"Huh?" He jerked his head up at the call and almost succeeded in falling backward off his stool. "Wha - ?"
"You were about to do a face-dive into your eggs, that's what." Joe stared at him, a half-amused look on his face.
Ken's reply was muffled as he rubbed at his eyes. "Oh, sorry... I mean, thanks."
"Are you okay? You look a little pale this morning," Jun said.
He glanced up at her where she stood on the other side of the Snack J's counter looking worriedly at him. He looked down at his plate before answering. "Yeah, I'm okay. I just stayed up a little late last night."
"Stayed up late and caught up on a lot of exercise."
Ken felt shock at the statement for its crudeness, but this was quickly followed by feelings of guilt, both of which crossed his face. He caught Joe watching his reaction and grinning mischievously.
"Let me guess... it was the red head from Saturday, right?"
"Joe." Ken's put a warning tone in his voice. He did not want his friend going there.
"Red head? What red head?" Jinpei suddenly appeared from behind the counter, his face as full of curiosity as his sister's.
"Not just a red head, but The Red Head."
"Joe...don't." A touch of impatience crept into Ken's voice. Everyone ignored him.
"Are you saying what I think you're saying? That aniki picked up a girl?" Jinpei stared from Ken to Joe and back again.
"Well, he didn't exactly pick her up; it was more like the other way around." Joe glanced sideways at his friend and looked quite satisfied by the tinge of color Ken felt coloring his cheeks.
"Joe..." Ken let his warning tone reach dangerous levels. Joe ignored him.
"I'd gotten a couple of tickets from a racing buddy of mine for the opening of a new club called The Crystal Tower. I thought it'd do some good to drag our resident prude with me. I was only able to convince him to go once I told him they'd have a free buffet from five till eight."
"Hey, you should have invited me! I love free buffets." Ryu cheerfully sat down on Ken's other side having just come in. "What are we talking about, anyway?"
Ken stared at his eggs.
"Joe's telling us about how aniki got picked up by a girl!" Jinpei's eyes were bright.
"Oh... I thought you were talking about food." Ryu's disappointment didn't sound as bad as Ken would have preferred. It meant they would keep talking about him.
"Sorry, Ryu, but I was taking our fearless leader out to the club with something other than food in mind."
"Yeah, he took him there to look at half-naked women!"
"Jinpei!" Jun gave her brother a cold, disapproving glare.
"Anyway, we'd been there for a couple of hours or so and the place was already packed solid. I personally hadn't been doing too bad, but our commander here kept himself glued to the table the entire time." Joe leaned back as he warmed up to the story. "I'd just come back to the table to try and get him to loosen up for the umpteenth time when this goddess of a woman saunters up to the table and stares at Ken as if she'd been looking for him her whole life."
Ken stood up. Joe reached out for his shoulder. "No, sir, you can't leave now. I'm about to get to the best part."
Ken didn't look at him his cheeks flaming. "I don't have to sit here and listen to you slandering me."
Joe pulled him back down onto the stool. "Oh yes you do! This is a first and I'll just bet they'll have a lot of questions to ask you once I'm through." Ryu and Jinpei both nodded eagerly. Ken sighed, Joe's hand still clamped on his shoulder as he tried to stand up again, keeping him pinned there.
"Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, the goddess. Well, here she was staring at Ken as if he were the only living soul in the place. His eyes got so big and wide, you'd think he'd never seen a woman up close before."
"Hey, I resent that!" Jun placed her coiled fists on her hips.
"I'm only telling you what I saw. I can't help it if he doesn't normally know a woman when he sees one."
Ken visibly shrank in his seat as Jun turned her searing gaze in his direction. "Joe, please..."
His friend smiled at his discomfort, ignored his plea, and then went on. "Anyway, she stares at him saying nothing and Ken's too stunned to react. I must admit by this point I was feeling a little jealous she wasn't staring at me that way, but I consoled myself with watching the prude's reaction."
Ken groaned and shrunk some more.
"Her voice was dripping with innocence as she gave him one of the most obvious pick up lines I've heard in years. Of course, due to his great lack of experience, our fearless leader fell for it."
"What did she say? What did she say?" Jinpei bobbed up and down his face bursting with excitement.
Joe grinned. "In a rather seductive yet heavily helpless tone, she told him he looked like a decent sort of man and that she'd come to beg him for his help."
"Beg?" Jun's left eyebrow rose. Her tone wasn't pleasant. She gave Ken another scalding look.
"Slowly, giving him plenty of time to look, she leaned forward and pushed a piece of paper toward him. She told him she lost her purse and couldn't pay her bill. If he would help her out, she'd happily buy him dinner the next day. She knew he'd just see it in his heart to help her."
"I'd help her! I'd help her!"
A chill ran down Ken's back at Jinpei's exuberance.
"He never saw the come on for what it was and managed to stammer out that he'd giver her a hand. Though he did firmly state dinner was not necessary."
"He turned down a free meal?" Ryu looked pained.
Joe laughed. "Well, he tried. She insisted that he give her his name and phone number. Our unsoiled flower here did nothing, so I took care of it." His smile was smug. "She thanked us, took the information, and kissed him on the cheek promising sinful things."
"Joe... I'll get you for this..."
Joe slapped Ken happily on the back. "You'll try."
