Night Moves by Maya Perez
Summary: An alternate Gatch universe story in which Ken gets turned into a vampire.
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Berg Katse, Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Original Character
Genre: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama
Story Warnings: Adult Situations, Strong Language, Violence
Timeframe: Mid-Series
Universe: Alternate Universe
Challenges: None
Series: Night Moves
Chapters: 2 Completed: Yes Word count: 25294 Read: 6195 Published: 06/13/2007 Updated: 06/13/2007

1. Part 1 by Maya Perez

2. Part 2 by Maya Perez

Part 1 by Maya Perez
Night Moves

An Alternate Gatchaman Universe

Written by Maya Perez

Inspired by Michael Wattenbarger

Edited by Wendy Dinsmore


    

            "Ken!"

            "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!"

            "It's Tiana."

            "How old is she?"  This came from Jun.

            "Twenty five."

            "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."

            "I'll bet!" 

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.

            "Sorry."

            "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."

            "And then?"

            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."

            "And?"

            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."

            "Aw, nee-chan!"

            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!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

            RrrrrRing....

            RrrrrRing....

            RrrrrRing....

            RrrrrRing....

            "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.

            "See ya."

            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.

            "Yeah?"

            "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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

            "Ahhhhh..."

            "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."

            "No."

            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..."

            "Huh?"

            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.

            "Ken!"

            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."

            "The infirmary?"

            "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."

            "Ken?" 

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 redheadThe 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."

            "Yes, sir."

            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!"

            "Ken!" 

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.

            "Joe..."

            "Yeah?"

            "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."

            "Why not?"

            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.

            "Thanks."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Ken...

            He felt something nuzzle his neck.

            Ken...

            He slowly opened his eyes in the still lit room.

            "Missed me?"

            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.
Part 2 by Maya Perez

            "Joe-aniki!  Joe-aniki!  Wake up!  You've got to help him!"

            Joe felt himself being roughly shaken, but it took him several moments to even care.  The tone of urgency in the young familiar voice made a small part of him panic.  It began poking at his lethargy and worked at bringing him awake.

            "Nee-chan!  Dr. Braun!"  The door to the room smashed against the wall, violently thrown open.  Joe groaned as the sound reverberated in his skull.

            "Ughn."  He leaned forward, his whole body stiff.  His head pounded in displeasure even as several muscles ached in response to the uncomfortable position he fell asleep in last night.  Joe gingerly propped his elbows on his knees and held his pounding head in his hands.

            "Joe...?"  The call sounded distant.

            "Man, do I have a mother of a headache."

            "Are -- you all -- right?  Did, did -- she -- hurt -- you?"  Ken's voice was barely above a whisper.  His tone seemed guarded. 

Joe massaged his aching temples.  "Must have slept with my neck wrong.  Shit.  What was Jinpei all excited about anyway?  Talk about a rough awakening...  And what do you mean did she -" He froze as he looked up for the first time.  "Christ!"  He leapt to his feet.

            "Joe, what's - wrong?"  Ken sat up in bed looking horribly drawn and pale.  Dark stains of blood covered his pillow and the side of his bed.

            "He's dead or dying! He's -" Jinpei skidded to a halt as he ran into the room and saw Ken sitting up in bed.  Jun, Ryu, and Braun ran in behind him.

            "Ken, oh my God!"  The four of them rushed to the bed.  "Are you hurt?"  "What happened?"  "Where did all the blood come from?"

            Ken stared at them in confusion until he followed their gaze and saw what they were talking about.  Joe could tell a cold shiver cut through him at the sight.  He wasn't feeling that good about it himself.

            "Ken, please lie down.  How do you feel?"  Braun's worried countenance hovered over him even as he pushed Ken gently, but insistently, down.

            "I -- it's not -- mine."  They all exchanged startled glances.  "The blood -- it's not -- mine."  Ken sounded surprised at his own admission.

            "Who, who's is it then?"  Braun stared at him strangely.

            "It's... Tiana's!"  Ken looked both startled and pleased he was able to tell them this.

            "Nobody was here last night."  Joe knew his tone was harsh, but he would have known if someone had been there.

            Ken seemed momentarily confused by this and absently moved his dark hair away from his face.  Jinpei edged forward.  "Joe aniki, you and the guards weren't awake when I came in...  And it was real hard to wake you..." He made sure not to be within Joe's immediate reach as he contradicted him.

            "It's not just because of me and the guards, Jinpei.  She would have had to find Crescent Coral and then infiltrate it.  That's not possible."

            "Joe, she was here."  Ken's voice sounded a little stronger.

            "It's not possible!"  Joe's flashed with anger.

            His friend glanced away looking lost.  Braun quickly checked him for any open wounds.  He didn't find any.

            "Ken, if she was here, what did she do?  Why would her blood be on your bed?"  Jun's questions were barely audible.  Her face was pale and her lower lip was trembling.

            Ken's lost look deepened as he tried to answer her.  "Tiana, she... she cut her wrist so that I... so that I might drink her blood..." They all stared at him disbelievingly.  "She -- she has a disease and had already infected me with it.  She said she had been accelerating it?  She told me the process would be completed last night."

            "What -- what kind of disease?"  Tears glistened in Jun's eyes.  Braun moved to take Ken's pulse.

            "I...  I don't know."  Ken's eyes darkened for a moment.  "I think, I think she once called it an organic, communicable disease."  He shook his head.  "She never explained it."  He was remembering things, more with every passing second -- but why was so much of it foggy?  There was something important about last night he had to remember, but what was it?

            "Ken, please lie still."  He looked up into Braun's face and saw fear mixed puzzlement lingering there.  Braun held onto his cold wrist, his puzzlement deepening.  Ken was going to ask him what was wrong, but found himself distracted by the loud beating of Braun's heart.  Even as he questioned how he could hear it, he heard it speed up with anxiety.  The warmth radiating from Braun's hand onto his wrist was suddenly intense.  Ken stared at him in wonder as he thought he could almost feel the doctor's blood as it flowed in the arteries and capillaries of his fingertips.  He almost gasped when this same enthralling heat touched him on the neck.

            His neck...  Tiara...  Ken found himself staring at Braun's own neck, distinctly aware of where his main artery swelled with the pumping of oxygen rich blood.  A deep thirst woke inside him.  Ken licked his lips as his eyes continued to concentrate on Braun's exposed neck.  An excited shiver coursed through him as he saw and heard Braun's pulse continue to speed up alarmingly.

            The doctor suddenly pulled his hands from him and stepped away from the bed.  Ken reached out to stop him, but held back as he found no reason on why he should want to do so.

            "Ah, um, would one of you please ask Dr. Nambu to come over?"  Braun's normally jolly face was low on color.

            "What's wrong, doctor?"  Jun moved closer to him.

            "I'd rather not speculate at the moment.  Just please go get Dr. Nambu.  Quickly."

            Ken stared again at Braun's neck, the conversation going on around him lost to his ears.  He never honestly noticed how much life seemed to pour through such a forgettable part of the body.  And it was such a delicate part at that.  Why did he never notice it before?

            "We'll get him for you, Dr. Braun.  It'll only take a minute."  Jun threw Ken a deeply worried look before heading for the door.  "Come on, Jinpei."  They both took off down the hall.  The security guards stared after them.

            Joe leaned against the wall fuming silently on the seeming possibility Tiana had somehow penetrated the facility.  Could she have been in here?  It was a ludicrous idea.  And what about all the other fantastical things Ken had said?  Wasn't all of it impossible?  But if she hadn't been here... what did that say about Ken?

            He glanced over at his commander and friend.  A deep frown creased his forehead as he noticed the intent way Ken was staring at Braun.  There was something creepy, almost primal about it.  It set his teeth on edge.  "Ken?"

            Joe got no response.  Was something wrong?  How could he sit so still?  "Ken."

            "Huh?"  Sky blue eyes turned questioningly in his direction.

            "Are you okay?  Why are you ogling at Braun like that?"

            Braun stepped even further away from the bed and stared at both of them.

            "Was I?"  Ken looked around and for the first time noticed that both Jinpei and Jun were gone.  There were definitely two less heartbeats than there were before.  Two less heartbeats?  He'd heard that?  Was that possible?  He shook his head, not liking the questions, but mostly he didn't like the lack of answers.  His thirst kept nagging at him.  "Could I have something to drink?"

            "I, I would prefer for you to wait, Mr. Washio."  Mr. Washio?  Braun never referred to any of them by their last names.  "The tests weren't too conclusive on why you weren't able to keep your dinner down.  It - it might not be safe for you to drink anything right now."  Braun looked toward him but wouldn't meet his eyes.  With a clarity that was uncanny, Ken could see beads of perspiration as they formed slowly on Braun's brow.

            "You don't look so good, doctor."

            "It's nothing, Mr. Washio, nothing at all.  I think I'll wait out in the hall for Dr. Nambu."  Without another word, the plump man hurried from the room.

