TITLE: Angels Ascendant

AUTHOR: MiekJaffa

SYNOPSIS: Sei and Jo learn the truth of Jo's origins

DISCLAIMER: Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda is owned by Tribune; Burst Angel is owned by Gonzo. I am not making any money off this fic. This chapter and those that follow include English-language dialogue written by Eric Vale and Andrew Rye, translated from the script written by Fuhmiko Shimo. Used without permission. But I am not making any money off this story, so I would hope that if the writers get wind of this, they are flattered instead of ticked off. PenpaninuSessh gave me permission to refer back to events in her fic, "Genderbend Challenge: Jo's New Look," which was written based on a challenge I provided. I'll add other disclaimers as called for in subsequent chapters.

Ok, I think that's just about everything. Let's bring it!

SPOILERS FOR THE LAST FOUR EPS OF BURST ANGEL IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THEM ALREADY

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LAST TIME ON BURST ANGEL…

The day an alleged terrorist bombing apparently kills the governor general of Tokyo, The Bailan Triad makes an alliance with Zero, the conspiracy behind the glowing brains, a conspiracy set to bring about the end of the world. Zero's side of the alliance is led by Rick Glenford, an American who takes control of Tokyo after the bombing. Sei is told the awful truth and her group is decommissioned. As the granddaughter of the triad's godfather, there is nothing she can do. The next morning she tells Jo, Meg and Amy their services are no longer required, and then leaves a message for Kyohei. He plays the message after he finds the trailer isn't where he was supposed to meet it.

Jo and Meg spend a blissful week spending their severance pay on shopping and dates, and their feelings for each other begin to blossom. But then Sei returns with one more job: A monster has been terrorizing Tokyo's subways, a monster that, unbeknownst to Sei, is really the mutated former governor general. RAPT has agreed to herd the monster into a battle with Jo and Django, to kill the monster. This Jo does, but then Maria reappears. It turns out this was a trap by Zero to capture Jo, with Meg taken hostage to ensure Jo's cooperation. Sei learns Maria and Jo were the products of genetic engineering, meant to create a super soldier who would lead the glowing brains in a war to conquer the world.

But then Maria captures Meg and Jo and spirits them away to an aircraft carrier to reenact the battle she'd had with Jo before Jo met Meg, a battle Maria intends to win, with Meg as the prize. But then she realizes she likes Jo and decides to let Meg and Jo escape. As Meg swims away with Jo, the last she sees of Maria is that she is apparently being killed by RAPT forces.

Sei goes to her grandfather and he tells her to forget her obligations to the triad and do what she feels is right. She gets word to Jo and Amy that she is going to RAPT to confront Glenford and, she hopes, bring about an end to the conspiracy…maybe at the cost of her own life. But when Meg learns Jo wants to support Sei, she resists. She wants to run away with Jo, and leave all the battles behind. Jo knocks Meg out and leaves her coat with Meg.

With Jo piloting Dajngo and Leo and Takane backing her up from the trailer, Jo fights a running battle into RAPT HQ as Sei confronts Glenford and, at gunpoint, forces him to take her into the heart of RAPT. There, she faces a gigantic glowing brain, and learns that Glenford himself is a glowing brain in a cyborg body…

…a body with a built-in machine gun; Sei and Glenford fire on each other at the same time. Sei is mortally wounded as Glenford falls dead. Then Django's head breaks through the wall and Jo runs out of the Mech.

'Jo-' Sei orders, pointing at the giant brain, 'shoot that thing!'

Jo stands next to Sei and draws her handguns.

'You've just entered a whole new world!' she shouts at the gigantic brain. 'Welcome to hell!'

She fires on the super brain, and it begins to bubble and glow, building up to an explosion that no one will survive ….

…. AND NOW, THE CONCLUSION….

Jo holstered her guns, and then knelt behind Sei. She tugged the other woman against her, cradling her as they waited for the end.

Sei started to say, "You-" then she coughed up blood. "You should get out of here."

"No time," Jo said. "Had a good run, didn't we?"

Sei knew that was the closest Jo would ever come to admitting to their friendship and forgiving her for breaking up the team. Sei smiled and said weakly, "Yeah, we did." She felt calm, not afraid at all, but then death had never scared her. She didn't even worry over whether the gunshot wounds would claim her before she was vaporized. Hardly seemed worth worrying about. Nor was she worried over where her new friends, Dylan, Rhade, and Trance had got to.

All she could think about was Kyohei. At least Elise would help him pursue his dreams…

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The Saturday before the Monday when Governor General Ishihara of Tokyo allegedly died in a terrorist bombing was like any other Saturday in the Japanese megalopolis. It was a bright, sunny day, and Tokyo's residents went about their business throughout the day and into the evening with no idea about what was coming. Certainly, neither Kyohei Tachibana nor his employers knew a chain of events would be set in motion that would have a cataclysmic impact on their lives. Kyohei's biggest concern as he rode to Sei's trailer on his motor scooter just after sunset was what Sei could possibly be doing at Tokyo Fortune Island that evening that had warranted her instructing him to "dress nice." Not knowing what to expect, and guessing things might be somewhat formal, he'd opted to wear the suit Sei had bought for him months ago…

…the suit that, so far, he'd only worn when he'd helped the girls with a couple of their jobs; the time he and Jo had gone under cover as two gay men stuck in his mind. 'If Jo is dressed like a dude again,' he'd said to himself as he'd dressed, 'I'm quitting tonight! For real!' The memory of the laser dot from the scope on Meg's sniper rifle dancing on his fly stung, and he had no desire to go through anything like that again.

Even so, as he approached the trailer, he was as much curious as he was worried. His curiosity turned to outright puzzlement when he saw the car belonging to Shiho Kazami, the girl leading his cooking team at the culinary school, parked next to the trailer in the artificial Island's mainland parking lot.

He'd entered the trailer and noticed Shiho was working in the kitchen when he his train of thought was derailed by Meg's wolf whistle. "Hubba, hubba-hubba," she called from where she was sitting with Jo (who, looking on with bored disinterest, was mercifully NOT dressed like a guy) and Amy.

"Damn, Kyo," Meg went on, "is it me or do you look better in that suit every time? Be still my beating heart! Jo? What do you think about a foursome if Sei doesn't tucker him out too much?"

Jo deadpanned, "Doing what?" She had no clue.

"Ugh." Meg rolled her eyes.

Kyo said, "What are you talking about? Shiho? What are you doing here?"

"I'm subbing for you, Kyo," Shiho said, "so Sei can take you out tonight."

Meg said, "Sei's a sex on the beach kind of girl, Kyo, not take 'im in the kit-"

Kyo heard Sei's voice behind him: "Knock it off, ladies. Ready to go, Kyo?"

Kyo turned to see Sei coming down from the cockpit and his jaw dropped. Sei was wearing a sleeveless knee-length black dress that revealed much less skin than she normally exposed but was somehow more alluring. She wore string of pearls and diamond earrings, light makeup, and she smelled fantastic.

Kyo stammered, "Go where?"

"Dinner, of course," Sei answered. "Then a movie and dancing. This week will mark one year since you came to work for me, and I'm taking you out to celebrate the occasion. Shiho was kind enough to come in and take over for you."

Meg folded her arms as she looked at Sei. "And you're wearing your trademarked Little Black Dress and about a half a gallon of expensive perfume and *we're* in the wrong for saying anything."

"Can it," Sei said. "Shiho? I'm counting on you to keep these two in check."

"Two?" Shiho frowned.

"Jo won't be any trouble as long as you don't threaten Meg," Sei explained; "it's Meg and Amy I'm worried about."

"Don't worry, Ma'am. I've got this."

"Good." She turned to Kyo and softened visibly. "Kyo? Ready?"

"A-all right."