Ken stood up.
"So, aniki, did she call you?" Jinpei whipped around the counter to block his way out.
Ken sighed staring at the floor. "Yes, she called me... Are you all happy now?"
"Where'd she take you for dinner? Another buffet?" Ryu also moved to stand in his way.
"We didn't go anywhere."
"What? Don't tell me you were stupid enough to let her get away! Did you?"
Though his eyes remained serious, Ken almost smiled at the look of despair on Joe's face. "No, it's not what you think... She came over and cooked me dinner."
"A goddess who can cook? She's mine I tell you!"
"Jinpei!" Jun thumped her close to drooling brother on the head.
Ken chose that moment to cut past them and try to escape, but Joe had already moved to block the door leading out of the Snack J. "Joe, get out of the way. There's nothing more to tell, okay? Nothing happened, absolutely nothing."
"Forget it, we're not falling for it. Give us all the gory details and let us judge for ourselves."
"I'm sure you all have better things to do than hear about an unexciting date."
All four answered as one. "No!"
Sighing with defeat, Ken returned back to his stool. "Okay... What do you want to know?"
Jinpei was first. "Her name!"
"How old is she?" This came from Jun.
"Isn't she a little old for you?"
"Shut up, Ryu!" Jinpei elbowed his large friend in the ribs.
"Did you talk her into cooking at your place or was that her idea?" Joe was grinning.
"Her idea. She can be... quite persuasive when she wants to be."
Ken threw Jun a surprised look.
"So, what did she make you?" Ryu's eyes were bright.
"Broccoli Beef, fried rice, wontons, eggrolls -- all homemade." Ken rested his cheek on one hand resigned to his fate.
"Jinpei, you'll have to fight me for her!"
"Forget it! I claimed her first." The two glared playfully at each other.
"So, you ate dinner. Did you play some music while you ate? They normally like that -- helps set the mood."
Ken sighed. "No, Joe. But don't worry, she took care of it." Joe's grin widened.
"What happened after dinner, aniki?"
"You're a little too young to hear the answer to that question, Jinpei."
"Jun, nothing happened!" Ken couldn't quite read the mixed expression on her face as she looked away.
"Come on, aniki, answer my question! What did you do?"
"This really isn't any of your business..."
"Just shut up and tell us already!"
Ken shot Joe a dirty look and then sighed again. "I took her up in the plane and showed her the city at night."
"Nice touch. I didn't think you had it in you!" Joe jabbed Ken in the ribs. "So, what did you do after that?"
Ken shrugged. "We went back to the house and did dishes."
Ken glared at all four of them making it clear he didn't appreciate their interest in his love life one bit. They ignored it. "We had a few drinks and talked."
Ken's eyes clouded over. He felt a fleeting sadness, as of something lost, but it was quickly gone only leaving him confused. He shook his head and it was gone. "Nothing happened. We said good night and she went home."
"Liar!" Joe almost pounced on him.
"Why would I? We had a nice time. We said good night and she went home."
"How, how could you just let her get away like that? You had the perfect opportunity with the perfect woman and you let it slip through your fingers? I bet you didn't even kiss her good night, did you?" Joe's disgust was plain.
"Opportunity for what, Joe aniki?"
"Never mind that, Jinpei. You don't need to know."
Ken stood up. "If it'll make you all feel better, she did say she'd call me again tonight."
"At least it's not a total loss!" Joe threw up his hands. "You and I have got to have a long chat about certain things." He sneered. "Man does not live on bread alone."
"You got that right! Without cheeseburgers and pizza, life just wouldn't be worth it."
"Ryu, you need a psychiatrist!"
"H - he - hello?"
"Ken, where the hell have you been?" Joe screamed at him through the handset, forcing Ken to hold it away from his ear. "I've been trying to reach you for the past half-hour! I let your phone ring for five minutes straight! Jun's been calling you on the wristcom for at least an hour. Don't you have it on? Nambu's about to send the hounds out to look for you. You were supposed to be at his meeting over an hour ago! So, out with it, where the hell have you been?"
Ken pushed his hair slowly away from his eyes feeling strangely disoriented. He stared about the sunlit room as he struggled to make sense of all Joe just told him. "I... I was here, sleeping..."
"Look, Nambu is not going to believe that one. If I were you, I'd be busy trying to come up with something better as you haul your ass on over here! Now!"
"Yes, of... course... I'm sorry, Joe." Ken hung up the phone and found himself once more staring about the room. Something was missing, wasn't there?
He shook his head after a moment not able to pin down what it was. He dismissed the whole thing as he got up out of bed. Grabbing his wristcom off the nightstand, he staggered toward the bathroom.
"Just keep yourselves available. I should know more first thing in the morning." Nambu looked over the five members of the Gatchaman team as they absorbed the information he just gave them. "All right then, dismissed."
They all stood up to leave. "Ken, could I have a word with you?"
"Yes, Hakase." Ken sat back down as the others sent him pitying glances on their way out. Nambu said nothing until they'd all gone and shut the door.
"Your tardiness today is inexcusable. You were warned of this meeting three days ago."
Ken looked away from Nambu's scowl. "I'm sorry, Hakase. It won't happen again."
"How long have you been feeling ill?"