            Joe stared after Braun wondering what had him so uptight.  He glanced back at Ken and found him sitting upright staring in the direction Braun had gone.  He thought Ken looked a little paler than he had a moment ago.  "Ken, how do you feel?"

            He appeared distracted.  "A little slow.  I'm thirsty though and... cold.  I, I don't know what to expect...  I don't think she ever told me..."

            "You keep insisting Tiana was here.  How did she do it?  Did you tell her about Crescent Coral?"

            A flash of anger momentarily lit Ken's eyes.  Joe now had his full attention.  "No, I didn't tell her anything.  I don't think she ever even asked.  I don't have the faintest idea how she got here." He grew more and more flustered.  "I don't know why she's doing this.  I don't even know how she knew I was Gatchaman!"  Ken's eyes grew wide as he spoke, almost as if he hadn't known these things until he said them.

            "She knows?  Does she know about the rest of us too?"

            "I - I don't know!  She... she never said."  Ken's eyes looked wild.

            Joe stared hard at him.  "Why is it that you can suddenly talk about her?  You couldn't do it before."

            He shook his head.  "I don't know.  I'm not even sure how she stopped me in the first place."

            Ryu quietly studied his two teammates, having been forgotten by them as they bantered back and forth, their frustrations building.  If left unchecked, it was liable to end in some kind of explosion.  He was trying to come up with some way to divert it, when fate intervened and did it for him.  Ken gasped and leaned forward, his whole body shaking. 

"Ken!"

            Joe and Ryu rushed to his side.  Joe reached out for him and was surprised to find his skin was cold to the touch -- too cold.  "God, you're freezing!  Ryu, see if you can find some more blankets!"

            Ryu nodded and headed straight for the room's small closet.

            "Ken, what's wrong?"  Joe held onto him as Ken moaned in pain.

            "It's... it's burning.  My throat is burning.  I've never been so thirsty in my life.  It hurts!"  Joe's heart beat in Ken's ears.  The warmth of his arms poured into him.  It meant nothing to him though, his full attention taken by his burning pain.

            "Just hold on, I'll get you some water.  Braun's precautions be dammed!"  Joe released him and ran to the bathroom where he grabbed a wrapped cup and quickly filled it with water.  He placed the cup in Ken's hands even as Ryu put a thick blanket around his shoulders.

            Ken eagerly brought the cup to his lips.  He took a large swallow and then gagged.  Joe smacked him on the back as he choked.  It felt as if he were slapping stone. 

"I can't drink this."  Ken pushed the cup back at Joe.

            "It's only water."

            "I'm telling you, I can't!"  Ken groaned again his thirst screaming at him as if it had a life of its own.  Joe's heartbeat filled his ears, ringing inside them like a locomotive.  He could clearly smell Joe's worn off after-shave.  Worse, he was sure he could almost smell his flowing blood.  He felt dizzy.  What did Tiana do to him?

            "Are you feeling warmer yet, Ken?"  Ryu was busy rubbing the blanket against his arms and back, his face set with a concerned expression.

            "Nambu's coming."  Ken's voice was tinged with both hope and fear.

            "Wha - ?"  Both Ryu and Joe turned toward the door but it was still closed.  Ken's body stopped shaking and he became very still.  His head tilted at a slight angle as if he were listening to something they couldn't hear.

            "Braun's telling him he found out that I didn't have a -"  Ken's face went ashen.  "He's mad!  That's not possible."

            "What's not possible?  Ken, what did you hear?"

            The door opened.  Nambu appeared pensive as he led a dazed Jun inside.  Braun fidgeted behind them followed by a wide-eyed Jinpei.

            "Hakase, Dr. Braun can't be right!  It's just not possible!"

            Nambu looked up at Ken, surprised by the outburst.  His face turned blank almost immediately.  "That's why he called for me, Ken.  We'll find out what's going on soon enough."

            "Would somebody care to explain to me what the hell is going on?"  Joe glanced at Ken but the latter wouldn't meet his gaze.          

"Ken, I want to hook you up to the machines and see what they have to say before we jump to any further conclusions."

            "I'm sorry, Dr. Nambu, I should have thought of that myself before I disturbed you.  Please, let me take care of it." Braun pushed past him his cheeks flushed.

            Ken closed his eyes and laid back down feeling totally overwhelmed by what he'd heard outside the room.  His teeth ached, his throat burned.  The sounds of a set of moving lungs and a beating heart moved over him.  His thirst cried out though Ken could find no reason for it.  This just couldn't be happening!

            Braun quickly checked the equipment on the left side of the room.  Ken opened his eyes as he heard them come on.  He found his gaze drawn toward Braun's wide neck again as he picked up the sensors to put on Ken's chest.

            His gaze blurred as Braun turned toward him.  His thirst ran rampant demanding release though he had no idea how to try and satisfy it. 

            Braun gently moved Ken's covers to expose his chest.  He took one of the sensor pads and placed it close to Ken's heart.  One of his fingertips grazed the pale skin.  Ken gasped.  The touch ran through him like a bolt driving his thirst toward frenzy.

            "Mr. Washio, did I hurt you?"  The words barely left Braun's lips before the doctor suddenly found himself grabbed and roughly flipped onto the bed.  He screamed.

            As Ken effortlessly flipped the doctor over, he sat up and opened his mouth with a soft hiss.  His top two canines extended past his lip.  His blue eyes turned dark and showed him an aura surrounding Braun he had never seen before.

            Ken only minimally registered these things, for his thirst had taken control.  It knew what needed to be done.  It would take care of everything.  Ken lowered his mouth toward Braun's pulsating throat.

            "Ken!"

            He hesitated, his new teeth millimeters from Braun's soft flesh.  His mind pushed the thirst back abruptly, panicked by the horror he just heard in his friends' voices.  He glanced up at them, never once thinking of releasing the doctor.

            Bright auras surrounded all of them.  Their shocked and horrified expressions imprinted themselves in his mind with cruel detail.  Why were they looking at him that way?

            "Let go of the doctor, Ken.  Braun won't hurt you." 

Ken stared at Nambu in confusion until he followed his gaze to the vainly struggling, whimpering man in his arms.  Again his eyes were drawn to Braun's thumping artery.  His thirst whispered to him what it was he ought to do.

            "Oh my God!"  Ken pushed Braun roughly away from him, repulsed and strangely excited by what he'd been about to do.  Braun hit the floor and scurried away from him.

            "He's a vampire!  Aniki's a vampire!"

            "Jinpei, no!"  Jun held onto her brother as he jumped up and down, her fear and confusion clashing against his obvious excitement.

            Ken hid his face in his hands and moaned.  Joe took a step toward him but Ken waved him back.  "Please, you've got to get out of here.  I don't know if I can hold back for long.  Please!"

            "Ken, we can't help you if we don't find out -"

            "It would be best if you did as he asks.  He's very dangerous to those around him right now.  He's not totally in control of his actions."  All but Ken turned to look at the woman now framed in the room's open doorway.

            "You!  What have you done to him?"  Joe leapt forward violence written in every line of his body.

            Tiana slipped out of the way in the blink of an eye.  Joe stumbled out of the room not finding his target.  He turned around to try again until she glanced back at him, her eyes turning from green to black, elongated canines showing past her lips.  As he hesitated, she turned away from him.

            "You need to leave," she insisted.  "You're quickly running out of time.  Ken has a great will, but he's not used to fighting against his Thirst.  If you stay much longer, he won't be able to hold it back.  It is likely that at least one of you would then die."  Tiana moved out of the doorway and pointed the way out.  "Please, I can help him with this.  But you must leave now."

            "Do as she says."  Nambu stood stiffly as he stared at the young red haired woman in the black body suit.

            "But, Hakase -" Ryu's eyes were wide swinging from Ken's curled up form to Tiana and back again.

            "Do it!  All of you!  This is not the time or place to discuss this.  Out of the room!"  Nambu herded them out.  Jun hesitated but he didn't relent.  Braun ran out into the hall.  Tiana met Nambu at the door.

            "Thank you, Dr. Nambu.  If you could, however, would you mind bringing over several pints of blood?  The type is not important, but if you could, please have them heated to room temperature.  I hate my blood cold."  She smiled at him and started to close the door.

            "Rastov...  You're Dr. Tiana Rastov, the disease specialist..."

            A look of astonishment momentarily flickered across her face.  "I'm surprised that you know of me, doctor."    

            "I studied about you in college.  Your face, for a scientists', tends to stand out and is not easily forgotten."  Tiana smiled at the compliment.  The smile was quite warm.  "You're supposed to be dead."

            Her smile grew brighter.  "I would hope so.  I worked awfully hard to make it seem that way."  She closed the door on his face.

            "The guards are unconscious but otherwise seem okay."  Braun's voice shook slightly as he inspected the two men slumped on either side of Ken's door.

            "What are we doing out here?  That woman is responsible for what's happened to Ken!  How can you justify leaving him in there alone with her?"  Joe's face was livid.  His hands were clenching and unclenching at his sides.