As they walked from the trailer towards the tram station for the ride across the causeway to the domed artificial island, they heard Meg's voice behind them: "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

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Sei and Kyo raised their wine glasses. She and Kyo were sitting at a table on the outdoor deck of a restaurant that overlooked the beach on the half-domed artificial island. The wine had been served with their meals. "To Kyohei Tachibana," she said, "Tokyo's best kept secret and one of my closest friends on the occasion of the first anniversary of his entering my employment. Cheers."

"A votre sante."

They clinked glasses and sipped their wine.

Kyohei blushed a little as they started eating. "This is great, Sei, but you didn't have to."

"Yes, I did, Kyo. You and your predecessor are the only two chefs I've hired who lasted more than a few days, and Richard left to return to England and marry his boyfriend. You have a lot of guts, the girls like you - don't give me that look; they do - and you're a damned good cook." A little sadness entered her voice. "And you've had a rough time since your friend Akio died. I thought you could use a little pick-me-up." She smiled. "And when a girl buys a young man dinner, he shouldn't complain about it. I'm just saying."

"Well…ok, Sei. Thanks."

After dinner they saw a movie in the multiplex. Kyo chose an action-adventure movie. He loved it, although he would hard pressed to admit he loved sitting next to Sei, too. Then they went to the dance club. They hadn't been on the floor long when Sei saw that Kyo was exhausted. When the song changed, she said, "C'mon - let's take a break."

They found an empty table and Kyo sagged into a chair across from her. "You tired me out again."

"I do seem to have that effect on my men," she teased.

"Huh?"

"Have you had a good time?"

He brightened. "Oh, yes, Sei! This was awesome. You - you know I don't know if I should tell you this-"

"It's all right, Kyo. You should know by now you can tell me anything."

"Well… at the start, I thought I hated my job. And still, there are days when I don't know why I bother. But I like working for you, and…sometimes you do things that just make my day, like this. You scare me and you can be the best all at once."

She smiled. "I think that just means I'm a typical woman."

"I don't think there's anything 'typical' about you. But what I mean is…uh…"

"It's all right, Kyo. I know what you mean. Thank you. For myself…right when I first met you, I knew that were a lot of things about you I liked. I thought I'd enjoy having you around. And I was right. I wasn't kidding when I said you're also one of my closest friends. I'm glad I met you."

Kyo blushed. "Thanks-"

"Excuse me," a strange woman's voice said, "but aren't you Kyohei Tachibana?"

Sei and Kyo turned to face the woman standing by their table. She was a European or American woman about Meg's height, with long, blonde hair. She wore a purple dress with gold trim.

Kyo said, "Who wants to know?"

"I thought so. We have a mutual friend - Shiho Kazami. She does my nails."

"Oh, yeah," Kyo said, "you must be T. G." He turned to Sei. "Shiho told me about her - she's a customer at the nail salon who only wears purple and gold and pays with cash for everything. T. G., this is my employer, Sei."

"Pleasure," T. G. said as she shook Sei's hand. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to interrupt. But I've heard the legend of your brave cook, and I wanted to meet him for myself."

Kyo blushed. "Legend? Come on!"

Sei smiled. "See? You're finally getting some well-deserved recognition." To T. G.: "Kyohei has worked for me for almost a year. I'm taking him out tonight to commemorate that anniversary."

"You are a very generous employer," T. G. said. "Kyo does not realize how lucky he is to have met you. Well, I won't keep you any longer. Nice meeting you, Kyo. Keep charting your own course; don't be afraid to use the routes others abandon." She turned and vanished into the crowd.

"Great," Sei muttered. "There's a new player in Tokyo."

"How can you tell?" Kyo asked quietly.

"Because five'll get you ten that while she knows Shiho, Shiho never shared a picture of you. That was her way of trying to gain my notice and show she has one up on me. Fine. I've noticed. Other than that, the way to handle that kind of situation is to be unimpressed. Someone that arrogant is bound to make a mistake."

"Like when the Chinese mob princess you quit working for the day before calls you from across the street and tells you to look out the window?"

Surprise jolted through Sei's body. "I'm sorry, Kyo! I didn't think of that at the time. You… you don't hold that against me, do you?" She sounded upset.

"Well, a little at first, but…part of me wanted to come back." He smiled - he'd never seen Sei upset, and he wanted to make it better. "Besides, I was blaming myself for Meg being captured. Now I know better."

Sei smiled. "I know. That girl could get kidnapped in an empty field 1000 miles from the nearest human being."

Kyo laughed. "She could get taken hostage at a hostage negotiators' convention."

They howled.

Sei held her smile as she calmed down. "Well, I'm glad that's water under the bridge." The music changed to a slow rock ballad. She stood and extended her hand. "Come on. Slow dance and then we call it a night."

He took her hand. "Ok."

On the dance floor, he settled into Sei's arms and enjoyed the feeling of her body against his. She looked great, smelled great…felt great.

He muttered, "I could get used to this."

"So could I," Sei said quietly.

"Uh-"

"It's all right, Kyo. Would you like to go out with me again sometime?"

"Yes."

"All right then; we'll see what comes up down the road."

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When they got back to the trailer, they weren't surprised that Shiho was alive and watching a movie on the flat screen with Jo, Meg, and Amy. But that the trailer was spotlessly clean was a shock.

"Who did this?" Sei asked.

Shiho said, "They did. That was the deal - they clean up and they have movie night."

Kyo stammered, "But…how…Shiho…they're trained killers!"

"And I would lose a shootout with them, no question," Shiho said. "But in the kitchen, I am the alpha dog. That's why I lead our team at school. Once I understood their dynamic, it was simple."

"Oh, yeah," Meg said. "Kyo, that girl must like you, because she's a tough cookie. She's taking it easy on you."

"Shiho," Sei teased. "I may not need another chef, but would you like to come aboard as some sort of house mother?"

Shiho stood. "Well, if I do that, Ma'am, we're going to have to start by riding rough-shod over Kyo."

"Me!?" Kyo yelped.

"You," Shiho said. "Did you think I wouldn't figure out how you spoil them?" She addressed the girls: "He makes you all sound like nightmares, so we won't guess he has you eating out of his hand…even you, Sei." Back to Kyo: "Your fun's over if I come onboard, buddy boy."

"What…" Kyo stammered. "…I…"

Meg said, "Yeah, we tried to keep the secret, but she got it out of us."

Kyo sagged. "Ugh. I'll see you on Monday, Shiho. Sei…"

Sei and Kyo hugged. Sei said, "Get a good night's sleep, and I'll see you tomorrow."

"All right."

After he left, Sei heard Meg behind her: "You know, you could always go and kiss him good night."

"Yes," Shiho said, "I think his bed has enough room."

"I'm rethinking that house mother position," Sei grumbled.

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Kyo didn't get home until 11:30, and he saw a light on in his house. 'Oh, boy,' he thought. 'Time for lecture "Why Being A Pastry Chef And/Or Working For Sei Is A Bad Idea." #327.'

Dad was sitting in the living room, facing the door.

Kyo tried to go upstairs without talking. "Sorry I'm late, dad-"

"Come here for a moment, son."

Kyo sighed, went back down the stairs, and took the chair opposite Dad.

Dad said, "I'd like to ask you something: Suppose your employers were men. Would you have stayed as long?"

"Well, I suppose I'm glad you no longer think I'm gay. But yes, I would. They're helping me save money to pay the taxes for when I go to France."

Dad nodded. "And how much money have you saved?"

"About half of what I need."

"So, if that keeps up, the end of next year, you should have enough money to go?"

"I guess."

"So you should be starting to make preparations. You already have a passport, have to find someone to study under, get a visa for a long stay-"

"I've written to a couple of - Wait, Dad, is this your latest trick to talk me out of it? Or to yell at me for spending too much time with Sei?"

"I am worried about you spending too much time with a mobster, Kyo, and that's exactly what she is: the granddaughter of the godfather of a Chinese crime family. If she goes down, either from a mob war or from being arrested, you go, too. But that's not the issue. I remember before you started working for her, all you talked about was being a patissier. But lately, not so much. And I've begun to wonder if you've got … comfortable."

"Sei isn't banging me."