Ken looked up in surprise. "No, sir. I'm all right."
"I wouldn't say the bags beneath your eyes and the pasty color of your skin constituted ‘all right.' How long have you been like this?"
Ken wouldn't meet his brown-eyed stare. "Two... days or so..."
"Why don't you go see Dr. Braun this afternoon and have him check you out?"
Ken looked up, the suggestion making uneasy. "Really, Hakase, I'm all right. I've just got the forty-eight hour flu. I wouldn't want to waste Dr. Braun's time."
"I'm sure he won't feel that way about it. If anything, he'll be thrilled. He's been complaining lately the five of you don't come see him often enough. It makes him unhappy when people are too healthy. It makes him feel superfluous."
"If you insist."
Nambu leaned forward. "I do. And I also expect you not to be late again. One Asakura in the bunch is more than enough."
Ken didn't react to the joke at all. "Yes, sir. Thank you." He got up and headed toward the door. He didn't see the suddenly concerned look that followed after him.
He left the office and followed the small corridor leading from it, but stopped as he realized Joe was there waiting for him.
"Hey, that was quick. I didn't even hear any yelling. He always keeps me in there for at least fifteen minutes... and there's always a lot of yelling." Joe grinned at him, but his grin fell as Ken just stared blankly down the hall. "You really don't look too good, you know that? Are you feeling okay?"
Ken made himself glance over at him. "I think I've caught a bug or something."
"You sure it doesn't have anything to do with spending some late, restless nights with Tiana?"
Joe didn't catch the momentarily puzzled look that crossed Ken's face. "No... She has nothing to do with it. I wasn't feeling good last night. I talked to her on the phone and that was it." He moved on down the hall. That was what had happened, right? The puzzled look returned to his face.
"She didn't offer to come over and take care of you?" Joe's tone was impish.
"She did, but I told her I'd be better off if I just slept it off." A fuzzy image of Tiana in jeans and a pullover welled up in his mind. He could tell she was seated in his couch. That couldn't be right, could it?
Joe thumped him on the back of the head before he could make the thought go further. "Baka yaro! How do you continue to let these perfect opportunities pass you by? Don't you even find her a tiny bit attractive?"
"I'm a man, Joe, not a piece of stone," Ken replied. "Of course I find her attractive, very attractive."
"Then why are you letting these beautiful chances pass you by?"
Their bodies entwined together. Tiana's electric touch flowing over him. Her luscious lips opening as they drew close to his, and then... Ken shook head. "You wouldn't understand."
Joe stopped him and stared at him long and hard. "I guess you're right, I probably wouldn't. Remember to give her my name and phone number when she decides to dump you. I won't make your mistakes!"
"Yeah, right." Ken rolled his eyes. Joe grinned.
"You coming to practice? I feel like kicking your sorry butt."
"No, I'm going to sit this one out. I'm gonna go home, get some extra sleep -- try and get rid of this bug." What bug?
"You do that." Joe took a couple of steps and then turned back. "Hey, maybe you should go see Dr. Braun before you go. You know how he loves it when one of us gets sick. Besides, you really don't look that hot."
"Yeah, good idea. Thanks." He wasn't going to do that, so why had he said it? Ken's head began to pound.
His friend started off on his way, missing the worried look that overcame Ken's features. He needed to tell someone.
"Joe - " His hands started to shake. His headache got stronger. He suddenly couldn't see straight.
"Forget it, it was nothing."
Ken cursed under his breath after Joe had gone, leaning heavily against the wall. He stared at his hands until the shaking went away. Why did this happen? Why wasn't he able to tell Joe about the weird visions? What was going on?
"Yes, give in to it." The familiar voice tickled his ear. Flashes of two such other nights wove through his mind.
"No -- uhmmmm -- stop --" Waves of pleasure overtook him. Ken struggled to keep his mind from drowning in them.
"Don't fight it. Merge with it. It will make it easier..."
He struggled to pull away even as Tiana's touch sent tendrils of fiery pleasure shooting through him. He couldn't get away. She was making him sick. A seed of panic bloomed inside him. "Don't - do - this. I'm not - who - you think."
"Aren't you?" Light laughter bubbled around him. Despite what he now remembered, it boosted the pleasure flowing through him. "But even that is irrelevant. I've been looking for someone like you for a long time..." Her cool body writhed against his. "I know your will has been trying to break through when I'm not here, yet that is one of the many reasons why I picked you. You will need that strength for what is to come."
There was a brief flash of pain before Ken was totally swallowed by fiery waves.
"He still hasn't responded?"
"No." Joe's jaw was set.
Nambu slowly rubbed a cloth across the glasses in his hand, for the moment not acknowledging the four tense figures gathered around his desk. "He never consulted with Braun... And you say you haven't seen or heard from him since the meeting yesterday?"
Joe almost spit the words out. "That's right."
Jun stepped forward. "Hakase, couldn't we -"
"No, there's no time. I'll have someone go check his house. You four are needed to escort the ambassador. This secret meeting is too important to pass by and your presence was one of the conditions of the gathering. The information we might retrieve from him is just too critical. Anything could happen, despite the precautions we've already taken. Ken will be my concern. Now get to it."
Nambu's wards left the room their backs stiff. He stared after them knowing only too well how they felt. It couldn't be helped. With any luck, they were worrying for nothing.