            Nambu gave him his full attention.  "Would you have preferred I allow Ken to pass on his disease to the rest of you?"  His stare was hard.  "She's cut past all our security at least once before.  What would it gain her to do now that she's not had ample opportunity to do before?"  His tone was unreadable.

            "Hakase, what are we going to do?"

            "Do, Jun?  Nothing, other than get Dr. Rastov the items she's requested."  He turned to look at Braun.  "Please have six pints of blood brought over immediately."

            "Yes, sir."  Braun hurried off, eager for the excuse to get away.

            "Wha - what could she want with all that bl, blood?"  Ryu's voice shook.

            Nambu's expression softened.  Before he could try and reply, however, Jinpei spoke out.  Wonder tinged his words.  "They're going to drink it, Ryu.  They're vampires, both of them!  That woman has turned aniki into an undead."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Tiana sighed softly as she easily overheard the conversation going on just outside the door.  This blunder was totally her fault.  She'd been incredibly foolish.  She should have anticipated the possibility that Ken's Thirst would set in so soon.  She should have taken him with her.  But she hadn't and now she'd been forced to show her hand to avert a terrible disaster.  She wondered for a moment just how the levelheaded Nambu was apt to deal with it.  Perhaps this was just as well.  It might actually help ease Ken's transition -- that is once she rectified the current emergency.

            "Ken."

            Her child didn't answer her call.  His face lay hidden behind drawn up knees.  He didn't move.  Tiana sighed again understanding only too well the fight that raged inside him.

            Without a sound, she crossed the room to where he sat.  Hesitantly, she reached out to touch him.  "Ken."

            Faster than would have been visible to the normal human eye, he jerked away from her touch and leapt off the bed.  He stared at her from its other side, fear mixed anger flashing in his clear blue eyes.  "Stay away from me!"

            "I've only come to help you."

            "Help me?  LIAR!  You've destroyed me!  I almost killed an innocent man today because of you!"  Ken made a dash for the room's door but Tiana smoothly cut him off.

            "There was a reason for that, but it's only one of the many things I need to make you aware of.  I want to make your transition as easy as possible.  Please, come sit here so we can start."  Tiana's voice turned incredibly compelling, her soft, seductive voice ringing in his mind.

            Ken waved the feeling away.  "You won't use that on me anymore.  You've already manipulated me more than I can bear.  I know what to look for now.  I won't let you do it to me again!  His eyes turned dark even as a growl escaped his lips.  His fingernails and toenails extended out to sharp points as he leapt for her.

            Tiana's youthful face was cold as she swatted him away like a bothersome fly.  His body flew across the room and smashed into the wall.  The plaster crumbled around him, the metal supports bowed by the force of the blow.  Ken fell to the floor.

            "Control yourself!  Your Thirst is overcoming your better judgment.  I want to help you appease it... but you have to let me."

            Ken shook his head, picking himself up from the floor.  He was dazed, but otherwise unhurt.  A low growl issued from deep in his throat as he looked up at her.  It was obvious he hadn't listened to a thing she said.

            Tiana's eyes suddenly softened, a sad smile growing on her face.  "Ken, come eat."  She brought up her wrist and with one swift cut opened the artery there.

            His dark eyes grew wide as the heavy smell flooded the room and the red, life carrying liquid splashed onto the floor.  Ken's eyes abruptly cleared.  He shook his head violently from side to side and backed up against the wall.  "No."  His voice was small.

            "Yes."  Tiana held her arm out toward him and drew closer.

            Ken turned away to shut out the sight of the blood, but she knew he couldn't shut out the sweet heavy smell that would already be filling his nostrils.  She knew he would lose--there was no denying it.  The blood called to his Thirst and it would make the pain inside him unbearable.

            He tried to escape again but she beat him once more to the door.  She thrust her bleeding wrist into his face.  Ken's eyes turned black as he tried to pull away, but she pinned him to the wall and pressed her cut wrist onto his lips.  She watched with a smile as he a starving cry and lost all control as life's blood slipped into his mouth.  She didn't flinch as he grabbed with desperation onto her arm and began sucking the vibrant, sweet substance offered she'd offered him.

 

 

 

 

 

            "How long is she going to stay in there?"  Joe was pacing back and forth before Ken's closed door.  His anger and frustration were plain for all to see.  No one dared get in his way.  "She could have killed him by now!"  He glared death at Nambu.

            "Aniki, she wouldn't have turned him into a vampire if all she wanted to do was kill him."  Jinpei stood close to his sister, his angular face serious.

            "Jinpei, don't -" Jun's warning came too late.

            "That's crap, you hear me?  Vampires don't exist!  Ken is not an undead!"  Joe stopped in front of the team's youngest member daring him to contradict him.

            "But, but what, what about what we saw...?"  Ryu didn't look at him, his foot busily trying to dig a hole in the carpeting.

            Joe raised a fist at him.  "I don't care about that.  It doesn't prove a damn thing!"

            "Enough."  Nambu stepped between them.  "This isn't easy on any of us.  Nevertheless, we must wait for Dr. Rastov to finish what she's doing before we can run our own tests to determine what is going on."

            "Oh?"  Joe turned on Nambu.  "And how do you know her name is Dr. Rastov, by the way?  Is this some kind of ISO experiment you decided it'd be in our best interest not to tell us about?"  His voice was filled with barely disguised vehemence.

            "Joe!"

            A spark of anger flashed in Nambu's eyes.  "I recognized Dr. Rastov from an old medical book.  She was a pioneer on disease research back in the forties.  She was reported to have died after returning to work from a long illness.  I believe there was some sort of gas leak that ignited and took out her building late one evening."

            "But, Hakase, that would make her over sixty years old," Jun pointed out, her voice full of uncertainty.  "The woman in there isn't over twenty-five.  How could they be the same person?"

            "Nee-chan, I keep telling you -- she's a vampire!  Vampires don't grow old.  They -"

            "NOOOOO!"

            Nambu, Joe, Jinpei, Jun, and Ryu turned simultaneously toward Ken's door even as his scream still echoed in their ears.

            "I've had enough of this!"  Joe rushed to the door before anyone could move to stop him.  He kicked it open and ran in.

            Joe found Ken not far inside, his back to him.  His body was shaking violently.  There was a large indentation on the far wall of the room.  Drops of blood littered parts of the floor.  The long legged Dr. Rastov was seated on the bed looking pale and wane.  A lightly guarded look of concern covered her face.

            Ken turned woodenly around as the rest of them poured into the room.  His face was a mask of twisted agony with twin red streaks of tears flowing from his eyes.

            "Ken," Jun reached out for him, "we want to -"

            "No!"  He swept through them pushing them to the side as if they weren't even there and escaped the confines of the room.

"Ken, wait!"  Joe picked himself up from where he fell and ran out after his friend. There was no sign of him outside.  "Come on!  We've got to go after him." 

The rest of the ninja team got up from where they were thrown and rushed out the door.  Joe threw a hateful glare at Tiana before moving off after them.

            Nambu moved up to the door, staring after them.  Tiana spoke.  "Doctor, I don't mean to sound insensitive, but could I have the blood I asked for now?"

            He nodded and stepped out into the hallway.  He dragged in a small cart with six plastic bags filled with blood.  He slowly wheeled the cart over to her.

            "Thank you so much."  Tiana picked up one of the bags and then punctured it near the top.  Grabbing Ken's water glass and dumping its contents onto the floor, she filled it with the waiting red liquid.  She stared at it through the glass for a moment and then took a long sip.  She closed her eyes in contentment.  "I had forgotten what parts of it were like..."  She took a longer sip.  "Odd how horror and pain can dull with time..."

            "What do you plan to do now?"

            Tiana opened her eyes and glanced at Nambu.  "Plan?  I have no plan.  Well, that's not totally true.  I had a plan of sorts at one time, but as you might guess, it hasn't worked out as expected..." She drank the glass dry and then quickly refilled it.  Nambu saw a touch of color slowly return to her cheeks.  "If you're worried that I'll whisk Gatchaman away, don't be.  It was never my intention to do such a thing."

            "How did you -!"

            Tiana smiled as Nambu brought himself up short.  "Don't worry, doctor, he didn't tell me; and no, I didn't brainwash it out of him.  As a matter of fact, I've know about the ninja team for some time now."  She gave him a coy smile.  "I found out about a Galactor attack and waited for the team to arrive.  Once there, it was an easy matter to sneak aboard and let the God Phoenix bring me here.  After that, I just followed them home."

            Tiana sipped at her drink as Nambu fought to analyze and absorb all she just told him.  He also worked to find the right words for another question.  "Why have you infected Ken with your disease, Dr. Rastov?"

            She sighed and leaned back against Ken's pillows to stare at the ceiling.  Nambu felt an involuntary chill creep up his back as she sat unnaturally still for several seconds.  It was obvious she wasn't breathing.

            "The most altruistic reason, of course, is that by giving Ken my disease, as you've so aptly put it, I could give him the power to fight Galactor more efficiently and effectively than ever before.  You see, I've made him faster, stronger, more deadly than ever.  The threat of the White Shadow has never been more real."