"I didn't say she was. But you spend a lot of time with them. In fact, the only times you've had dinner at home in the past year is when they've been out of town. And even then, it was that one night before you went to Osaka."

"Dad, what's your point?"

"You had a lot of drive and determination, Son. I don't agree with your life choices, but I respected you for pursuing your dream no matter what. But it's been a while since you've been that driven, and anyone who knows your situation is going to wonder why. So if you're still set on studying in France, why aren't you more serious about starting to make the preparations you know you have to make? And if you don't want to go, then why are you still working for Sei?"

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Meg came up the steps onto the roof of the trailer. It was Sunday evening, and Kyo had come to make dinner for the girls and eat with them. But they had seen something was wrong with Kyo when he'd gone up to the roof while their meals cooked. It was a clear, cool, Moonless night; the Sun had just gone down, the stars beginning to appear above the lights of the highway to their west. Kyo was leaning on the railing, looking out over the traffic.

Meg came up beside him and said, "Looks like everything will be ready in five minutes."

Kyo nodded.

"Kyo? You ok, buddy?"

"What am I doing here, Meg?"

"Inhaling smog."

"Meg."

"All right; I know that look. What's eating you?"

"Last night I talked to my dad. He asked me how much money I've saved to pay the taxes for studying abroad. I told him I have about half of it."

Meg smiled. "That's great!"

Kyo didn't smile and nodded.

"So what's wrong?" Meg asked.

"If I want to start studying in France in a year," Kyo said, "I have to start working on it now - making contacts, sending applications, finding a place to stay - all of it. I know that. But other than contacting a few kitchens, I'm dragging my feet. And I'm not disappointed I haven't got any responses yet. It's like I'm stuck."

"Stuck?"

"I just…I don't know…My dad was right. I was so determined a year ago, but now that it's getting closer, I'm hesitating. I spend all my free time here, and I'm more worried about what I'll make you - make *us* - for dinner than getting ready to study abroad. But if I'm not just making money to go to France, what am I doing here? And don't say 'You're in love with Sei.'"

Meg smiled. "You're *madly* in love with Sei." She turned serious. "Ok, but she's your friend, isn't she? And so am I. And so are Jo and Amy. And you're a lot more relaxed than you were at the start. Looks to me like you've settled in here and like us. Nothin' wrong with that; you have good taste in women."

Kyo chuckled. "If you like 'em crazy."

"That's the best kind; didn't you know that? And as for us … well, me, when we met, I didn't think you'd last two weeks. And here you are, still chugging along after a year, and that includes a bunch of times when you've risked your neck for us. I respect you a lot, and I like you. We all do; even Jo warmed up to you, which is no mean feat." She squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, Kyo. You'll go when you're ready. And you'll do us proud."

"Ok. Thanks, Meg."

Kyo ate with the girls, and as expected, was teased about his "big date" with Sei on Saturday. But it didn't bother him as much as it had in the past. And when he went to bed that night, he admitted to himself that as much as the girls annoyed him, there were worse things to do than spend an evening with them.

It's good that he admitted it then.

The next morning, the news reported that Governor General Ishihara had died in an explosion in the heart of Tokyo. Everything went to hell after that.

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Hayao Ichimonji, the lanky boy who was the third member of the three-person team including Shiho and Kyohei, pulled his SUV into a parking spot in Love and Happy Culinary Design School's parking garage two spaces over from where Kyohei had parked his scooter. He called to Kyo as he got out of his truck: "Hey, Bro'! You hear the news?"

"Yeah," Kyohei said. "Ishihara and-"

"Did you hear?" Shiho said, coming down the ramp from an upper level.

Kyo said, "Yeah, we were just talking about it. Just when you think you've seen everything…" He trailed off and shook his head.

Shiho smiled. "Well, at least you had a good time Saturday." She turned to Hayao. "Sei took him to dinner and a movie on Tokyo Fortune Island Saturday. And you should have seen the way she hugged him when he went home."

Kyohei groaned. "It was just a hug. No big deal."

Hayao gawked. "A hug? From the sports car super babe? No big deal? DUUUUUDE! You must be nuts. Chick like that likes you, you have a ticket to easy street."

"What the …" Kyo stammered. "You're blowing this out of proportion. It was our anniversary…"

The other teens raised their eyebrows.

"That came out wrong," Kyohei stammered. "It was my…It's been a year since I went to cook for her. That was all."

"Hmmm," Shiho said, "all employers should be so generous. She wore her little black dress, Hayao; and she'd bought the suit Kyo wore. She has designs on him - you can bet your last yen on it. As a woman, I know it."

"Give me a break," Kyo protested. "It's debatable whether she even knows or cares what people think of what she does. And I don't even like her sometimes. She can be a huge pain in the ass."

A strange voice said, "Who is a pain in whose ass?" The feminine voice had a French accent.

Kyo turned to the speaker. The girl coming towards them was obviously European, about Shiho's height and age; with black hair; brown eyes; and her generous lips were a soft, intoxicating red. Next to her was a balding, middle age man with white stubble on his face.

"It's nothing," Kyo said, hypnotized. "My boss took me out Saturday night and they're teasing me about it."

"Ah," the girl said, "that would that be Sei?"

"Huh?" Kyo asked. "How do you know?"

"Forgive me," the girl said. "I am Elise Navarre. This is my father, Jean-Pierre. You are Kyohei Tachibana? You contacted us about becoming a patissier?"

"What-" Kyo grinned. "Yes, I - Hayao, Shiho, these are the people from the restaurant I told you about. Mr. Navarre is the Chef de Cuisine, and if I remember correctly, Elise is one of the patissiers."

Mr. Navarre nodded. "We are both patissiers, Kyohei, but I worked up through the ranks to run the kitchen. We are also partners with the restaurant's owner. But I taught Elise everything I know. We were both pleased and surprised that someone from so far away was actually seeking us out; most boys your age do not even consider this as their calling. It is our pleasure to meet you, Kyohei."

Kyohei blushed. "Thank you, although I don't know if I deserve that. These are my friends, Shiho Kazami and Hayao Ichimnoji."

Jean-Pierre said, "It is a pleasure to meet you all. When you contacted us, Kyo, Elise and I were already planning to come over here for a month, and Mina Hongo is an old friend from when I studied in Japan. We decided to surprise you, yes? Mix business with pleasure- see what you are made of, eh? But first, we must find the school and talk with Mina. We looked for the elevator, but we haven't found it."

"Ah," Kyo said, "yeah, this garage can be a little confusing the first few times. Follow me."

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After directing Jean-Pierre and Elise to the office level, Kyo, Hayao, and Shiho changed for class. They had taken their seats in the huge class room/kitchen when Miss Hongo came in followed by Jean-Pierre and Elise, and Elise had changed into a chef's whites. Hongo motioned to Shiho and her group; Kyo, Hayao and Shiho went to the head of the room.

Miss Hongo said, "Kyo, because Elise is a patissier herself, I'm putting her in your group. And I want you to assist her in an exercise she's going to lead. It's as much an audition for Jean-Pierre as anything."

"Really!?" Kyo yelped.

Sitting to the side, Jean-Pierre nodded. "Oui. If I like what I see, you can come back to Paris with us and study in my kitchen."

"That's-" Kyo stammered. "-that's great sir-but - the taxes for studying abroad-I haven't saved enough yet-"

"How much have you saved?" Jean-Pierre asked.

"About half."

Jean-Pierre waved it off. "Then I will pay the balance of the taxes and your travel expenses. And you will live with us. Although you have to promise to stay out of my daughter's bed, eh? At least at first."

Elise blushed. "Papa!"

Jean-Pierre chuckled, then turned serious: "But, mon ami, it depends on how well you can learn, yes? How well you follow Elise's direction. This I must see for myself. Do not be fooled by her being a patissier; she is second only to me in the kitchen, and those who disobey her have no place in my house. Can you keep up with her?"