He put his glasses back on and then picked up the phone. "Hello, Dr. Braun? How do you feel about making a house call?"
"We have him in a private room at the hospital ward in Crescent Coral," Nambu said. "He's yet to come out of the coma." His voice dropped. "His blood pressure is dangerously low. Dr. Braun has given him a transfusion and that seems to have helped a little."
"A transfusion? Why would Ken need a transfusion? And how do you fall into a coma from the flu?" Joe smashed his fist onto the desk.
Nambu slowly leaned forward. He placed his elbows on the desk and clasped his hands together. "We've found no evidence of recent violence - no bruises, no needle marks, nothing. The only things we do know are that he was very low on blood and that this is what induced the coma."
"Low on blood? Hakase, could he be bleeding internally?" Jun's voice was small.
"There's no evidence of that that we can find. X-rays show no broken bones. The CAT scan picked up no abnormalities. We simply have no explanation for what's happened at the moment. With any luck, Ken will be able to give us one once he's awakened."
Jinpei's eyes grew wider and wider during the conversation. No one noticed.
"Hakase, can we see him?"
"Actually, Jun, I was going to encourage you to do so. I am hoping your presence might help him pull out of the coma. I have a transport already waiting."
"Let's go then!" Joe was the first out the door. Jun quickly followed with Nambu not far behind.
Ryu hung back as he saw Jinpei hesitate. "What's wrong? Don't you want to see him?"
Jinpei threw him a dirty look. "Of course I want to see him! It's just..." He looked away. "I have a feeling we might be in big trouble..."
Jinpei ignored his large friend's puzzled look and took off after the others.
"To be honest, I'm surprised we found him alive. The body normally can't operate with so little blood." Dr. Braun, a balding, kind faced man, spoke to them as he led them to Ken's room.
"Will he be all right?"
Braun wouldn't look at Jun directly. "Well, it's hard to say. We've still got no idea on what happened in the first place. Though, due to his top physical condition, he's bound to have a better chance than most." He opened a door on his left.
The room was small, barely wide enough for the plain bed and the machines nestled all around it. Ken, his face partially hidden behind an oxygen mask, lay on the bed, tucked beneath glaring white sheets as beeps and lights quickly reassured them he was still alive.
Jinpei nudged past the others and hurried to the front of the bed. He quickly leaned over to look at Ken's neck.
"Jinpei, what are you doing?"
The boy sighed in relief, not finding any signs of what he was looking for. Ken's neck was clear except for what might have, at one time, been a small bruise. "Nothing, nee-chan, I was just worried about aniki."
The group pressed in about the bed as Braun studied the readings on the machines. "His blood pressure is almost back to normal. All his signs are looking good." He sounded surprised.
"When will he awaken?" There was a touch of impatience in Joe's tone.
"That's... hard to say. I'm afraid that right now, it's all up to him."
"If we end up having to wait for him, we'll be old men by the time he makes up his mind." Joe looked down at his unconscious friend. "Ken, wake up! You're late!"
To their amazement, they heard Ken gasp his eyes snapping open.
He sat up before they could stop him, popping off four of the monitoring wires glued to his chest. Braun was forced to leap for the oxygen machine as his sudden jerk threatened to topple it over.
"What the...?" Ken stared at those around him, his confusion plain on his face. "Oh God, Hakase, am I late?"
Jinpei and Ryu burst out laughing as smiles grew on Jun and Joe's faces. Nambu moved forward and gently removed Ken's oxygen mask. "Don't worry about that right now. Why don't you lie back and let Dr. Braun have a look at you?"
Ken blinked rapidly as he noticed the machines around him for the first time. He abruptly realized the bed he was laying in was not his own. "Where... where am I? What's happened?" He didn't fight Nambu as he gently pushed him to lie down.
"You're in the infirmary at Crescent Coral."
"You sure do come up with great ways to get out of boring missions, don't you, Commander?" Joe's smile fell as Ken appeared even more confused.
"Why don't we step outside until Dr. Braun has finished with his examination?" Without waiting for an answer, Nambu herded his wards out of the room.
It was almost a full fifteen minutes before Braun allowed them back inside. As they moved to surround Ken's bed, Braun pulled Nambu off to the side. "Kozaburo, I don't mean to complain, but he seems way too healthy after going through something like this. He even told me he felt good."
"I'll keep it mind. Push the labs to rush those tests." Braun nodded and left, his usually cheerful face stained with concern.
Ken sat propped up by pillows and stared at the others as their questions bombarded him from all sides, his mind a blank slate, unable to find no immediate answers for them. He saw Nambu reenter the room and sent him a questioning look hoping for help.
"Ken, how do you feel?"
The others settled down. He was terribly grateful for the doctor's intervention. "All right; I guess. I feel okay. Pretty good actually."
"Dr. Braun seems to agree with you."
"So when can he get the hell out of here and start doing his share of the work?" Joe's grin infected the others.
Ken saw that Nambu's expression, however, remained neutral. "Not quite yet I'm afraid. There are a number of tests I still want to run, and we've yet no conclusive results on those we ran earlier. That is unless you can shed some light on what happened so that we could narrow down our search?"