            She drank in silence for a long while before she added more.  "Of course, as in most things, the altruistic reasons aren't always the only ones.  The fact Ken can use the gifts I've given him for the greater good is but a bonus."  She sat up, her green eyes locking with Nambu's.

            "Deep down, doctor, I am a very selfish person.  I've been one for as long as I can remember.  It's a fact I've learned to live with, even accept.  I doubt I'll ever change."  She refilled her glass once more.  "To be honest, I've been looking for Ken for many years -- or actually, the idea of him.  I didn't make my choice lightly.  On the first night I followed him home, I didn't even know it would be him."  Her eyes stared into the distance.  "Of them all, the Condor was my first choice.  He has a great, powerful will -- the main attribute I was looking for.  But after watching him for a while, I realized he was already fighting a war, a war with the very fires that drive him and at times threaten to consume him.  There was no telling what contending with the Thirst would have done to him."  Her gaze locked with Nambu's again.

            "If the truth be told, I considered you as well.  You also have many of the qualities I've been looking for, even more than I hoped to find, but your position makes you somewhat inaccessible.  Your job puts you in contact with too many circles.  You're watched by more people than I think you even realize.  I would never have found the proper time to do what would have needed to be done."  Nambu raised an eyebrow but said nothing.  Tiana remained silent for several minutes.

            "It was then that I turned my attentions to Ken... and he was perfect.  He was young, yet disciplined, his will driven by duty and not anger or hatred.  Eventually I decided I would infect him.  For a long time I've wanted to try and make someone like myself and have them survive it.  And now I've succeeded."  She licked her lips before moving to open another pint of blood.

            "Might I ask how you came to contract the disease yourself?"

            Tiana looked at him long and hard, her green eyes unreadable.  "Knowledge can be a very dangerous thing, Kozaburo Nambu."  She looked down at her glass and made its contents swish gently back and forth.  "I've already let you see and hear more than is prudent."

            Nambu nodded in understanding.  Tiana looked at him again, a soft smile growing on her face.  "I got too close to my work, doctor, something we scientists seem to do on occasion."  She emptied her glass.  "I heeded none of the warnings, dismissed all the signs.  ‘What does the occult have to do with science?' I told them.  Well I came to find out at times it sometimes holds pieces to the truth."

            She set her glass on the tray.  "My life after my encounter was never to be the same.  For me, unlike your pupil, the change brought on by the vampiric disease was long and tedious, one which I hoped to and succeeded in sparing him.  After the process was complete, I researched it as far as I could until it became necessary for me to fake my own death and remove all traces of my experiments.  And so I did.  It was a magnificent explosion, if I do say so myself."  She looked over to check on Nambu's reaction and was not surprised by the blank, clinical expression she found there.

            "I will need to talk to him again.  There are many things he will need to know.  But be aware the influence and power you hold here can be of a great help to him right now.  If you keep him supplied with these," Tiana raised a half emptied bag of blood, "he won't be a danger to those around him.  You must get him to drink it.  Until he has become more accustomed to the Thirst, he won't be able to control it very well or for very long.  He might not be able to stop himself the next time like he did today with Dr. Braun."  She rose to her feet missing Nambu's surprised look.

            "You have the power and facilities to minimize the impact of his change on his life and your goals."  She turned to glance at him.  "If you extend and polarize Ken's visor, that and his uniform should prove enough protection from the sun.  Also, his body will normally force him to rest during the day.  He can be drawn from this.  It will get easier for him to do so with time and practice.  You will notice that his abilities will be slightly curved during the day, but not overtly so, and definitely not enough to interfere with the business of the Science Ninja Team."  Tiana stared deeply into Nambu's brown eyes.  "I know I can count on you to be quite discrete in this matter."  Nambu blinked as Tiana lightly forced her will upon his, but that was all.  "It would only drive him from you if what he has become were to be advertised.  People have a nasty habit of always fearing that which they cannot understand..." She turned away from him and walked to the open doorway before turning to face him again.

            "Though you've no reason to believe me, and I've no intention of forcing you, I'll tell you now the effects of my disease are irreversible.  Ken and I no longer resemble humans as you know them.  And once at this point, the only release is death.  I was careful in my choice, but do not believe all are that methodical.  Most of the time, it doesn't even happen.  We are as imperfect as the rest of humanity and in realizing the gift we have received, we are very loath to share it."

            Nambu took a step toward her but she waved him back.  "Please take good care of him for me.  Until we meet again."  He body became a blur and then she was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            "Ken, answer your wristcom, dammit."  Joe kicked at the metal wall in frustration.  He and the others already searched most of Crescent Coral and had yet to find a trace of their teammate.  No one had seen him.  The monitors didn't pick him up.  They were sure no transport subs left the area, so he still had to be in the facility. But where, dammit, where?

            Joe leaned against the wall and kicked it again.  He and Ken spent a large part of their youth here in this place.  Its listing as an undersea lab and experimental habitat had hidden the training and construction that went on in secret inside it waiting for the day when Earth would need them.  In their numerous unauthorized forays, the two of them got to know almost every inch of the place... which meant Ken could be hiding almost anywhere.  He'd already checked the few places the two of them had ferreted where they could escape from the world without much of a possibility of being found -- places they went to to escape the pressures of their constant training.  Eventually Nambu figured out everyone of them, so they were never able to stay away too long -- that is except for --"Yes!"

            Joe pushed himself away from the wall, his eyes lit in triumph as he ran to his quarters.  Quickly, he dug out an old beat up flashlight from beneath his bed and then ran to the nearest maintenance elevator.  There was one place he didn't check, one the others didn't know about.  One to which neither of them had gone to in years.  He pushed the button on the elevator panel that would take him down to the maintenance floor closest to the sea floor.

            Dim yellow lighting greeted him as he stepped out of the elevator.  The heavy sound of working machinery pounded at him even as he was assaulted by the heavy scents of oil and grease.  Huge machines dominated most of the floor space.  The roar of moving gears was dulled only slightly by the howling winds that ran across the room from circular pipes.  It wasn't a nice place, but it was private -- no one in their right mind came down here if they didn't have to.

            Joe was the one to discover the place and had occasionally used it to hide when Nambu's rules got to be way too much for him.  His friend had always come and rooted him out after letting him stew for a few hours.  Ken used this particular retreat only once -- and it was over something the two had promised each other never again to talk about.

            Joe pushed against the raging wind and moved to the room's far side.  He jumped on top of the nearest pile of running machinery and leapt from the top of one to the other until he reached a large grilled vent.  The howling wind worked against him as he struggled to pry it open.  He pulled it just enough to get himself through and then let it clang shut behind him.  Peering eagerly into the darkness of the tunnel ahead of him, he pulled out his flashlight and turned it on.

            "Ken!"  The wind tore the call from him, not letting it carry very far.  He got no response.

            Joe was forced to stoop slightly as he decided to move on down the vent.  After several feet, the vent widened out enough for him to stand straight again.  His flashlight warned him of a bend not too far ahead.  As he came around it, the beam of light fell on his missing friend's back.  Ken didn't react as he worked to get closer.

            "Ken?"  Joe moved around him as he got no response.  Ken wasn't moving.  His arms were wrapped about his drawn up knees, his face hidden where it rested on them.  Drying blood stained the legs of his striped pajama pants.

            "Ken?"  Joe touched his arm and found it cold, too cold.  Ken didn't react to his touch at all.  It was then he noticed his friend wasn't moving at all.  He didn't even seem to be breathing.  An unexpected bolt of fear cut through Joe's heart.  "Ken!"

            He dropped his flashlight and grabbed his friend with both hands and shook him hard.  Did she do it?  Did the bitch kill him after all?  "Ken!"

            His body twitched.  Joe shook him harder and yelled as loud as he could in his ear.  "Ken, talk to me, damn you!"

            Ken's head rose slowly and Joe let go of him.  He stared at his eyes as they gradually blinked open and stared blankly at him.  Ken blinked again as recognition finally flashed in his eyes.  "J - o - e -" As the name left his lips, Ken's eyes widened with surprise.  He jerked away, stumbling to his feet and moving out of reach.

            "Ken, are you all right?"

            His friend laughed at him.  The sound held an edge of barely contained hysteria.  "For -- a dead man -- I'm doing just - great!"  Ken's smile was cold.

            "You're not dead, you moron.  It's not possible and you know it!  Come back with me and we'll prove it once and for all."  Joe couldn't keep a touch of impatience from staining his voice.

            Ken turned away, away from the light of the fallen flashlight.  "I - I can't.  I'm - I'm not ready..."

            "You're not ready?  What crap is that?"  Ken said nothing.  "You're afraid of that woman, aren't you?  I'll take care of her for you."  Joe grinned maliciously as he patted the secret compartment housing his feather darts.

            "No... It's not her.  Tiana has no power over me now."

            "Well, if it's not her, then what?"  Joe's tone wasn't kind.