Kyo turned to Elise and those hypnotic brown eyes. He smiled and thought, 'Compared to a cybot, this is nothing.' He said: "I can take whatever she can dish out."

Miss Hongo nodded. "All right. Hayao, Shiho, take your seats. Kyo, stay at the head of the class with Elise."

Hongo called the class to order. When everyone had settled down, she said, "Class, in light of this morning's events, the headmaster has decided we will let out after half a day. So we will not have our normal exercises. But instead we will have a treat." She pointed to Jean-Pierre. "Jean-Pierre Navarre, here, is an old friend visiting from Paris. He worked his way from being a patissier to the Chef de Cuisine of a 5-star restaurant. His daughter, Elise, who is also a patissier, will be auditing our classes for the next few weeks. Today, she will show us how to make some simple pastries, and Kyohei will assist her…"

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Kyohei made a point of making enough samples to take to Sei and the girls, and Jean-Pierre allowed Elise to go with him. "A girl should know all her boyfriend's friends, no?"

"Papa, you are awful."

Elise rode on the back of Kyo's scooter. She helped with the shopping to make sure they had enough groceries for dinner.

"How many are we cooking for?" Elise asked.

"Six -" Kyo answered, "the girls plus you and me. Sei always has me eat with them."

"And they like hot sauce?"

"Oh, that's Jo. I always bring extra, though she's got an emergency supply in her gun safe."

"Her what?"

"Welcome to Tokyo."

Elise was awed by the trailer and greeted warmly once Kyo introduced her. Jo summed it up: "Any friend of Kyohei's is a friend of mine." Kyo insisted that the pastries wait until after dinner, and Sei reinforced the order.

Sei and the girls looked on as Kyo and Elise worked together in the kitchen like a well-oiled machine. (Meg noticed the tiniest bit of unease in Sei's manner.) The French girl was almost embarrassed to be eating with the people she was cooking for, Kyohei sitting between her and Sei.

"Papa was, uh, impressed with him," Elise said. "He told me while I was waiting for him - I am sorry, Kyo, he wanted it to be a surprise, but your friends must know - he told me that if you agree to go, he will begin making the arrangements. You still have to get a long stay visa, but he will pay for everything else. Kyo can leave with us when we go home."

"Wow!" Amy said. "That's great, Kyo!"

Jo extended one arm and made a fist. "Good on ya buddy." Kyo fist bumped her. Then Jo looked at Sei with a slight frown. "Sei. Aren't you happy for Kyo?"

Sei forced a smile. "Of course," she said, giving Kyo a hug. "Congratulations."

"Well, it's not a done deal yet," Kyo said. He turned to Elise. "I have to think about this."

"Of curse," she said, "but do not take too long. He who hesitates is lost."

After dinner, Kyo and Elise served the pastries, one for each of them. Meg bit into hers and her eyes rolled back into her head. "Mmmmmmm…" She swallowed. "Who made THAT one?"

Kyo said, "I did."

"Whaddya call it, chocolate covered orgasm?" She moaned down another bite. "And this was your first try? Fuhgeddaboudit! We're all moving to Paris!"

/

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Sei sat at her console in the trailer's cockpit, digesting the e-mail she'd just read. An emergency meeting of the Bailan Triad's temporary governing committee to commence as soon as she arrived, as in immediately. But it barely registered. Her mind was reeling from the double-whammy that Kyo had a new…girlfriend, and that he could be leaving them for France in a month - something that had not been expected for years. It was happening too fast … too fast …

"Sei?" Kyo's voice sounded behind her.

Sei turned. "Yes?"

Kyo was standing there, Elise at his elbow. He said, "I just wanted to say, thanks for everything. I wouldn't have had this chance if not for you. I know thing haven't always gone smoothly, but-"

Meg's voice sounded from the living quarters: "Come back here you, little brat!"

Amy's voice: "Let's see, what's Meg's password, and does she have any nude pictures of-"

"Why you-"

Giggling with Meg's cell phone in her hand, Amy raced up into the cockpit, easily darting around Elise and Kyo. Meg came barreling behind, a head of steam and not watching where she was going. Kyo knew to get out of the way, but Elise didn't. Meg knocked Elise aside, and the French girl lost her footing and stumbled halfway down the steps.

Meg turned. "I'm sorry-"

Kyo was at Elise's side. "Are you all right?"

"It's all right," Elise said, "I think-"

"YOU IDIOTS!" Kyo shouted. "Do you have to ruin everything in my life? I can't wait to-" He broke off. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong."

Sei came down the steps. "It's all right. It's been a busy day, and not over yet. Amy! Give Meg her cell phone back now."

Amy sagged. "All right." She handed the phone back to Meg.

"Good," Sei said. "I really don't have time for that kind of foolishness. Count yourselves lucky that Elise wasn't seriously hurt." She turned to Kyo and Elise. "I have to get to some kind of emergency meeting right now. So I guess you guys can go home." She shook hands with Elise. "Elise. It was very nice to meet you. It's good to know that when Kyo leaves our little family, he'll be in good hands."

"Merci, Mademoiselle Sei."

Sei hugged Kyo. "Kyo. Congratulations. I am very proud of you today."

"Thanks, Sei. And I'm sorry I yelled just now."

"Water under the bridge, my friend."

Goodbyes were exchanged with other girls. Sei retreated into the cockpit as the others watched from the door as Kyo and Elise rode away on his scooter.

And then they heard the sound of weeping from the cockpit.

Amy and Jo followed Meg up the steps. Sei was seated at her console, head resting on her arms as she sobbed.

Meg crouched down next to her boss. "Oh. My. God. I was kidding around; I didn't think…Does he know?"

"Know what?" Sei sniffled.

"You love him-"

"Such an imagination, Meg. You should write anime."

"Sei, if you don't say anything, if you don't fight for what you have, leetle mees Pair-ee will take him away from you-"

"And that's what he wants, Meg." Sei wiped her tears as she stood up. "He wants to go to Paris and become a patissier. He wants a girl who's … who's not like us. If he can have those things now, how can I stand in his way? Can you?"

"No. But it's not fair."

"Only if there was something for him here, and there isn't. I'm just…surprised at things changing. But change is a part of life, and I'll adjust. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go now. Don't wait up."

/

/

"What exactly are you getting at here?" Sei said. She and the men who were governing the Bailan Triad while her grandfather convalesced were sitting around a table in the back room of a Chinese restaurant that served as a Bailan front.

"I think I've made myself perfectly clear young lady," the operations chief said. "Your services are no longer required."

"I'm sorry," Sei said. "I must be confused about the nature of our mission. We were instructed that collecting intel on the glowing brains and obtaining one was a top priority."

"That was correct. At the time, there was a strong possibility another syndicate would take advantage of the glowing brains and use them to oppose us. Your mission was based on that. However, the situation has changed."

The men stood up. Sei heard footsteps behind her and Rick Glenford's voice: "I must say I am impressed with the way you ladies have handled things. You put up quite a fight there."

Sei stoop up, looked at Glenford, and spoke to the operations chief: "Oh, no. You didn't!"

"Afraid so," the ops chief said. "We have merged with a competing syndicate. Bailan's future is now quite comfortably secured."

Glenford said, "We are now known as Zero. The beginning and the end of this world now rest within our hands."

Sei said, "Tell me, was this Laoban's decision?" And she thought, 'Grandfather, don't tell me you've done this!'

"This was my decision," the ops chief said, "as co-director of operations for Bailan. It was necessary to ensure the organization's survival. There is no point in arguing, Sei; it is done. Now, there is the matter of the people who work for you. How much do they know?"

"Only what I tell them," Sei said.

"And Kyohei Tachibana," the ops chief said. "You've been known to spend a lot of time with him; you've replaced his property, given him rides in your car, and bought other gifts - a tailor made suit for one. You were seen having dinner with him at Tokyo Fortune Island this weekend. There have been questions about the nature of your relationship with him. There is also word that you have used him as an operative in at least one operation. I think you can see why this would concern us."