The doctor's intense gaze fell on him. Ken couldn't look at him. His voice was very low when he spoke. "Hakase, I don't even know why I'm here..."
Nambu nodded. "All right then, let's go back a ways and start from there. What did you do yesterday afternoon after you left my office?"
Ken took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts before answering. "I - I spoke to Joe for a few minutes and then went home. I went straight to bed and didn't wake up until after dark. I ate some soup and..." His brow wrinkled. That wasn't right, was it? What had happened then? "Then I went back to bed." The corners of his eyes grew tight. There was something there, something he should remember. He started to perspire as a thumping pain smashed against his brain.
"Was that all, Ken? Are you sure?"
He had to try and tell them. His hands began to shake. But tell them what? He wasn't sure, but he had to try. The feeling he desperately needed to do this wove through him though he possessed no idea why. He saw worried glances passed amongst his teammates as they noticed his distress, but remained silent. "Y - yes." Now! Do it now! "Ha - hakase..." His headache worsened. Something fought inside him to keep him from speaking. His whole body shook as he strained against the adverse compulsion.
"It's all right, Ken. Relax, don't push yourself."
He looked up at Nambu, a pleading look in his eyes. Ken waited with baited breath as Nambu studied him in silence. Thankfully his body slowly returned back to normal, the pounding in his head receded. Jun started to say something, but the doctor signaled her to wait.
"You're not telling me what you really want to say, are you?"
Ken nodded quickly, a small smile touching his lips at having been understood.
"Is there anything at all you can tell me?"
Ken looked down. He let his gaze move over his covers as he searched for some way to give them something to work with. His face twisted as he tried several times to speak but couldn't. Eventually he did find something he could say. "I - I don't think it's Galactor." He glanced up at Nambu.
"All right, at least that leaves out one avenue. If you think of anything else you can tell us, no matter how seemingly unimportant, let me know."
"Hai." His voice sounded small to his own ears.
"Wha - what's going on?" Jinpei timidly asked what was on all their minds.
Nambu turned to face them. "It would appear someone has taken some precautions to prevent him from discussing whatever happened to him last night."
He avoided Jun's questioning stare.
"As soon as we can determine what's been done, we can start undermining it. Hopefully the results we're waiting for will shed some light on all this. Ken will have to be kept isolated until that time. Guards will be placed at his door to limit access to him."
"Is that really necessary?" Ryu had a perplexed look on his face.
"It's just a precaution. Obviously someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to try and conceal from us what is going on. It's best to handle things this way until we can ascertain exactly what we're dealing with here."
"He's right, Ryu. I could be a security liability right now." Ken tried to keep his expression neutral.
"Don't any of you see that this doesn't make any sense? Why go through the trouble to put him in a coma and make sure he can't talk about it? What would be the point?" Frustrated anger lined Joe's face. His hands were curled into fists at his side and looked as if they desperately wanted to beat on something.
"Unfortunately, we don't know enough yet to answer any of those questions." Nambu ignored Joe's dissatisfied glare. "If you'll excuse me, I'll go see what's keeping those test results."
An awkward silence settled over the room at Nambu's departure. Jun, Jinpei, and Ryu stood around Ken's bed as Joe moved to lean against a wall.
Jun met his gaze. "Ken, I'm sure Nambu Hakase and Dr. Braun will be able to find out what's happened and make sure it doesn't happen again."
"Yes, I'm sure you're right." He tried to smile.
"Can we get anything for you? Some food maybe?"
"I'm not really hungry right now, Ryu. Thanks anyway."
"Are you sure? You haven't eaten since yesterday and you need to keep your strength up."
"I have to agree with him, Ken," Jun added. "It wouldn't hurt you to eat a little."
He sighed not feeling like eating anything at all, but decided the gesture might make them feel better. "All right, Jun."
"I'll make you your favorite, aniki!"
"Jinpei, you should probably consult with Dr. Braun before you start making anything. I'm sure he'll have some restrictions for Ken's diet."
"Nee-chan, you sure know how to take the fun out of life."
Jun turned on her younger brother. "What was that?"
"Oh, nothing, nee-chan, nothing. I'll go ask Dr. Braun what he can eat right now!" Jinpei made a dash for the door.
Ken ate the soup and salad that Braun had allowed for him without too much enthusiasm. If anything, he was having to force himself to eat it. He didn't tell the others how the mere smell of the food had instantly turned his stomach.
Nambu joined them again a couple of hours later.
"Have you been able to figure out what happened, Hakase?" Jun met him by the door.
"Yes and no."
"Oh, that's peachy." Joe was still leaning against the wall, his mood not much improved from before. Nambu ignored him.
"Agents sent to Ken's home could find no signs of forced entry, or anything else untoward. They even scanned both the house and the hangar but found no signs of bugs or other monitoring devices." Joe snorted. "A number of the tests we ran earlier have finally come in, however. We did find some rather unusual anomalies in the blood work."
Ken met Nambu's gaze and sat very still. A tingle of dread crawled up his spine.
"Your blood seems to be metamorphosing in a way we don't understand." The doctor's tone was guarded, his attention totally fixed on him. "What we do know is that whatever is causing the effect seems to be spreading."
Ken paled at the news but said nothing.
"What do you mean his blood is changing?" Joe pushed himself roughly away from the wall. Nambu's eyes never left Ken's.