            Ken stared at the wall.  Even in this partial darkness he was having no problems seeing it.  He ran his fingers lightly over it feeling the intricate texture as he never could before.  "I'm...  I'm afraid of myself."  He forced his hand to leave the wall.

            "Now that's stupid.  Why the hell should you be afraid of yourself?"

            Ken heard Joe move closer.  He quickly made sure to stay well out of his reach.  "I almost killed Braun, remember?  I lost control."  He felt his shoulders bunch with tension.  "I didn't know what I was doing.  It could happen again and next time I might not be able to stop myself before it's too late!"

            "That damned woman has poisoned you somehow.  You need to let Nambu get rid of it and with it will go everything else.  You're always telling me to be patient.  Well, now it's time for you to practice what you preach!  Nambu will figure out something.  He'll cure you."

            "They won't find a cure!  Don't you understand that?  How could they ever cure this?"  Ken turned around toward the light.  His eyes went black and he opened his mouth to show Joe long canines that protruded past his lips.  The nails in his fingers and toes turned to talons.

            A chill made its way down Joe's back before he could stop it.  Waves of unreasoning fear cut through him and screamed at him to run.  Joe bit his tongue and fought not to move.  This was his friend, dammit, not some monster!  He forced his face to remain as unimpressed as possible.  Ken was close to the edge.  It didn't take a genius to figure that out, his every word spoke of it.  He could easily tip him over if he wasn't careful.  He'd been there often enough to know.  "That's nothing.  Okay, so you can do a few tricks now, big deal.  You won't know if they can't help you unless you let them try."

            "It's not that easy!"  Joe almost cringed at the sudden high pitch in Ken's voice.  "These aren't the only changes."  His face twisted in misery.  "I can hear things happening in other rooms.  I can hear your heartbeat from here.  I can smell your sweat, your fear.  I can count every hair on your head from where I'm standing!  I can't eat or drink anything anymore.  Just the smell of food makes me sick.  I don't even think I breathe anymore!  And then there's this, this thirst inside me, a thirst that almost made me kill Braun!  A thirst that will only be satisfied with blood."  His voice cracked.  "Jinpei is right.  There's no point denying it.  I'm a vampire, an undead.  I'm now a danger to everyone and everything!"  His whole body shook.  "I can't, I can't afford to stay here and endanger the rest of you."

            Joe blocked the way out of the tunnel feeling Ken might run.  He was losing him.  "No!  You damn fool, you'd be playing right into her hands if you don't!  Don't you realize that's exactly what she wants you to do?  Here you'd have the whole might of the ISO helping you to get back to normal.  What would you have out there?  Nothing.  Which would leave you ripe for whatever it is she did this to you for.  It's only by staying with us that you have a chance!"

            Ken's eyes slowly lightened until they returned to normal.  His canines shrunk out of sight.  He stared at Joe for a long moment and then sadly shook his head.  "It's not that easy, Joe."  He moved even farther away from the light.  "I - I can't face the others.  How can they ever begin to understand this?  Even now, after all you've seen, you're still denying it.  One day, you'll have no choice but to awaken to the truth.  What will I do then?  And then there's still the possibility I might try and hurt you." 

            "So that's it then?  You're going to give up and let the bitch win?"  It had to be now.  "What about your job?  What about being the leader of the Science Ninja Team, huh?  Your job sucks and I don't want it!  So who should we give it to, Jun?  Do you really want to put that kind of pressure on her?"  Ken wouldn't look at him.  "Oh, but I forgot, since you insist you're not human, I guess you don't much care about us anymore, right?"

            "Joe, that's not -"

            "And what about all those promises you made to stop Galactor after your father died, huh?  I suppose they don't mean much to you now either.  Red Impulse sacrificed his life to save the world.  You'd think his son, who's gone beyond death, would try to do as much."  His tone grew bitter.  "But no, Ken Washio is a coward.  Your father would rather stake you out in the sun himself than watch you cowering here like this, afraid of your own shadow."

            "SHUT UP!"  Ken's shout exploded in the tunnel and echoed down it.  Joe covered up his ears, grimacing in pain.  "Damn you, you bastard!  How dare you?"  Ken appeared before Joe and grabbed his shirt by the collar.  He'd jerked him up close before Joe even had a chance to blink.  "You've no fucking idea of what I'm going through!  What the hell do you want from me?  What would you do if you found out you'd been turned into a blood sucking monster?"

            Joe stared into Ken's darkened eyes not trying to break away.  "I don't give a shit about any of that!  Pity yourself all you like.  All I'm looking for is your promise that you're not going to run out on us.  Like I said before, I don't want your stinking job!"

            Ken stared at him, his face filled with anger.  Abruptly, he pushed Joe roughly away and turned his back on him.

            Joe fell and skidded a few feet down the vent before he was able to bring himself to a stop and could rise unsteadily back to his feet.  He tried hard not to think about the ease with which Ken just did this to him, and made his way back toward his friend.  Ken was standing once more back in the shadows, his back to him.  Joe could see he was shaking.  His eyes clouded with the uncertainty he'd been trying so hard to hide.  "Ken, you've got to stay.  Haven't you told me millions of times that if I were in command my rashness would get us all killed?  That is, if Nambu and I didn't kill each other first.  And what about the others?  I can't be you for them."

            Ken shook his head at his friend's words but said nothing.  All he could think about was how someone else had so recently used these very same arguments to make him become what he was now.

            "Look, the ISO can help you.  After everything we've done for them, hell, the whole planet, they'd better help you."  A nasty grin momentarily flashed on Joe's face.  "Besides, scientists don't do very well when faced with personalized terrorism."

            Ken chuckled softly, but didn't turn around.  "I wish I could feel as sure about all this as you do."

            "You won't lose anything by trying.  You will lose everything if you don't."

            Ken leaned his arms and face against the wall, feeling the odd new texture touch his skin.  Joe stared at him, keeping silent, waiting to see what his friend would do or say next.

            Dare he believe it?  Was there an actual chance the ISO could help him?  And what about the danger to his friends?  Tiana had told him she picked him because of his strong will... but would that be enough to deal with this thing that had awakened inside him...?  Should he take the chance?  What if he didn't...?  "All right, Joe...  I'll try it your way..."

            Joe didn't waste any time.  He could tell from Ken's expression and tone his current decision could change at any time.  "Knowing Nambu, he's in his office waiting to hear from us.  We can go straight there after we stop and get you some clothes.  Come on, let's get to it!"

            Ken moved away from the wall and nodded slowly.  As Joe started back, Ken suddenly hesitated.  "What about the others?  I may have given in to stay for now, but I'm not ready to deal with them..."

            Joe ignored the touch of panic he heard sneaking into his friend's voice.  He couldn't let him back out now.  "They're still out looking for you.  We shouldn't have anything to worry about.  And you do need to change clothes.  Blood stained pajamas are likely to bring up all sorts of unwanted questions and rumors."  Ken looked down at himself not having realized the stains were there.  "Now quit stalling and come on!"  Joe reached out to grab his arm.

            Ken jerked it out of his reach.  "Don't."  He immediately looked embarrassed by the force of his outburst.  "Please, Joe, don't."  Joe gave him an odd look but didn't ask for an explanation when one didn't look forthcoming.

            The two of them left the vent and quickly made their way over to the elevator.  Ken beat Joe there, his hands over his ears, a grimace on his face.  The machinery in the room continued booming around them unconcerned about his discomfort.

            After the elevator doors closed, the two of them pried open the control panel and wired in an override so the elevator wouldn't stop on any floors but the one they chose.  Once they reached their destination, they moved quickly down the hall toward their living quarters.  Ken listened ahead and helped them avoid anyone they might have otherwise stumbled upon long before they came within sight.  Joe kept watch outside of Ken's quarters as the latter slipped inside and changed his clothes.

            Though he looked more like his normal self once he changed, Joe couldn't help but think Ken still looked awfully pale.  All the way to Nambu's office, Ken kept silent, his eyes on the ground.  Joe kept a careful eye on him but said nothing.

            Once they reached the doctor's office, Joe didn't bother to knock but went right on in.  He made sure Ken followed after him.

            Nambu was behind his desk as they'd expected, open books covering its already crowded surface.  The room was dark except for a bright desk lamp and a projection of a blood sample on the far wall.

            "Well, I found him.  Now you fix him." 

Nambu raised an eyebrow in response to Joe's statement, before asking Ken to please take a seat.  Ken didn't look at him as he moved to do as he was asked.

            "Are you thirsty, Ken?"

            He looked up in surprise, his face tight.  Nambu pulled open a drawer on his desk and brought out a large thermos.  "Here, drink this."

            Ken hesitated, but moved to take the offered thermos when Nambu held it out to him and trapped him with his eyes.

            He sat back down, wondering what he'd been given, but not daring to ask.  He felt a slight flare of hope that maybe they were able to find something to help him while he was gone, but he didn't dare let himself believe it.  Gingerly, he took off the top of the thermos and flipped up the red tab of the internal lid to expose a built in straw.  Hesitating only for a few moments, he moved to take a sip.

