a ninja, before scrambling up the short set of shelves upon which his cage rested. He carefully hid the leaf, then leaned out the window and waved a forepaw towards the pond, chittering angrily. In Naked Mole Ratese, it translated to something along the lines of ‘I'm gonna get you, sucka!’
“Letter for Rufus… letter for Rufus… extremely heavy cube for Rufus?”
Six weeks later, Ron and Yori sat in the bedroom, going over a checklist.
“And the shutters.” Ron checked off the last item. “That's it. Everything in the house is fixed. Hope your cousin's appreciative.”
“He will be, or ninjas shall come to remind him to be so,” Yori murmured, rubbing her lower back.
Rufus bounded into the room, then started jumping up and down, pointing to the door and chirping insistently.
“Huh? What is it, buddy?” Ron asked curiously. “Timmy fell in the koi pond? Oh wait, I'm Timmy.”
Rufus rolled his eyes and huffed, then scampered over and tugged on the leg of Yori's pants a few times before scrambling back out the door.
Yori blinked, but shrugged and followed after him, Ron falling into step behind her. They followed their little pink friend downstairs, and to the center of the almost empty family room, where a large brown album was sitting.
“Is this the first package you received, Rufus?” Yori asked curiously, settling on her knees in front of the album.
Yori glanced at him quizzically, then flipped open the cover. She stared for a moment, then flipped a few more pages. “… Oh dear…”
“Huh? What is it?” Ron leaned over her shoulder, peering down.
“… A scrapbook.” Yori continued turning pages, more slowly now. “Rufus must have been writing to my relatives and having them write to each other… there are a number of pictures of my parents.”
“And hey, there's you!”
Yori focused more closely on the page and saw that the pictures were indeed becoming focused on her… at family gatherings, holidays, from events at Yamanouchi. Even from Ron's first visit to the school as an exchange student. Pictures of him, Shego, and herself in Hawaii, Rufus usually perched on one of their heads hamming it up for the camera. Pictures from Hong Kong, including the wedding, and even a few from the time spent fixing up the house. Here she noticed things like a laminated pressed leaf from the tree outside, a paint chip from her nursery before they'd repainted it, even a pebble from the garden. She hesitated, then flipped the pages back, noticing that there were other little mementos, like tiny shells or an expended party popper from her first New Years, glued like decorations amongst the photos.
“Oh… Rufus…” Yori swallowed heavily, turning her head to look at him, tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. “This is what you've been working on all this time.”
“Uh-huh,” Rufus chirped, bobbing his head.
“Oh… oh, THANK YOU!” Yori swept him up in her arms, hugging him tightly. “It is so wonderful! You are such a wonderful friend and pet!” She nuzzled her cheek against the top of his head, then paused, looking at him. “Rufus? Rufus? Oh no, Rufus!”
“… and that was the death of Rufus,” Ron said mournfully, hands clasped in front of himself and head bowed. “Crushed by a girl-hug. What a way to go.”
Ron blinked and looked over to where Yori was standing in the doorway, hands on her hips.
“Why are you telling the koi lies?”
“Yeah, huh?!” Rufus demanded, perched on Yori's shoulders with his own little forepaws on his hips.
“Hey, I figure even Humongo deserves a little entertainment every now and then.” Ron shrugged, walking over to join his wife and friend. “Well, we ready to go?”
Yori nodded, tucking her new album under one arm and picking up her bag. “Yes. Our plane leaves in a few hours, so let's go.”
“Bye, house,” Ron declared as the three of them put on their shoes and trundled out the front door. “We sure did put a lot of work into you not to stay.” With that, he closed the front door and locked it.
A very simple circuit was closed, running a small electrical charge through a long wire running up into the attic. It lit the fuse of a single firecracker, which popped and knocked over one of Ron's abandoned do-it-yourself books, knocking it into the next, and the next, until the final one smacked against the side of a twenty pound pink bowling ball.
The bowling ball wobbled, almost resisting and staying as it was, before slowly and ponderously starting to roll down the ramp made of plastic tubes and reinforced by paper mache made out of envelopes. It rolled downward, picking up the necessary speed to go up the ramp and out the upper window. It had slowed at the top, enough to make sure it wouldn't go off the rails as it began traveling a slow, velocity-building curve down the roof.
Finally, the pink orb rocketed off the end of the ramp, arcing high into the air and passing in front of the sun, briefly seeming to shine as if illuminated by a halo. Then it dropped, hitting the strongest branch of the tree and tilting to one side, falling rather like a pachinko ball until it hit the bottom branch and slowly rolled along it, the branch bending steadily under its weight, until it almost touched the ground as the bowling ball settled into the fork at the end.
Then the branch reasserted itself and rebounded back up, flinging the ball high into the air again, spinning slowly and gracefully, pink against the blue sky. For a long, silent moment, it seemed to hang still in the air, not moving at all. Then it plummeted straight down, towards a very surprised-looking koi.
Yori blinked and turned around in the cab, a half-second too late to see the giant plume of water that had been sent into the air. “Did you hear a splash?”
“Cab must've gone over a puddle,” Ron said dismissively, waving the question off. Rufus snickered like a villainous cartoon dog.
And that was the death of Humongo.
“Lessee… the code was…” Ron pressed the buttons on the door, then carefully pushed it open. Letting out a loud breath, he grinned at Yori. “See? Toldja I'd remember it.”
“And I believed you all along,” Yori agreed, smiling at him and following him inside, trying not to betray that she'd been ready to run.
They spent a few moments looking around the empty, garage-like first floor, then started exploring the rest of the building. Most of the upper levels were in similar states of emptiness, the remnants of cubicles or maintenance equipment littered about and looking abandoned.
Yori spent some time going over plans, then decided on what seemed like the best way of doing things. They'd turn the second floor into their primary living area, and use some of what had worked for them in the loft here. A computer, not Yori's actual workstation but instead a general-use one with a large screen, would go to the right and the bed would be directly behind it, allowing whoever was using it to move right back into bed.
The bed would go across from the door. At first Ron was leery of this, thinking it would be a little dangerous, but Yori explained the various values. First, once Shego and Kim rejoined them, the majority of the security would be on the first floor, so they'd have warning long before anyone burst in on them. And even should someone bust down the door, they'd immediately have a view of the intruder and be able to take the appropriate measures, rather than being forced to peek around a corner. As well, it would be much more convenient to just walk right in and flop on the bed after a tiring night of… whatever they'd be doing.
After some discussion, they decided to find the biggest bed they could, eventually finding a custom mattress on sale online, Ron building a simple frame for it and setting up a divider wall right behind it to serve as both headboard and mounting for some shelves.
They decided that eventually the office between the stairs and their living area would serve as a place to keep mission clothes, and discussed the possibility of even installing a shower there, so that after-mission flopping wouldn't always result in dirty sheets. In the end, they decided that installing new plumbing might be a step best decided upon as a group, and simply arranged some of the clutter so that it wouldn't get in their way as they went in and out.
After two weeks of work, the second floor was almost utterly clean, and at least part of it had been rendered quite livable. Ron and Yori settled down on the end of the bed, bouncing a little to test the mattress, then glancing at each other.
“Are they not a little late?” Yori asked after a few moments.
“Just by a day or two,” Ron answered, nibbling his lower lip, then shrugging and flopping out on his back. “Maybe they couldn't find good flights and had to drive further, or something.”
“You are probably right,” Yori agreed, letting herself fall back as well before snuggling up to Ron's side.
All the same, they both found themselves staring at the door and waiting.
-End Part Ten