"As you know, blood is composed mainly of red cells, white cells, and plasma. Normally, red blood cells are of an elliptical shape by which they maximize the carrying room for oxygen. Some of your red blood cells are deviating from this pattern. Also, the platelets, which are normally very small, seem now to be rapidly increasing in size. Your white cell count is also highly elevated, but they're attacking the red cells. By doing so, your immune system has slowed the spread of whatever is affecting your blood, but it's not stopping it. There's one more thing... the energy reactions of the red cells has also increased, but we can't tell to what end."
Ken looked away not wanting to hear anymore. Tiana's knowing smile flashed in his mind. Was this her doing? Dare he believe it?
"Are these chemical reactions caused by the blood loss and coma?" Jun's face looked drawn.
"We don't think so. But at this point, we know too little to dismiss any possibility."
"R - r - e - red - re - - re - d -" Ken leaned forward his face twisted with concentration. His whole body started to shake as he forced his lips to move. He was quickly covered with perspiration. "He - e - he - he - hea - head!" He fell back against his pillows gasping for air.
"Red - " Jinpei glanced at Ryu.
Ryu stared back. "Head."
"The redhead? The goddess at the bar?" Joe leapt to Ken's side. His friend's eyes filled with triumph.
"Who is this redhead?" Nambu stared questioningly at Joe.
"It's a woman we met at the Crystal Tower. Her name is Tiana." Joe's voice was filled with shocked disbelief.
"Is this woman responsible for what's happened to you?"
Ken couldn't look at him. "I'm not - I mean, I don't... It's just that she - that I -" He wasn't sure, but at the same time he was. If only everything weren't so muddled.
Nambu nodded. "Good enough. Joe, do you think you remember this Tiana well enough to give a detailed description?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"Good. Jun, please go get Mr. Burns from security. I believe it's his shift at the moment. He's got some experience with what we need."
"Roger." Ken saw Jun throw him a worried glance in his direction before leaving the room. She returned less than ten minutes later with a burly man in the tell-tale ISO security uniform in tow.
"Ken, I'd like you to watch as Mr. Burns compiles a sketch of your redhead. Try to help him however you can."
He nodded in agreement but wasn't too happy with the request. He just wasn't sure he could help them. This was frustrating!
"As soon as you're through, Burns, circulate the sketch through your staff. Have a copy sent to Howell in Utoland as well. I need this woman found as soon as possible."
It took them almost two hours to compile a sketch of Tiana's face. Nambu left not long after they started leaving them to the work. The others dropped off one by one as they got restless with the tediousness of the process going on before them.
Ken was able to let Burns know when something wasn't right but could never give any suggestions on how to fix it. Joe paced the room the entire time, occasionally pausing to glance at the security man's progress as he gave out what details he knew. A nurse brought in a steaming bowl of soup for Ken about the middle of the process, but he left it on its tray and pushed it away leaving it untouched.
"How's this?" Burns held up the pad to give Joe a closer look.
"That's her all right. Don't you think so?"
Ken barely glanced at the drawing before turning away. His face felt cold, his skin stretched. His lips were trembling. As if it were someone else using his mouth, he said, "I've never seen that woman before in my life."
Burns gave him a startled look even as Joe nodded. "That's it then. She's the one." Burns stared at Joe in open confusion. He kept his questions to himself however, and got up to leave.
"Ken, I'm going to go check out the Crystal Tower before Nambu's spies start bumbling all over the place."
"Sure..." What the hell was going on? What did Tiana have to do with all this?
"You're looking kind of tired," Joe told him, studying him intently. "Why don't you eat and then get some sleep?"
Ken nodded slightly, not looking at him at him directly. He could tell his friend didn't like it.
"Are you okay?" Joe asked.
"Yeah... Like you said -- I'm just tired."
Joe hesitated at the door. "I'll - I'll check on you later, okay?"
"Fine." Ken could feel tight lines around his eyes.
Tiana wasn't at the Crystal Tower. Though Joe had expected no less, at least going there gave him the excuse to try and do something. He preferred to be doing anything that might seem the least bit constructive rather than let his impatience slowly eat him alive.
Guilt pulled him back to Crescent Coral though he was only been gone for a few hours. He had, after all, been the one to give the mysterious Tiana Ken's name and phone number.
Something about the whole situation stank -- nothing jived, and that worried him. It also bothered him that he thought he'd seen real fear in Ken's eyes when he left him. There was no telling how much his friend actually knew, but a small part of him was terrified that what Ken did know and couldn't share could cause such fear in him. How truly bad was what had happened -- was happening -- to him?
Crescent Coral was silent, the lighting staggered in places to indicate the darkness reigning out above. Joe found himself feeling strangely uneasy as he reached the infirmary level. He couldn't quite pin down what was making him feel that way, so he quickened his pace until he spotted the two guards assigned to guard Ken's room. They snapped to as he came close. After a couple of curt questions and an exchange of ID's, they grudgingly admitted him inside.
The first things he noticed as he closed the door were the fact Ken wasn't in his bed and that vegetable soup covered part of the floor. Then he spotted Ken retching over the toilet as Jun hovered protectively over him in the room's cramp bathroom.
"What happened?" Joe crossed the room before the words totally left his mouth.