            Nambu and Joe watched carefully as Ken's face first lit up with pleasure and then just as quickly fell into welling despair.  Red tears gathered at his eyes and ran down his cheeks as he continued to sip at the warm liquid in the thermos.

            "Ken, stop that.  It's counter productive."

            "Y- yes, Hakase."  Ken didn't look at either of them as Nambu tossed him a handkerchief.  He quickly wiped his face dry refusing to look at the red stains he would now find there.  He could clearly hear Joe shifting uneasily somewhere off to his right.

            "Perhaps it would be best if you left now, Joe."  Nambu looked over at him.

            Joe stiffened.  "I don't think so."

            Nambu raised an eyebrow.  "I have a number of sensitive issues to discuss here.  I'm sure Ken would prefer for the information to remain private."

            Ken stared at the floor.  "I - I have nothing I feel should be kept hidden..." His misery was quite plain.

            Nambu nodded and sat down.  Ken silently drank his thermos dry.  "Would you like another?  I have more."  Ken shook his head staring only at the empty thermos. 

"I realize drinking it is not pleasant for you, but from what I've been told, and the tests I've run over the last few hours, there seems to be no other choice.  Your stability depends on your being well fed.  Because of this, I expect you to do what is necessary, no matter how distasteful it might be."

            "Yes, hakase."  Cracking, crunching sounds suddenly filled the office as Ken inadvertently crushed the thermos in his hand.

            "Shit!"  Joe snapped away from the wall toward his friend.

            "Ken, are you all right?"  Nambu leapt to his feet.  Both men rushed to his side.  Ken slowly opened his hand, a stunned look of surprise on his face.  Pieces of broken glass and plastic dropped to the carpeted floor.

            "Are you hurt?" 

            He shook his head slowly, showing the two men his uninjured hand. 

            "Incredible."

            "Fuck that shit!  When are you going to start helping him?"  Joe kicked at the broken thermos, his insecurities raging inside him.  Ken looked up at his mentor, his eyes pleading for his help.

            Nambu stared calmly at the two of them for a moment and then returned to his desk.  He sat down without saying anything.  Joe shook where he stood, fighting the urge to fling himself across the book laden desk and choke some answers out of the doctor.

            "We're trying our best to understand what has happened as quickly as possible.  As far as what we've ascertained so far, we know the disease has now spread itself throughout your body.  We speculate that with only one brief exposure, it would have taken possibly years before the disease would have infected your entire system.  If this were the case, there might have been a chance we could have stopped it.  Dr. Rastov, however, greatly accelerated the rate of infection at each of her visits to you.  In short, every cell in your body has already been altered by the disease."

            "Are you trying to say you can't change him back?"  There was a tinge of fear in Joe's voice he couldn't quite hold back.  He quickly glanced at his friend to see how he was taking it.  Ken only stared at the floor as if already resigned to his fate.

            "At this time, we just don't know.  We don't have enough information.  And, what information we do have, shows this is beyond anything we have ever encountered before."  Nambu's gaze rose to the blood sample on the wall.  Despite himself, Ken found his eyes moving in the same direction.

            Platelets, white and red blood cells could be seen floating in slightly opaque plasma.  The white cells in the sample were rare, greatly outnumbered by abnormally large platelets.  The red blood cell disks were gathered in the center of the sample surrounded by red balls.  As they watched, one of the balls touched one of the disks and dissolved it.  Three nearby disks turned into balls.

            "As far as we can tell, it seems the red blood cell generation in the bones is slowly being reduced.  Your liver and spleen, which normally only produce hemoglobin during fetus development, appear to be starting that function again, but only of the already altered red blood cells.  The disk shape, which is normal, is to optimize the surface area of the cell for the exchange of gases in the blood.  It would seem from the new configuration, however, that perhaps that function is no longer necessary." 

Ken's hands bunched into fists, his nails cutting into his palms.  He knew what Nambu's findings implied.

            "I don't believe it's hopeless, and if you're willing, I'd like to run more tests.  At least now we have a better idea of what we're looking at."
            Ken nodded but said nothing.  His gaze lingered on the constantly changing blood sample on the wall.

            "I'll go with you."  Joe moved forward.

            "No..."  Ken forced his eyes away from the proof of what he had become.  "Gather the others, tell them all about this.  Make them understand what's happened to me..."

            Joe didn't like the resignation he saw in his friend's eyes, but agreed to do as he was asked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            "So aniki really is a vampire!  Cool!"  The four remaining members of the ninja team were seated around a table in a small conference room.  Jinpei had an excited smile on his face as he spoke.

            "That's not what I said."  Joe pounded his fist on the table as he snapped angrily to his feet.

            "Did too!"

            Joe snarled at the team's youngest member.

            "Jinpei!  Joe!  This isn't helping anything!"  Jun's pallid face pleaded with both of them.

            "Sorry, nee-chan..."  Jinpei's cheeks colored slightly.  Joe's face lost its anger as he plopped back down into his chair.

            "Joe, how does he seem to you?"  Jun's voice was very low.

            He stared at his splayed hands for a moment before answering.  "Scared... real scared, but otherwise all right."  He looked up at her.  "He's really going to need our support."  His gaze hardened as he turned to look at Jinpei.  "Though talking about vampires and undead isn't how we're going to do it!" 

            "Are, are you sure?  In some of the movies the victims turn evil when they change and even try to kill their friends and family..." Ryu's question was a barely heard whisper.  His gaze avoided them all.

            "If you two don't stop with this crap..." Joe's tone was dangerous.  "He's Ken, just Ken.  You know, the guy we've spent years with, trained with, escaped from death with.  The same fucking guy!  If he'd somehow turned evil, wacko, or whatever else you all feel like suggesting, he's already had plenty of chances to rend me limb from limb if that's what he wanted to do.  He didn't do shit!  And I swear if I hear either of you mention such a stupid pile of crap to him or anyone else, you'll have to deal with me!  And I do tear people limb from limb!"

 

 

 

 

 

            Ken sat on the cold examining table as twin red streaks coursed down his cheeks.

            Nambu had finally finished with him over a half hour ago or so, but he had remained there, having no idea on where he should go or even if he wanted to.  Now, he was crying again.

            Damn but he felt like an utter fool for it!  It didn't solve a thing to cry.  But he just didn't seem able to stop.  As he watched the red drops stain the floor, the sight made him want to cry all the more.

            For the last twelve hours or more, Nambu poked, prodded, scanned, and basically tested him in every way imaginable.  And through it, despite the overwhelming despair that covered his soul, Ken was able to learn a number of things about his new self.

            He already knew his vision, hearing, and even his sense of touch were greatly amplified.  With Nambu, he learned that though his skin looked paler than before, it had also become very tough.  In all honesty, it had scared him a little to watch as Nambu's needles bent rather than pierced his skin.

            In the tests, they also found that his reflexes had become incredibly fast and that his strength had grown, though he didn't know to what extent yet.  More importantly, he found out he was actually alive, though not exactly like other people.  His heart had changed, gotten larger.  Though it pumped, or more like pushed his tainted blood throughout his body, its activity was so subtle it could only be picked up by the most sensitive of equipment.  Yet though he'd discovered he was still alive and had gained a number of gifts, he still found himself crying.

            He just couldn't forget, couldn't forget what he almost did... couldn't forget the look of horror on Braun's face, the fear in his friends' eyes...  He couldn't forget the fact he lost control.  Ken had known Braun for almost eight years, and it scared him that he could create such terror in a man who'd known him for such a large part of his life.  It scared him even more to know his Thirst didn't care one bit about it.  If it was this way with Braun, what did that mean for his family?

            During the last few hours, he'd become sure he wouldn't have to worry, at least in some respects, about his foster father.  He'd never seen Nambu not take things in stride, and his current transformation was proving to be no exception.  If anything, the doctor was the one calm point in his storm.  Ken sighed.

            Joe so far had been...  Joe.  But it was obvious his friend was denying the full truth of what happened.  He wished he possessed that luxury.  He hoped it would make no difference between them though, once Joe finally faced up to the truth.

            It made him wonder how the others reacted once his friend told them what they found out.  Would they welcome him like this?  For the umpteenth time, Ken looked up toward the mirror on the far wall and saw nothing of himself reflected in it.  He felt a chill course through him at the unnatural sight.  Nambu had assured him that he looked normal -- but he couldn't quite bring himself to believe it.  Would they see any differences?

            Ken looked away from the mirror and the truths inside it.  Even if he appeared the same, he could never ignore what he'd become -- too many other things were no longer the same as they'd been.  The worst, the one that made him fear, was the thing he felt thriving inside him, the one that called for blood.  This thing, this Thirst, was a raging mindless thing -- a part of himself he'd never seen or would have believed could exist.  He hated it, hated it for making him lose control.  Hated it for what it almost made him do to Braun.  He despised it and feared it because it might grow strong enough again someday to take over.  He could feel it now, even as it lay momentarily sated inside him, a ticking time bomb waiting for its chance to explode.

            He shook his head, not wanting to dwell long on such thoughts.