Sei realized the implication: If the Triad believed Kyohei knew too much, they would either kill him or keep him from leaving the organization. Either way, the life he had known would be over, and if he lived, his hopes of being a pastry chef would be dashed forever.

Sei saw only one way to save him.

"He is a good cook," she said. "I took him out in recognition of his service to me after a year. I have replaced property inadvertently destroyed by my field team. The suit was another token of my esteem, but you shouldn't read more than that into it. As for using him as an operative, he was able to fill a needed roll, and it was in situations where the risk to him was minimal; and as I previously stated, he only knows what I tell him. As to our personal relationship, I consider him a friend of mine-" she chose the phrase 'friend of mine' to reinforce his outsider status. "- but no more than that."

"No romantic entanglements?"

"Of course not. He's barely a boy."

"And you have no problem making a clean break with him? To never see him again?"

"No, no problem with that."

The ops chief looked at Glenford. "Then, with your permission…?"

Glenford nodded.

The ops chief said, "I see no reason to make this more difficult than it already is, and today has seen enough bloodshed. Jo, Meg, Amy, and Kyohei will be allowed to live as long as you divest yourself of all ties with them and have no further contact with them ever. You have 24 hours to shut down operations and send them on their way."

/

/

"I have to cancel all your contracts, so I'll pay you out for the rest of the year plus penalty fees," Sei said. "In exchange, all ties with the Bailan organization will be severed, effective immediately." It was morning in the trailer, and Jo, Meg, and Amy were sitting around the dinner table as Sei stood to one side, no longer one of them. Sei had been unable to sleep and had driven around Tokyo all night, remembering how she had recruited the girls. There was no getting around that this would hurt. But the thought of firing Kyo…firing Kyo…

Meg jumped to her feet. "What!?" she yelped. "I don't understand."

Jo turned to Sei. "Let me get this straight. You're breaking up the team?"

"No," Meg said, "this is a joke."

"Sorry," Sei said. "I need you all to start gathering up your things."

Meg turned to Amy. "Amy, aren't you mad? You heard Sei. It's over!"

Amy seemed nonplussed as she folded her laptop into her teddy bear. "No big deal. The way I see it, Sei's the one who put the team together. So if she says it's over, then, well, that's it. But y'know, it sure was fun while it lasted, so I suppose I will be sorry to see it end."

Amy's words twisted the knives in Sei's stomach. Sei said, "Amy, don't think that-"

"Sei," Jo said. "I'm confused. Does this mean you just don't need us anymore?"

"That's not it," Sei said. "I know I've asked some pretty impossible things of you girls in the past, but I can't now. Things have changed."

Jo looked away. "I see."

"I-I can't believe this!" Meg exclaimed. "What about Kyohei?"

"His employment is terminated, too, Meg-" Sei started.

"That's not my question, Sei. Is this payback for him leaving you?"

"What?" Sei stammered. "No-it had nothing to do with it. I can't give you the details, Meg, but this wasn't personal against any of you or him. It wasn't my decision."

"No," Meg said, "it never is your fault, is it, Sei?"

/

/

Sei sat at the dining room table in the trailer. Meg, Jo, and Amy had cleared out in record time. Their rooms were now bare metal boxes, bereft of any personal touches. All that was left was her room, and Sei hoped to take care of that before Leo locked down the trailer and Django forever. Would she lose that friendship, too? She had known Leo since she was 12. Their relationship had been tumultuous, and as she'd grown to womanhood, there had been periods of passionate intimacy usually followed by recognition of why it wouldn't work. But in spite of all that, would he side with the girls and tell her to go to hell?

But before she faced Leo, there one more thing to take care of, one thing that hurt so much, and she knew the consequences of doing it with a recording, but she had no choice. For Bailan Triad to forget Kyohei and for him to have the life he wanted, it was the only way.

"Ok, Sei," she said to herself, "get it over with." She picked up her phone and activated its user-facing camera. She smiled and hit "record."

"Hello, Kyohei," she said. "First off, thanks for everything." She dug the nails of her free hand into her palm. Focusing on the pain was the only thing that kept her from breaking down and crying. She went on: "I'm sorry to spring this on you so suddenly, but as of today, your services will no longer be required. It's not much consolation, I know, but I've wired the rest of your pay along with a little extra into your account. I hope you will continue to devote yourself to your studies. You'll make a great patissier someday."

She hit "stop," and played back the message once. What to add? It sounded so inadequate, and she knew he would be heartbroken… and maybe angry at the impersonal way he had been discharged. Hopefully that anger would help him forget: 'Sei? That bitch couldn't even fire me to my face. If I never see her again it'll be too soon.' As long as that anger didn't claim his dream of going to France and becoming a pastry chef, she could live with it. Or it wouldn't kill her, anyway.

She hit 'send' and waited the eternal seconds for the confirmation.

She put the phone on the table and wandered into the kitchen area. The tears started coming, and she couldn't hold them back. She didn't want to. She didn't care if anyone heard her as she wailed out her anguish. She slid down against the cabinet wall, sobbing. After what seemed like an eternity, she stopped moaning and just rested her head on her knees, softly weeping.

"Are you sure that's where you want to leave it with him?" Leo Jin said quietly as he came around the counter into the kitchen.

"Leo…" Sei sniffled as she stood up. "I'm sorry. I didn't hear you. I'll…uh, I'll get my things…"

"No, it's ok. I can pack them up and send them wherever."

"The Bailan townhouse near the Ginza." She stepped closer. "Leo…" The fell into a hug. "I'm sorry…" She whispered. "They shut me down…I had no choice…"

"I know. I know. I just…thanks for explaining, but I really don't want to talk to you for a while."

"I understand." Sei sniffled a little and disengaged. "I'd better go…"

"One thing, Sei. You didn't answer my question: Is that how you want to leave things with Kyohei?"

"What do you mean?"

"Sei-"

"Not that nonsense again. No, Leo, Kyo was a very dear friend, but if I want the Triad to leave him alone, I have no choice. You know that as well as I."

"Well, I'm sorry - for you and for him."

"Thank you." More tears convulsed out of her and as she wiped them away, she added: "Goodbye, Leo. Thanks for…I hope we get to work together again someday."

"Yeah, that would be good. See you around, Sei."

/

/

Sei is in the trailer's kitchen. Kyo turns around. 'Hey, Sei!' He holds a soup spoon. 'Taste.'

She brings her lips to the spoon…

… and woke up. When she realized she was in the bedroom of the Bailan townhouse she was being allowed to stay in until she found a new apartment, she squeezed her eyes shut and started crying. "One taste, just one taste…"

/

/

Sei did not sleep well for the rest of the night. Her things were delivered that morning, dropped off in cardboard boxes by a messenger service. Sei couldn't blame Leo for not seeing her. She fished out her toiletries and some clean clothes and left the boxes scattered around the living room and the hall.

She bought some marijuana from a dealer she hadn't seen in a couple of years and spent the next two nights alone in the townhouse, getting high in the bath; by day she looked for a new apartment, although she didn't settle on anything. On the third night, as Sei drank wine and lost count of the number of hits of weed she was taking, she resolved her misery would end. She would go back to Chinese restaurant, confront the operations chief, put two bullets in him, and then keep shooting until his bodyguards or the cops brought her down. She didn't care if she died. She took one more hit, got out of the bath, dressed, and drove off to face her end.

She parked near the restaurant but as she walked under the gate of China Town, a Canadian woman with long, blonde hair in a purple jacket, purple skirt, and gold shirt got in her way. Sei recognized T. G. from her night out with Kyohei.

"Excuse me," Sei said. She tried to go around her, but T. G. blocked her path.

T. G. said, "I can't let you do this."

"What-" Sei slurred/stammered. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

"I think I'm the one who's not going to let you kill yourself. You're not done yet."

"I'm going to ask you nicely one more time to get out of my way."

"No."

Sei reached for T. G. with one hand, cocking the other fist.

That was the last thing she remembered.