"Joe, please keep an eye on him. I've got to get Dr. Braun."
He nodded not liking the worry he saw in her face.
"No!" Weakly, Ken tried to reach for her as she left the bathroom. Jun avoided his grasp and ran from the room.
Ken's stomach heaved again so he was forced to lean once more over the open toilet. Nothing came out of his mouth, but his stomach insistently continued to heave. Joe hung nervously about the bathroom doorway, not sure of what he should do. He hated seeing his friend like this. He knew from plenty of experience just what it felt like.
Ken's stomach had finally started to quiet down by the time Jun dragged in a tired looking Braun into the room.
Ken stood up, but Joe was forced to reach for him as he swayed on his feet. Ignoring him, Ken stepped up to the sink and washed his mouth and face. Joe stayed close as Ken leaned heavily on the sink as if not quite trusting his legs to keep him upright.
"Ken, why don't you sit down and let me take a look at you?" Braun stepped up to the bathroom door, a friendly smile on his face. Ken waved him back.
"I'm all right. There's really no need for you to be here. I tried to tell her that!"
Joe saw his friend flinch at Jun's injured tone.
"I think you'd better do what the doctor wants." Joe walked up close behind Ken. He could almost smell the fear filled tension radiating from him. Ken didn't move. Well enough was enough.
Joe slammed the toilet lid closed and flushed it. He then pulled Ken away from the sink and made him sit down. Ken didn't resist him. Braun quickly traded places with him.
"Jun, tell me again what happened." Braun gently took hold of Ken's wrist and took his pulse.
"I came to visit and noticed that Ken hadn't touched his dinner. I asked him if he wasn't feeling hungry, but he said he was. When I asked him why he hadn't eaten then -- he wouldn't answer me."
Braun looked up into Ken's face. "Are you still hungry?"
Ken stared right at him. "Yes."
"Why didn't you eat?"
"The smell of the food made me ill." Ken's face was filled with barely hidden confusion.
Braun nodded, and as he checked Ken's pupils asked Jun to go on.
She wrung her hands and stared at the floor before doing so. "Well, I insisted that he try and eat and ended up badgering him into it. I got the soup reheated for him and he'd eaten about half of it when he suddenly bolted from the bed to the bathroom."
"Did this happen to you this afternoon?" Braun asked.
Kan stared at his hands. "No, but the food tasted revolting to me. I just couldn't force myself to eat it all."
Braun pondered on this for a few seconds. "I'll need to run a few more tests. I promise they won't take long." Ken said nothing. Joe was liking all this less and less.
Braun left then came back with a nurse and a mop in tow. Jun helped the nurse clean the mess as Joe helped Braun put Ken back to bed. Once they got him there, Braun quickly took a blood sample, a throat sample, and a saliva sample. He suggested that Ken should fill up one of the plastic cups in the bathroom when he got the urge. Throughout, Ken seemed oblivious to everything, his face set.
"Until we find out why this happened, it would be best if you didn't try to eat anything. There are a few more extensive tests I want to run on you in the morning. Okay?" Ken didn't answer. Never a good sign. "Why don't you try and get some rest. All we need is a little time to get our bearings and then we'll take care of everything." Braun patted Ken gently on the shoulder and then turned to go.
After Braun and the nurse left, Jun timidly approached the bed. Joe posted himself close to the door, and studied his friend.
"I'm sorry, Ken."
He shook his head. "It wasn't your fault. I apologize for what I said earlier."
Joe could see his words made her feel better, but the fact he wouldn't look at her spoke of something else. "Can I - can I come and visit tomorrow?" she asked.
Ken nodded but still wouldn't look at her.
"I'm sure they'll fix everything. All we need is to give them a little more time."
"Yes... of course..."
Jun opened her mouth to say something else, and looked to change her mind at the last minute. Joe saw her throw Ken a long worried look and then left the room after bidding them both good night.
"Well, I guess I'll be going too. You don't look like you're in the mood for company." He pushed himself away from the wall and turned toward the door.
"I... I..." Ken's voice shook. Joe turned back to look at him. Tears filled Ken's clear blue eyes. His lips were pale.
"I'm scared, dammit. I'm really spooked by all this. How do I... how do I tell her that? I can barely even admit it to myself..." He looked away and roughly wiped at his gathering tears.
"You'll get through this."
Ken shook his head very slowly. "I don't think so."
He laughed bitterly, his hands clenched on his lap. "I'm, I'm remembering things, weird things, and they make no sense! I tried to tell you a number of times that things weren't right, but I couldn't do it. I can't really do it now. I don't understand what is happening. I don't understand what I've seen!"
Joe moved to the end of the bed. "Sounds like whatever they did to you is getting weaker. You couldn't tell us even this much before." He could do nothing but stare as he saw a number of emotions flickering across his friend's face. It hurt him to see Ken like this, but he had no idea what to do about it. He remained quiet as Ken worked to reach a semblance of calm.
"Joe... She's - she's not -- finished - it - yet." His whole body shook as he struggled to talk.
"Well that's great! Now that you're here she won't get a chance to do it either." He loved to see her try.
Ken looked up at him, his face hard. "I'm not so sure of that." Joe felt a chill at Ken's stare but he wasn't sure why.
"Do you want me to stay?"