            Dawn would be upon him soon.  Oddly enough, he could feel the sun's approach.  Though he didn't tell him how he knew, Nambu warned him he might fall into an involuntary sleep once the sun rose.  He wondered if that was what happened to him down in the vent shaft; he'd never heard Joe coming up to him.  If he had, he wouldn't have stayed to be found.

            Sleep -- the idea was actually appealing.  If it was as Nambu suggested, he would have no choice anyway.  Mindless sleep sounded good.  But where?  There was no point in going to his quarters -- they might be waiting for him and he wasn't ready to face them quite yet.  He'd already had to ignore a number of their calls.  Ken roughly wiped away at the tears staining his face.

            The examining room would have to do.  They wouldn't come looking for him here... right.  He sighed.  It couldn't be helped.  Sighing again, he climbed off the examining table and ripped off the stained examination gown from his body and got dressed.  He used the gown to clean up the floor and the table of his tears.  Just looking at them made his Thirst twinge in anticipation inside him.  Ken did his best to try and ignore it.

            Once he cleaned the room up, he lay out on the examining table and stared at the ceiling.  He wasn't tired, another seeming gift of his new state, but he felt his mind and body start to get heavy as time slipped past.  He turned on his side, welcoming the heaviness, and wondered momentarily at what the sleep of the undead would be like.

            The process increased gradually.  A light dullness settled over his limbs and slowly worked its way to his mind.  Ken felt himself shutting down and didn't fight it.  Within minutes of the coming dawn, he fell into oblivion.

 

 

 

 

 

            "Ken!  Ken!"

            Far off, he felt his body being shaken.  Eventually, this realization connected itself to a coherent thought.  Swimming slowly through thick molasses, Ken pushed his mind and body toward wakefulness.

            He heard a soft sob somewhere behind him even as his heightened and awakening senses began supplying him with information.  The smell of fear mixed with scented powder and freshly washed hair bid eagerly for his attention.  He felt a splash of warmth fall on his arm even as the shaking began again.  His Thirst moved around inside him.

            "Ken, please wake up.  Ken!"

            Stiffly, with great concentration, he made himself turn from his side onto his back.  A startled gasp echoed in his ears even as his eyes showed him what his mind had yet to figure out for itself.  "J - Jun?"

            "Yes, oh God, yes!  It's me.  Are you all right?"

            Ken stared at her, his brow wrinkled in confusion even as she turned away to wipe off her tear stained face.  "All - right?"  He sat up slowly and then shook his head to try and clear the fog that still clung there.

            "Should I go get Nambu Hakase?"

            "Huh?  Oh, no, no, I'm... okay.  I'm just - a little slow - right now."  Ken looked away feeling suddenly self-conscious as he caught Jun's gaze lingering on him.  "Wh - what are you - doing here - anyway?"

            She avoided looking at him.  "Oh, um, Hakase asked me earlier to come wake you around three.  He said you needed to get used to being awake during the day?"

            Ken got off the examining table not sure how to answer her question.  Nambu seemed to know a whole lot more about his situation than he let on.  "I - I take it that - waking me up - wasn't easy?"

            "No, it wasn't.  I half thought maybe something was wrong....  I just wasn't sure.  You are all right though, aren't you?"

            Ken moved away from her and her pumping heartbeat.  "Yeah... I guess so.  I'm sorry I worried you."

            "We're all very worried about you.  We're family."  Jun walked over and tried to put her hand on Ken's shoulder.  He stepped away before she could do so.  "Hakase also asked me to give you this."  Jun moved back toward the entrance of the room and picked up a large thermos sitting on the chair there.

            Ken gingerly took the offered thermos but made no move to drink from it.  An uncomfortable silence settled between them.

            "Ah, um, so, Ken?  Why did you decide to sleep here of all places?  I'm sure your room would have been a lot more comfortable.  Wouldn't it?"  Her curiosity was almost palpable.

            He turned away and placed the thermos on the examining table.  "I'm sure it would have.  It' just that I..." He couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence.

            "Wasn't ready to see the rest of us?"

            "Y - yes."  Ken was both relieved and embarrassed that she had guessed his thoughts.  "I suppose I'm just having a hard time dealing with all this.  I'm not trying to shut you all out, it's just... it's just that it's all so awkward.  Things like this aren't supposed to exist.  I guess I'm having a hard time accepting the fact that I am now a monster."

            "Ken!"

            He heard her move up behind him but didn't try to escape this time.  He stiffened as she put both of her hands on his shoulders.  Bolts of warmth shot through his clothes into his flesh.  Her heart and flowing blood beat loudly in his ears.  The scent of her was almost overwhelming.

            "We don't care about that.  It's not even true.  You're still you and that's what matters.  We care about you.  We want to help you anyway we can."

            His canines throbbed -- he could feel them slowly growing.  He shivered beneath her touch and though a part of him sorely regretted it, Ken made himself move away.  "I - I appreciate that.  It means a lot."  He made sure to keep his face hidden from her and reached quickly for the waiting thermos.  He pulled the top open and sipped slowly at the glorious contents within.

            "Other than the fact you've been ill, Hakase's made sure no one but a chosen few have any inkling of what's happened to you.  If we're careful, no one need ever know the truth."  Ken nodded but said nothing.  What could he say?  The silence lingered.  He heard Jun shift nervously behind him.  "Would you consider coming back with me?  I promised the others I would ask.  They're really eager to see you."

            He didn't answer, instead asking a question of his own.  "Jun, honestly, do I seem different to you?"

            "In what way?"  Her tone was guarded.

            "In any way."  He kept his back to her.  "I'd really like for you to tell me."

            "All right...."

He heard her sit down on the chair by the door.  His shoulders were tight as he waited for her response.

"You've lost your tan somehow, and it makes you look pale, almost as if you never went out much."  Ken nodded and waited for her to go on.  "You look a little thinner?  And you seem to move a little differently, though I can't quite pinpoint how."  He heard her shift in her seat.  "When you stand still, like you are right now, you look too still -- almost like a statue.  I guess that's part of what scared me when I came to wake you.  You were so still I was sure something had to be wrong."

            "Is there nothing else?"  His tone was veiled.

            "Ken, I've only been with you for a few minutes."

            He nodded again.  Now came the harder question.  "What about, what about when I grabbed Braun?  What did I look like then?"

            His free hand bunched into a fist as he heard her heart speed up at the question. 

"It all happened so fast.  I - I'm not really sure of what I saw.  I suppose you looked like one of those guys in the late night movies Jinpei loves so much, but more... real?  We knew it was you, of course, we were mostly just surprised.  I just --"

            "Never mind.  Forget I asked."  The memory of their shocked and fear laden faces was just too vivid in his mind's eye.

            "But, Ken, I -"

            "Just drop it, okay?  I shouldn't have asked."

            "Sure... if that's what you really want."  He could hear the trepidation in her voice.  "You are still coming back with me though, aren't you?"

            Ken drank silently from his thermos for a few moments before he gave her an answer.  "I guess I really shouldn't put it off any longer."  He closed the thermos and turned around, but didn't look at her directly.

            "Good!"  Jun's pleased smile made him feel slightly more at ease with his decision, but not much.  He tried hard to give her a smile in return.

 

 

 

 

Jinpei, Ryu, and Joe fell abruptly silent as Jun led Ken into the team's common room.  Greeting them, she prodded Ken toward a chair and made him sit down.  Tension covered every inch of Ken's form as he did what she wanted.  He couldn't bring himself to look up at his friends - he was afraid of what he might find there.  As it was, he could hear their hearts hammering with their own nervousness.  As he did nothing, their pace slowly began to subside.

            "Aniki, can I - I mean, I wanted to know --"

            Joe threw Jinpei a murderous look and the young boy stammered to a halt.  Jinpei swallowed his question and looked glum.

            "How are you feeling?"  Ryu's voice shook just a little.

            "Fine."  Neither of them made eye contact.

            Silence reigned once more over the room.

            "Well, I for one am glad we're all together again."  Jun waited for the rest of them to add something similar, but none of them did.

            She tried a few more times to get a conversation going, but they all went nowhere.  Ken's answers were always in single syllables if he even deigned to say anything at all.  He couldn't look at any of them.  Joe's face was set, his eyes never leaving Jinpei, daring the youngest member of the team to say the wrong thing.  Ryu picked up on Jun's queues once or twice, but stammered through them.  She slowly felt her ire rise.

            "Okay, I've had enough of this!  If you won't do this on your own, I've got no choice but to pull out my secret weapon."  She roughly rose to her feet and glared at each of them before quickly stomping out of the room.  Perplexed looks followed after her, though no one commented on her actions.  Jun returned into their tense silence several minutes later, carrying a large, multi colored box.  "I'm sorry it's come to this, but I guess we're all just going to have to play Risk." 

            "Aw, nee-chan..."

            "All of us, Jinpei.  Maybe some large scale "ass kicking" will loosen you all up."  She glared at them again.  "Now move it!  Pick your colors!"  She slammed the box onto the table.