/

/

Sei opened her eyes with a splitting headache. She realized she was on the couch in her town house's living room. Her clothes were dirty. A 150 kilo slab of beef in a suit sat across from her. He called out: "She's awake."

"Good," replied the operations chief's voice. "Sei? Will you join me in the kitchen?"

Sei gingerly got up and walked into the kitchen. The operations chief had put on an apron and was working at the stove. He said, "Have a seat. How do you feel?"

Sei sat at the kitchen table. "Like crap."

"That's about right."

"How did my clothes get dirty?"

"You don't remember? I'm not surprised. They were soiled when you fell down."

"Fell down?"

"When you passed out in the alley behind the restaurant. I gather you were there to kill me?"

Sei heard one of Meg's expressions in her head: 'Awkwaaaarrdddddd.' Sei said, "Yes, but I never made it to the alley. I was on the street and…Who's T. G.?"

"I don't know. No one knows, and I've been working with my counterparts in Japan and around the globe. Other than the limited color palette of her clothes, the only things anyone knows about her is that she wins at anything she gambles at - anything, no matter what, and no one knows how she does it - and that her means of global transportation are a mystery. Why?"

"She confronted me on the street. That's the last thing I remember."

"You're saying she knocked you out then put you in the alley for us to find."

"Yes. It must be on your security cameras."

"They broke down tonight. Lucky for her. But as long as she doesn't oppose us, we can't begrudge you gaining a new friend." He put a tray in front of Sei - rice, dumplings, and a mug of tea. "Not up to Kyohei's standard, perhaps, but good enough. But as I was saying, I won't object if this T. G. befriends you, especially as she already saved your life. It might be good for you. We've been worried about you, even Glenford-san."

Sei started eating. "You're worried. Great. With enemies like you, I don't need any friends."

The ops chief sighed, then sat in the chair across from Sei's. "Sei. You put me in the unenviable position of a man telling a little girl Santa Claus does not exist. You do not have enemies, Sei, because no one takes you seriously. No one never did."

"But…" Sei stammered as she swallowed some rice. "What about my team? My mission?"

"Ah, yes. There was concern about the glowing brains, yes, but we were making inroads through other channels. Your mission was actually seen as having no chance of success, and that you recruited teenage girls was cause for some amusement. The ridicule ended when you got results, but we didn't really care if you succeeded; your grandfather permitted it as a way to keep you occupied while he finalized negotiating your marriage to Jei Koruken. If he hadn't been such a little prick and you had been married as planned, your team would have been disbanded while you were on your honeymoon. As it is, you got a few more months to play Monsters vs. Robots."

"No-you're lying-Laoban-"

"Ask him yourself, if you're not afraid to face the truth. But no one ever saw you as anything more than a spoiled brat your grandfather indulged. And now you have access to the wealth of Bailan with no obligations. If I were your age, I would get myself on the party circuit and rub elbows with movie stars. Or you can lock yourself in an apartment and stay stoned for the rest of your life. Or both. Either way, don't think you were anything more than eye candy for the triad, Sei, because you weren't, and you never will be. Accept it and enjoy the rest of your life and let the grownups in the room handle everything else."

/

/

After the ops chief left, Sei took a shower. Then while she was still wrapped in a towel, she fished some pictures out of one of the boxes. All were pictures of Kyo with the girls, candidly taken when no one thought she was doing it, and he was always in the foreground near the center of each picture.

She sat on the sofa and wept.

/

/

Meg sat down next Jo on the boardwalk bench at Odaiba, the artificial island in Tokyo harbor. The island's attractions and the bridge to Tokyo lit the night sky.

Meg said, "Another thrilling day in the bag. What's it been, six days now?"

"No," Jo said, "seven."

"Huh?"

"It's been seven days."

"Has it really…?"

/

/

"Hey, gotta run," Hayao Ichimonji said as he got up from the bench in the third floor lobby of the culinary school. "See you tomorrow."

Kyhohei straightened up as Hayao ran for the elevator. "Yeah," he said. "Oh, yeah."

The elevator doors closed, and Kyohei was left alone, but he didn't care. He hadn't really paid attention to what Hayao had been talking about … something about a subway monster and RAPT… it hadn't made an impression. He supposed he could go home early. Or look for another job. But he didn't feel like moving. He looked over his shoulder and out the window again. But Sei's sports car refused to appear across the street. His mind was still reeling from how quickly things had changed. Eleven days earlier, Sei had treated him to one of the best nights out he'd ever had with the promise of more. Less than 72 hour later he'd been fired with a recording; he hadn't heard anything since. He should have been angry, but instead, he was puzzled and depressed.

But if she said it was over, it was over. Period.

Kyo sighed and lay down on the bench. His eyes grew heavy and closed…

…Kyo comes out the front door of the culinary school. Sei's car is parked at the curb. She leans on the driver's door and smiles ….

…Kyo can't contain himself; he smiles as he starts to run to her…

… he hears Elise: 'Kyo? Kyo, wake…'

"…up," Elise said, gently shaking Kyo.

Kyo woke up to see Elise standing over him.

Kyo looked back out the window, but neither Sei nor her car were there. Of course.

He muttered, "Could I have at least got a ride in the car?"

"What?" Elise asked.

"Nothing." Kyo sat up. "What are you doing here?"

"I used the school computer to chat with my friends back home. International wandering costs so much, I decided not to use my phone for that on this trip. I either use the hotel or a computer here. Why are you still here? Don't you have some place to go?"

"Used to."

"I am sorry for you, but maybe it is for the best in the long run. They were criminals, killers-"

"They were my friends. I just didn't realize it at the time. Don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

"Tell me something, Kyohei: Miss Hongo told me you quit the first day. But the next day, Sei came and got you."

"Yeah." He chuckled. "See that bump in the ceiling? That's the security camera. Amy must have hacked it and told Sei exactly where I was. She called me on my cell and told me to look out the window." He looked over his shoulder. "And there she was, smiling and waving."

"That just it, Kyohei. She used intimidation to make you come back. And I bet she flattered you, too, to make you stay?"

"She told me they were depending on me."

"Exactly. She wouldn't let you go. She used every trick in the book to keep you around. And when it looked like you were breaking free of her, she fired you the next day."

Kyohei's anger flared. "Sei wouldn't do that!"

"Then why did she fire you?" Elise asked.

"I don't know. But she must have had a good reason. And she supported me wanting to become a patissier."

"Maybe. But she would still not let go."

"What-she'd have let me go to France-"

"I did not say she would not let you *leave.* I said she would not *let go.* I believe she would let you go to Paris. But then she would show up every weekend. She would call you up, 'Hey, Kyo, why don't you come and cook for me?'"

"And what's wrong with that?"

"Nothing…if you don't mind everyone thinking you belong to the Chinese mob princess. How many French girls would avoid you because they're afraid they'd be shot dead if they get too close to 'her man'?"

"Sei wouldn't do that."

"Non? Then why do you think Shiho never made a play for you?"

"Shiho-get real-she's not interested-and Sei wouldn't hurt her if she was." He sprang to his feet. "Why am I even having this conversation?" he exclaimed. He wandered a few steps away and stood there, hands on his hips.

Elise came up behind him. "Kyohei. I say these things not to hurt you but to help you. You have a rare gift for cooking, and you pursue a dream most boys your age do not even consider, not even in France. I want to nurture that. Maybe you should think Sei did you a favor by firing you. She gave you the freedom to pursue your dream. If you'd stayed with her, either you never would have left or she would have stayed too close and smothered you. But as one door closes, another opens. But you still must walk through it."

"I know, but…" He crossed back to the window. "I just…it was too sudden, too soon. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye."

"It is hard, but it is out of painful transitions that growth can occur." She smiled. "Come. You have been very kind to me this past week. Why don't I return the favor and buy you dinner?"

Kyo smiled a little. "Well…if you let me choose the place."

"But of course."

As they got in the elevator, Kyo said, "Your hotel should have WiFi for guests. You can use that with your phone."