"Are you armed?"
"Now that's a stupid question." Joe brought out three of his famous feather darts. He saw a flicker of a smile momentarily touch Ken's lips.
"Yes, if you wouldn't mind. I'd dare to try and sleep if you would."
"Yeah, no problem." Joe massaged the back of his neck. Ken's uneasiness was starting to rub off on him.
He felt something nuzzle his neck.
He slowly opened his eyes in the still lit room.
Dread filled his heart as he turned in the direction of the hauntingly familiar voice. Large, deep green eyes stared intently into his. Ken turned cold.
"No!" He jerked away, memories openly flooding his mind of other dark nights. Tiana's freckled, milky white arms pinned him like girders to the bed. He couldn't move. Vile rose in his throat as panic seized him. "Joe!"
"Your friend can't hear you," she whispered. "He and the two guards won't be noticing anything for a while. I have no intention of being interrupted." Tiana's slight accent tickled his ear as she leaned even closer. Ken's rediscovered memories quickly told him what he might expect next.
"Please, you mustn't do this. I don't know what you're trying to get at, but I can't be a part of it. You've no idea who I really am. There are people counting on me!" He tried his best to struggle though he already knew it was useless.
"I know exactly who you are, Gatchaman." Ken froze. "It's one of the many reasons why I picked you. Your strong will and sense of duty only add to the possible success of what I am about to do tonight."
"No, Tiana, please!"
Soft, cool lips tenderly kissed his cheek. Ken doubled his efforts to try and get free. It got him nowhere.
"I know you don't understand everything right now, but you will in time. You see, I'm here to give you a gift, one that will help you greatly in your endeavors. But, though I am thrusting it on you, in the end, the final decision on whether you accept it or not will be yours."
"Liar. You've never given me a choice in anything! You've forced me to lie to everyone around me. You've manipulated my mind -- violated it!" Ken glared his anger at the redheaded beauty. She smiled at him endearingly.
"I've looked for someone like you for so long. I just couldn't let your friends try and spoil my plans only because you and they didn't understand. And I haven't lied to you. The final decision will be yours. And whichever way you choose, there'll be no turning back." She leaned close and nibbled on his the ear.
Ken screamed in helpless fury and tried once more to get free. Tiana seemed oblivious to his efforts.
"You've already been infected, dear one, so your friends couldn't have helped you even if they'd known. The disease within you works slowly. The change is painful and long. You might not even have survived it, I almost didn't. But tonight, tonight I am going to save you from that misery. Tonight you will make your choice."
Ken stiffened as her lips softly caressed his neck. He knew what would come next. Panic welled inside him. "Stop!"
Twin pricks of pain flared on his neck beneath her loving lips.
The ache was almost instantly swept away by a rush of pure ecstasy. Ken continued to struggle in vain against Tiana's grip, not willing to give up, even as his mind fought not to be swallowed whole by the waves of pleasure coursing through him.
His heartbeat grew loud in his ears though he couldn't hear or feel Tiana's. Had he during any of their interludes? Ken felt himself weakening, weakening faster than he ever had during those other times. He fought against it with all he could even as a part of him longed to embrace it.
Ken, no, your decision hasn't been made yet. I won't let you go until you do so. Open your eyes.
He couldn't resist Tiana's command though he wanted to fight her in any and every way possible. His eyes flickered open. He could hear his heart beating erratically inside his chest. Vaguely, he was aware of the fact he was dying. Right then, however, he felt nothing not even as he watched Tiana prick her own finger with an unusually long nail. His eyes grew mesmerized by the ruby jewel that grew from the cut. Lovingly, Taina took the drop and smoothed it over the twin wounds on his neck. Ken could feel his skin tingle as the wounds miraculously disappeared.
The time is now. Your body is dying. The fear, which had been kept back so far, resurfaced with her words. Do you feel it? Do you feel your life ebbing? Will you let it? Will you succumb to the final peace it offers and the mysteries to be found beyond or will you take my gift and fight to live? Will you willingly leave the Earth defenseless and at the mercy of Galactor, or will you stay and fight for it like you've never fought before?
Tiana let go of him, but Ken was too weak to move. Your decision is simple -- life or death.
Ken's quickly clouding gaze followed Tiana as she lifted her wrist and smoothly slit it with a razor sharp fingernail. Bright blood welled to the surface, its heavy odor filling his nostrils. To live you must drink. Do it now or die. Do it, or you'll give a major victory to Berg Katse. -- Run from your duty if you dare...
The fear of dying and the fear of living as he knew not what battled inside him even as her thoughts left him alone. Tiana brought her bleeding wrist closer. Ken didn't try to move away. The smell of the blood made him dizzy. He dared not look at her blazing eyes as he fought to make a decision. The blood's heavy scent wove around him and brought something to life inside him, making his mind abruptly clear. He didn't want to die. He couldn't let Katse win. He owed it to the world, he owed it to his father. He couldn't leave the others alone for Tiana to try her powers on next.
He tried to reach for her, but his hand dropped almost as quickly as he brought it up. She seemed to know what he wanted, however, for she brought her wrist to his lips and turned it so the thick fluid would flow to his lips.Hesitantly at first and then with greater and greater eagerness, Ken drank of the life Tiana offered. His decision was made.