            "Well, okay...  I guess I'll play if Joe promises not to pout when he loses..." Ryu shyly reached for the box of yellow pieces.

            "I don't pout!"

            "Do too!  ‘Cuase you're a sore loser!"  Jinpei grabbed the box of red pieces dodging Joe's grab for him.

            "I'll show you a sore loser."  Joe grabbed the box of greens.

            A grin actually flickered at the edge of Ken's mouth as he silently reached for the box of blue ones.

 

 

 

 

 

            He trounced them; thoroughly and mercilessly trounced them.  Two games and they never had a prayer.  He hadn't felt this good in days.  Ken wasn't sure it would last, but for the moment, he wallowed in it.

            Things went extremely well, better than he ever hoped, that is... once Jun got her hands into it.  It would work out.  He still didn't dare let himself totally believe it, but it looked like it just might.  Perhaps the change wouldn't affect his life as much as he feared it would.  He'd have to wait and see.

            Ken sighed and leaned contentedly back in the padded chair as the others quickly put the game board and pieces back into the box.  He concentrated and listened intently to the four heartbeats around him.  The sounds informed him his friends were relaxed -- that all the anxiety they were experiencing earlier was gone.  He couldn't help but smile because of it.

            Jinpei yawned and tipped back in his chair almost pitching himself out onto the floor.  Jun frowned at him and then glanced back at the clock on the wall.  "It's past two, Jinpei.  You should have been in bed hours ago."

            "Aw, nee-chan, I'm not sleepy."  His eyes drooped even as he spoke.  He had to fight not to yawn again.

            "It's been a very long day for all of us.  Maybe we should turn in."  Slow nods moved around the table at Ken's suggestion.  Joe did so grudgingly, still trying not to sulk over the trouncing he'd taken.

            They all bid each other good night and shuffled off to their rooms.  Ken mimicked them, not really feeling the least bit tired.  If anything, he felt more alert and full of energy than he did during the day.  He knew, however, that if he didn't suggested they turn in, the others would have tried to stay up all night with him.  It would have been sweet, but very stupid, especially after the strain they'd all been under the last few days.

            He entered his room and instantly noticed the three filled thermoses that had been left on his small dresser.  Nambu must have been here - but he hadn't let them know.  Ken tried to repress a smile.

            His throat burned as he realized he hadn't eaten since he was awakened that afternoon.  Resigned to the inevitable, he crossed the room and grabbed a thermos.  The blood he sipped from it sent tingles through his tongue even as his taste buds were thrilled by the heavy taste.  He sat down on his bed, still drinking, even as his mind was repulsed by the fact such a thing could taste so good.  What was worse was the fact his Thirst insisted the blood would tastes incredibly better if he were actually getting it directly from the human source itself.

            He forcibly shut such thoughts out of his mind.  He even concentrated to clamp down on the thrilling sensations drinking the blood brought him.  Instead, he focused on the sounds coming from his friends' rooms as they readied themselves for bed.

            After a short while, he got up and grabbed another thermos as well as his rugged, paperback copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War.  A deep silence settled into the rooms around him as he tried to escape into the familiar book.  For a while though, he couldn't read, distracted by the feel of the well used pages, the grainy look of the print, and a thousand other details he was never aware of before.  Stubbornly, he shut each one of them out, until his mind could focus solely on the wisdom of the words in the pages before him.

            He'd had just about finished his second thermos when an odd shift in the air caught at his attention.  Ken gasped as his eyes caught sight of a column of shimmering gas pouring into his room through a vent.  The gas remained as one unit and didn't disperse itself into the room.  Before his startled eyes, the gas took on the shape of a woman.

            Ken willed his eyes to go dark and was able to pick up a subdued aura from the gaseous shape.  He felt his canines and fingernails elongate as a twinge of fear prickled the hairs on the back of his neck.  The shimmering gas solidified into a beautiful, red headed woman.

            "Tiana."  The name came across his lips as a curse.  He slipped off his bed and crouched into a guarded position.

            "Good evening, Ken.  It's good to see you're picking up on some of our skills so easily."  A soft, disarming smile touched her red lips.

            "What do you want?"  The last word came out with a growl.  Ken clamped down on his fear, insistently telling himself she no longer held any power over him.

            Tiana turned away from his obvious hostility.  "I know you've no wish to see me, but I had to talk to you.  You're calmer now, your place amongst your teammates reaffirmed...  It seemed like a good time."

            "There'll never be a good time.  I'll never want to talk to you." 

            She moved gracefully to a plush chair in the corner and sat down.  She swept her curled hair away from her face, her features unreadable.  "Then I guess we won't talk."

            Ken blinked, caught off guard by her statement.  Slowly, as she did nothing, his claws retracted back to normal.  Her intent green gaze never left him.  "What do you really want?"

            "I'll tell you now that I will never apologize for what I've done.  I did it because I wanted to and because I don't think of our disease as the horror you do.  Think me arrogant, self-serving, whatever you wish, it will change nothing.  I picked you out of all others to give you a gift.  I did not make my decision lightly."  Her gaze softened.  "And I am hoping with time, you'll see what I've given you for the gift it is, and not the monstrous disease of the short sighted."

            Ken said nothing, his face hard. 

Tiana looked away.  "Now that you've gone through the change, you'll find you'll be able to do many things outside the human norm.  I'm already aware you've discovered a number of them, but there are still many more.  I would be happy to teach you of them, if you would allow it."  She became perfectly still as she waited for his answer. 

A small chill coursed down Ken's back as he realized she really wasn't breathing. He turned away from what that meant about him as well.  "You must be out of your mind.  Why the hell would I willingly let you anywhere near me?  You forced me into this.  You never gave a damn about me or anyone else.  Now you expect me to believe that suddenly all of that has changed?"  Ken felt anger growing inside him and he held onto it.  He would never give into her again.  "You used my body, you manipulated my mind!  You almost destroyed my life.  I don't want to have anything to do with you."

            Tiana nodded, her face neutral, almost as if she expected his exact response.  "You'll find that discovering the extent of your new powers won't be easy.  But I'm sure if you try, you'll find them.  As in all things, everything gets easier with practice.  If you apply yourself, you can get these powers to become as second nature to you as your ninja skills."  She rose to her feet, her dark, emerald colored body suit leaving nothing to the imagination.  Ken tried to ignore it and the memories her body tried to bring of other times, and slowly backed away from her. 

"Read the vampire fiction, watch the films.  Try and emulate the powers they mention.  You'll find a number of them are actually within your reach.  And learn from them, not only about your powers, but about yourself.  Though these things have been written by humans, they do come very close to our feelings sometimes, even to the things that plague us.  They might possibly even answer some of the frustrations in your heart.  They might just make accepting your fate a little easier."

            Ken shook his head.  "No.  I won't have to.  Nambu will find a way to reverse what you've done."

            Tiana laughed.  "I know you're not a fool, Ken, so don't act like one.  We both know you'll never be a normal Homo Sapiens again.  What's done is done.  When I felt like you do now, I researched the disease for over five years and found nothing that could change what I had become.  I was the head of my field at the time."  Her voice held no pride at the statement, she was just stating a fact.  "Nothing will change you back.  Eventually, you won't even care.  The twentieth century offers too many avenues by which to bypass our diseases' most abhorrent aspects.  Accept it.  It is a gift."

            "You'll forgive me if I decide not to take your word for it."  Ken let his anger show.  Once more she gave him no choice.  Once more she took his control.  For Ken knew, in his heart of hearts, that she was right.

            A touch of sadness flickered across her face.  Ken didn't know what to make of it.  "Perhaps you won't always feel that way."

            "I'm sure I will."

            "Always, for a vampire, can be a very, very long time.  You may find you'll get tired of feeling that way.  I will wait until you do."

            The certainty in her voice made him nervous.  He didn't want to think about it.  "Oh?  And how many other lives will you play God with until then?  How many other lives will you try to destroy as you did mine?"

            Tiana turned away from his animosity, almost as if it burned her.  When she looked back, a single red tear was slowly making its way down her face.  "There will be no others.  You are the only one.  I am selfish, I won't give this kind of power to just anyone.  The Thirst doesn't rule me.  I promised it one child, and he has been made -- no more."  Her cool facade dropped.  She suddenly looked very lonely and vulnerable.  "I don't expect you to understand, and I won't try to explain myself until you are truly willing to listen.  You and I will meet again."  As she spoke, her form lost cohesion and turned into luminescent smoke.  Before Ken realized what was happening, she swirled back into the vent and disappeared.

            "Tiana!"  Ken rushed forward but she was gone.  He had no idea how, or even if, he wanted to follow her.  Yet the vision of her pain filled face wouldn't leave him. Its every detail was clearly present in his memory for examination.  It made no sense.  He was the victim, not her.  A thousand questions began to burn inside him.

            Perhaps he would be willing to meet her again... someday....

 

The End

End Notes:
Reedited 2005 - updated archives 7/07
This story archived at http://www.gatchfanfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=541