"I know, but I do not know how."

"I can show you."

"You are a computer expert, too?"

"Amy thought I had a lousy data plan, so she showed me how to use the trailer's wireless router while I was working there. It's pretty simple."

"Um…no, I think I'll manage. Thanks anyway."

/

/

As much as he liked Elise, for the next couple of nights, Kyo went to a nearby diner after classes and did some work there. Going to the girls every evening for a year had become such a part of his life he had to go *somewhere,* anywhere other than straight home. The owner was another Love and Happy alumnus and didn't mind if he stayed. And it gave him time to think.

He didn't know why Sei had fired him, but he couldn't believe it had been out of jealousy. Something else had to be going on; he knew enough about the girls' business that he thought he could feel it. But Elise had been right, it now gave him the chance to go to France, with a place ready made for him. Yet having the chance because Sei … because the girls had inexplicably disappeared from his life, that felt wrong, as if he was doing it because he had no choice as opposed to making the decision himself.

But what choice did he have? If he wanted to be a world renown patissier, he had to go to France, and even then, it would be tough for a non-French person to make a name for himself; Elise and her father would be much needed help in that regard. What choices did he realistically have if he did not go to France? He joked with himself that maybe he could post a flier in one of the bad parts of town advertising his skills as a chef to all-female hit squads, but he realized that if he did that, what would it say about why he had stayed with the girls?

One night he stayed longer than expected, and called Hayao and asked Hayao to come and get him. While he waited, some loud-mouthed teens were bragging about blowing off some old woman. Kyo bristled, wanted to slap them down … but he couldn't. Jo could in one minute. Or Sei. Or Meg. Amy could screw with their accounts. What could the cook do? The thought only made him miss them more.

After Hayao showed up, complaining about being stopped by RAPT, squads of cops showed up and pounced on the teens. As Hayao and Kyo ducked out, Elise pulled in in her rental car.

"Your mother told me you're here," Elise said as she stood in the door, "and I thought I would come and pick you up. But you already have plans?"

"Uh, no," Kyo said, "not really. What is it?"

"I have a surprise for you."

"What is it?"

"Kyo - then it would not be the surprise. You must get in the car."

Kyo nodded, then turned to Hayao. "Hayao, I'm sorry I put you out-"

Hayao shook his hand. "No problem, Bro'. Pretty girls beat me any day, I know. Later, man."

"See you Hayao."

When they were on the road, Kyo asked Elise, "Ok - what's the surprise?"

"Ask me where we're going."

"Ok - where are we going?"

"The train station. We will catch the last train to Osaka and spend the night together. And tomorrow, we will go to the French consulate and submit your visa application."

"But…" Kyo stammered, not sure what surprised him more, "I don't have anything."

"Your parents helped me prepare an overnight bag, and I have your passport and all documents you need." She frowned. "I'm sorry. This was the best time to do it, and I thought you would be happy."

"I am. It's just…a surprise…"

/

/

When they checked into the hotel near the Osaka train station, Kyo didn't say anything about getting a separate room. But he couldn't help but gawk that there was one bed.

"Uh, Elise," he said, "maybe I should go back to the front desk-"

He was cut off by her tongue shooting into his mouth. Part of him wanted it, but another part…

"Wait a minute," he said after he pulled out of the kiss, but she kept her arms around him. "Aren't you moving a little fast?"

"Kyohei. What did you think I meant when I asked you to spend the night with me? Although it is sweet you are such a gentleman."

"Yeah, but…"

"I am sorry." She sighed. "Kyohei, back home, I do not have a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend, for that matter. I am already an expert patissier; and my father and I are co-owners of the restaurant. Most people our age, they do not understand that. They can not deal with it. But you…I think you can. I feel like you're the one I've been waiting for all my life. Don't you feel that, too?"

"Well…uh…" He tried to disentangle her arms. "Don't get me wrong, Elise. It's not that I don't like you. And it's great that you understand me. But this all feels…rushed. I really would feel better if I had my own room."

"The hotel is sold out. I checked. But have it your way - you can either go to another hotel, or we can share a bed and not do anything. What do you want to do?"

"I'll stay here."

"All right. But I'll still give you the other half of your surprise." She rooted around in her bag and dug ou 12 brown envelope. She handed it to him.

Kyo asked, "What is it?"

"The application forms for the visa. And your boarding pass for Paris."

Kyo smiled as he looked at the passes, then the attached receipt…

And frowned. He glared at Elise as he felt his world come apart again. "What do you think I am, stupid? Or did you hope that after you screwed me, I'd be so dopey I'd go along with anything?"

"Quoi…?"

"You bought this before you left Paris! And there's only one way you could be certain I would go."

"What are you talking about?" Elise asked.

"Give me a break," Kyo groused. "'I've been waiting for you all my life.' And I almost fell for it!" He headed for the door. "Whatever else you could say about Sei, she'd never-"

"ALL RIGHT!" Elise shouted. "You want to stomp out of here? Fine. You do that. But first you sit down and hear my say."

"Elise-"

"Sit. Down."

He sat in a chair by the bed.

"Let me tell you about my father," Elise said. "He grew up in a small town in the south of France, and like you, his family did not support him when he wanted to become a chef. But there was no Love and Happy school for him to go to. He had to run away to Paris when he was younger than you are. He had to struggle. He almost starved to death. But he got jobs in restaurants and worked his way up. He had to pay his own way to study in Japan. When he met my mother - God rest her soul - she was the only one who believed in him. But she was a poor girl, not the Chinese mob princess who pulls money out of her ass. Together, they made it.

"When you contacted us and we talked to Mina and we found out how you worked for killers to make money for France, he and I agreed we had to do something during our trip. So yes, he bought the ticket then. And yes, we hoped I could persuade you, but I really do like you. I want what is best for you, Kyohei, because I know how hard it can be.

"So yes, we made mistakes, and for that, I am sorry. But no, you take the principled stand, you reject our generosity. See if I care! Tokyo must have other all-female hit squads you could be the lap dog of. More exciting than the ordinary girl from France who walks around in more than just her underwear. If that is the life you choose, then go and be happy in it. Don't slam the door on your way out."

Kyohei sighed and pushed off his shoes. "Mind if I take the side away from the wall?"

"Whatever makes you comfortable."

/

/

Kyo and Elise stood on the street outside the building that housed the French consulate in Osaka.

She said, "Ready?"

"I don't know. I'm not sure I'm ready for this." He looked around, half expecting Sei and the others to come down the street at any moment. But of course they weren't there.

And his chance to become a patissier and have a normal life with a normal girl was right in front of him.

But there would be no going back.

Elise said, "Come one."

"Wait a minute," Kyo said. "You're staying in Tokyo for a month. But I can get a long stay visa in a week - less if I expedite it."

"So?"

"So give me a week to two to think about it?"

"What is there to think about?"

"Listen, Elise, you've been all over Sei for coming back to get me after I quit, for not giving me a choice. You want to be 'better' than her? You give me the chance to think about this and decide for myself what I want to do. I want to go because I want to, not because I feel I'm being pressured into it."

"The airline tickets my father bought are not refundable."

"I didn't make him buy them when he did."

Elise smiled a little. "So running with the wild women gave you a little backbone, yes? All right Kyo, you can have a week or two. Now, what can we do to kill time in Osaka before the train home?"

"I think I remember the sights from the last time I was here, and it looks like they've cleaned up the damage."

"'Damage'?"

"I'll explain over lunch…"

/

/

Meg woke up and looked at Jo. They were lying on the ground naked under a tarp, in the woods near the shore. It was so calm and peaceful, as opposed to the tumult of the last few days.

Looking at Jo sleeping, Meg resolved that she was done. No more bounties. No more cybots. No more ANYTHING. She would take what was left of the cash Sei had given them and use it to take Jo some place quiet and safe. And then give what was left after that to charity … or burn it in a fire, whatever. She did not want to owe Sei anything. After all they had done for that bitch, she had got in bed with their enemies and left them all twisting in the wind. She felt worse for Kyohei. Meg refused to believe that seeing Kyo falling for Elise had nothing to do with Sei firing him and how she had gone about it. "Heartbroken" wouldn't begin to describe what he was going through, but at least there was someone already waiting for him, and Elise was probably a better human being than Sei could ever hope to be.

No, Meg decided, Sei Ping Ho could go to hell. She was done with that woman; if she never heard that name again, it would be too soon. If Sei was drowning, Meg wouldn't lift a finger to save her - even throw her an anchor to help her sink. From now on, the only one Meg would worry about was Jo.

/

/

"All set, Amy?" Sei's voice sounded in Amy's earpiece as she worked at her laptop in the Conductor's lair, the effeminate hacker in a space suit sitting nearby.

"Almost," Amy said. "Should have it all ready by the time you're in position."

"Good." She heard Sei take a deep breath. "One more thing: Any word on Kyohei?"

Amy froze.

"Amy?"

"Yeah, Sei, uh…A couple of days ago, Osaka traffic cams caught him and Elise at the French Consulate in Osaka."

"Probably to get him a long stay visa."

"He didn't go in, and there's no visa application in his name. But there is a one way plane ticket."

"When was it bought?"

"About a week after he first contacted them."

Sei chuckled. "They assumed he'd agree, probably with Elise's inducements, but it sounds as if he's standing up for himself and considering his options. Good for him."

"How do you know?"

"Because otherwise there'd be a pending visa application in his name. Still…it is his dream, Amy." Her voice shook a little. "I just wish I had a chance to…no. It doesn't matter. If the Navarres ease up, he'll come around, especially when he realizes there's no more 'plan B.'"

"Sei-"

"Amy. We knew going in how this would turn out. I'm fine with it. I just wanted you to know that you and the others were like family to me. I wouldn't have canceled your contracts if Bailan hadn't tied my hands, and I'm glad we have one more chance to show them how it's done in Tokyo. Whoever's left standing, let them know that, please."

"I will, Sei."

"Thank you. Let me know when everything is ready."

/

/

Sei had hoped taking the secondary roads to RAPT headquarters would get her around RAPT road blocks. No such luck - she was stopped at a roadblock within sight of RAPT headquarters. There was no concealing her identity, but after she got out of the car, she did her best to try and bully the officer in charge. "Well, if everyone knew about it," she was saying, "it wouldn't be classified, now, would it? Now for the last time, let me-"

"Officer, officer!" T. G.'s voice sounded from the other side of the cops.

Sei followed their gaze. T. G. was running towards them… but it took Sei a moment to recognize her. She almost seemed slightly shorter, her hair red and more curly, wearing a blue top and matching skirt. But what stuck out was … it had to be gold face paint, right? But all over her body and on her hands, too?

Two men were running up to the cops beside her. One reminded Sei of a dissipated rock star, with long black hair and five o'clock shadow. He had a sleeveless leather shirt and leather gauntlets on his wrists….and three spikes sticking out of each gauntlet. They looked like they were made of bone. Were they parts of the gauntlets or sticking through them? She couldn't tell. The other man was in shades of blue - blue jacket, blue pants, light blue shirt. He also had stubble but seemed more disciplined than the other man. He had short brown hair and brown eyes …. Sei could feel herself being attracted to him. He also seemed to have a military bearing in spite of being in civilian clothes.

"Thank the stars I've found you," T. G. went on, smiling. "Our vehicle broke down and we need-"

The lead cop rounded, pointing his weapons at the strange group. "Freeze! All of you, weapons down."

The military man shrugged. "Ok." He pulled something that looked like a flashlight from a holster on his hip. "Have you seen my force lance?"

"Your what?" the lead cop stammered.

The flashlight abruptly lengthened to about two meters long, and the military man swung it up to catch the lead cop on the jaw with one end. Rock star also went into action, incapacitating the cops nearest him, stabbing one in the neck with the arm spikes. Then Military Man pointed his "force lance" at the other cops and the end flashed; the cops he aimed at fell. Rock star also had some kind of pistol out and fired on the remaining cops.

"Clear!" Rock Star said.

"Impressive," Sei admitted. "Who are your new friends, T. G.?"

Rock Star frowned. "Friend of yours, Trance?"

"Sei and I have never met," T. G. - Trance - answered. "But she's going the same place we are."

Military asked, "Which is?"

Trance pointed at RAPT headquarters. "There."

"Ok." Military man said. "Sei, is it? I'm Dylan …." He indicated the rock star. "… this is Rhade, and … Trance…"

Sei said, "Who knows me without ever having met me."

Dylan shrugged. "She does that."

"Sei," Trance said as she opened the sports car's passenger door (which Sei was sure she had locked), "if you follow my directions precisely, we can evade your enemies." She climbed into the back seat.

Rhade said, "Shotgun."

Dylan shrugged. "He always gets shotgun." He climbed in back next to Trance. "Hey, it's roomier than I thought it would be back here."

Rhade got in and closed the door. Sei huffed out some air, got in the car, and started it up.

"Keep going on the route you'd been taking," Trance said. "I'll tell you when, where, and how to turn."

"Ok," Sei said. She stepped on the gas and worked around the road block. "Can the day get any stranger?"

Rhade smiled. "Yes."

"Rhetorical."

"I know," Rhade said. "But if you think this is strange, you ain't seen nothing yet. By the way, you seem pretty tough. Have you thought about having children?"

"Rhade," Dylan groaned.

"What?" Rhade protested. "I'm just making conversation. And besides, you get all the babes anyway…"

"Not all the time!"

Trance said, "And I think she's already in love with someone else."

"Don't tell me-" Sei started. "No, never mind…"

/

/

"What's happening to Tokyo!?" Kyo exclaimed. He stood on his balcony and saw the smoke rising above the distant skyline and heard the emergency vehicles. Then he heard something on his TV about an aerial view of a mech. He went back inside, and saw on his TV, Django racing through the streets of Tokyo, its guns blazing.

"What the…" he said. "What the hell are you guys into now?"

/

/

The cybernetic thing that had called itself Rick Glenford lay dead on the floor in the chamber with the gigantic brain. Being cradled by Jo in a growing pool of her own blood that was mixing with fluid pouring out of the ruined brain case, Sei felt no satisfaction at Glenford's death or fear of her impending demise.

All she could think about was Kyohei.

"You'll love Paris, Kyo," she whispered. "I wish I was-"

"What the-" Rhade's voice stammered. Sei looked to her right. Rhade was standing near a side passage near the elevator. Dylan and Trance came up behind him.

Jo had seen them and was starting to draw one of her pistols, but Sei said, "No, Jo- it's ok - they're…" She coughed. "….friends."

"All right." Jo holstered her weapon.

Rhade, Dylan, and Trance spotted her and ran over.

Sei went on: "Dylan, Trance, Rhade, this is Jo. Jo, I met them on the way over here-" She coughed up more blood. "…got me here in time to die…Kyo…"

Rhade took a deep breath, seeming to sniff the air, then put a hand on Jo's forearm. "Those bumps - do you know what they are? Do you know what you are?"

"Huh?" Jo asked.

"Not now," Dylan said. He turned to Trance. "How's Sei?"

Trance crouched by Sei. "She's been hurt bad - lead slugs-"

"Get out of here," Sei rasped. "And if you find Kyohei Tachibana, tell him-"

"No," Trance said. "You're not done ye-"

The giant brain started to arc brighter than the sun.

"Uh, Dylan?" Rhade said. "I think it's time to go."

Sei said, "It's too late-" She coughed again and whispered, "Goodbye, Kyo … I…"

Dylan held his hand in front of his eyes. "Bek-er, Trance, get us-"

"I'm trying, Dylan-" Trance reached one arm towards the brain. Her body began to glow, blazing in gold light. Gold mist formed around her, reaching towards a shadow forming in the light near the brain, what looked like two nested cubes rotating inside each other…

…light and noise washed over them….

…and then…