1. Part 1 by Maya Perez
2. Part 2 by Maya Perez
3. Part 3 by Maya Perez
4. Part 4 by Maya Perez
"Here, put this on."
Jun reached for the homespun vest. She wondered where Rikaw found it. It looked better than most of the things they normally owned. Nothing around here ever looked this new.
Jun glanced over at Rikaw waiting to see if he'd let her in on the secret or not. The somber Tebetan boy always kept to himself and seemed unlikely to change, even though he'd taken the two of them under his wing. He was currently studying her critically as she put the vest on.
The new vest was big on her, but that was good. Up until now, she'd been very concerned about the fact that lately she'd been ‘maturing'. They always knew it would happen sooner or later. Luckily, it happened later with her, but now the problem was here. Soon, none of their tricks would work anymore. Life would get much harder then. "How's this?"
The fourteen-year-old Tebetan studied her with his dark eyes. "It's better. Much better." Jun relaxed a little. This would help put things off a little while longer.
"She still looks just like always."
Jun smiled, glancing over toward her brother. He was looking at her as critically as Rikaw, his small face very serious. "Jinpei, I think that's exactly the point."
"The protector seems to be wearing a little thin, Jun." Rikaw pointed out.
Nodding, she dug up a small cracked bowl from the corner of the little alley. This was their place. It was where they came to plan, to dream, to train. No one else knew of it, not even the monks. As long as they showed up for their chores and meals, the monks didn't much care where they went. That was exactly how they liked it. Jun wasn't sure the monks would approve of the things Rikaw tried to teach them there.
The bowl was a little more than half empty. Jun made a mental note to go hunting for the components to replenish her supply.
Everyone at Ximang learned early how to make the yellowish salve. It helped protect the skin during Tebet's cold, arid winters. Though not used as often during the spring, still, to Jun it was a necessity. Though all here knew about her light skin, it was best not to advertise the fact to strangers. It protected her from Them. It was well known the Chunese had a strong taste for the exotic.
Methodically, she applied the salve to her skin.
"Neechan, you missed a spot."
"We'd better get started before it's time for chores," Rikaw said.
Jun and Jinpei were lining up at their usual place for their lesson when a bell rang loudly throughout the compound. It tolled four times. That could mean only one thing--They were back again.
Jun felt a quiver of fear run through her body.
"Come, we mustn't be late and attract attention." Rikaw ran and the other two followed.
They were early. A group of Them came already not ten days ago. Jun worried about this as they cut through the narrow twisted streets, a feeling of foreboding stealing over her.
As they were expected to do at such times, the three of them made their way back to the courtyard before their sleeping quarters. It was never any use to try not to come, even though it was one of the things they loathed the most to have to do. They always seemed to know how many of them there should be. They were never satisfied until every last one of them was rounded up for them to see.
The three of them lined up with the others, Rikaw cutting them a path to the center of the group. They lined up in six rows, just as expected, even as a couple of monks made sure they did it well. All knew what a visit from Them could mean. Jun held onto her brother's hand, trying not to feel the fear she saw reflected in so many of the others's faces.
Four bells rang again. They were now within Ximang. Jun heard the sound of a truck as it took the narrow way to their area. She felt herself tense.
Jun squeezed Jinpei's hand. "It'll be okay. Just do as Rikaw taught us." As she watched, she saw her brother's face go purposely slack, his eyes growing dull. His shoulders slowly hunckered forward making his small frame look slightly deformed. Nodding with approval, Jun began her own transformation.
With practiced ease, she thrust out her lower jaw to disfigure her round face, and adopted a half grin while curving her upper lip.
"Good," Rikaw said.
Jun glanced over at him. Their teacher slouched down beside them, his face sporting an eternally stupefied look.
"Remember not to talk to them, no matter what they ask."
Jun nodded. She knew her voice would be a dead giveaway. Changing her voice was one of the few tricks she'd never been able to master.
Around them, the other children did their best to look as unappetizing as possible.
A large covered truck noisily rumbled into the courtyard. Kal, one of the young monks, quickly moved forward to greet the strangers. Two got out of the truck's cab, while three others emerged from the back. Jun's dread grew as she realized these were not the usual type of strangers that came to see them. These men looked rougher than those others--they had a hardened look about them she didn't like. All five wore identical drab green uniforms. They had no indications of rank, but it was easy to tell who was in charge.
The leader was small, even by Tebetan standards, and he was Chunese like all the rest. His expression was grave, solid; the patch he wore over one eye only serving to intensify the steely stare.
"This is everyone?"
"Yes, Colonel, these are all the children," Kal said.
"Hmph." The soldier didn't look impressed. "Split them up by age group." His eye scoured the sea of small faces. "I'm only interested in the ones over thirteen. Send the rest of them away."
"As you wish, sir." Kal bowed to him.
The Colonel's wishes were quickly passed around and several of the monks started separating the children. Jun hung back with Jinpei at her side, only too aware Rikaw fell within the wanted category. Only he and two others were thirteen or above. His chances for being chosen had incredibly grown.
"Jun, go," he hissed out of the side of his mouth. "You're bringing attention to yourselves! I'll be all right." Rikaw's eyes never changed in their dull expression.
She had a harder time maintaining her own charade, undecided on what she should do. The decision was quickly taken from her.
"Come, you're not what they're looking for. Go on inside." Kal took Jun and Jinpei by the shoulder and led them into the sleeping quarters. She frowned as they got them all inside and then latched the door. The monks had never done such a thing before. The dread which had accompanied her to the yard grew. What did they know that they hadn't told them?
"Come on, Jinpei."
She pushed past some of the other children and climbed the ladder up to the second floor. She shoved one of the younger kids partially aside from the window so both she and Jinpei could look outside.
The short Chunese man walked up to the three remaining boys, who looked horribly exposed standing alone in the courtyard. He eyed all three thoroughly and then turned his back on them before spitting on the floor. "They're not much, but times are hard. I'll take all three."
Jun stiffened, sure she couldn't have heard right.
Two of the soldiers returned to the truck and came back carrying chains and manacles. One of the three boys collapsed and wailed his misery to the winds.
Jun backed away from the window, her breath caught in her throat.
"Neechan?" Jinpei's eyes were wide with fear.
"They - they can't!" She rushed for the ladder. They couldn't take him! Rikaw was their only hope. He'd been their only hope from the beginning. She leapt halfway down to make her way quicker to the ground floor. She rushed for the closed door. She used a stick to pry the latch from the inside and then pushed. The door opened almost and inch before it was hastily pushed closed from the outside.
"You must stay inside!"
Jun recognized Kal's muffled voice. They'd known, they'd known this was going to happen all along! The sounds of combat drifted in from outside. Jun knew Rikaw wouldn't let them take him easily, but he was outnumbered. She had to help.
"Let me out!" She got no response. "Let me out!" Jun beat on the door but that got her nowhere. She heard sobs somewhere behind her, but didn't dare look. There had to be something she could do for him. There had to be!
Desperate, she moved as far back away from the door as she could and then ran toward it. At the last moment, she turned on her side and rammed the door. It jarred open about a foot. She tried to squeeze through before they could close it on her. It caught her half way out.
Jun grunted in pain, but continued to struggle to squeeze out. She looked up and froze.
Three of the soldiers lay on the ground, most with their hands wrapped about their midriffs. The fourth was keeping Rikaw busy trading blows as the colonel came at him from behind. Rikaw never saw him. He dropped as the colonel rapped him on the head with the butt of his gun.
Jun's view was abruptly cut off as Kal moved into her field of vision. "Please, get back inside. You must! You do not want them to notice you." The monk's voice was rushed.
The pressure eased from the door and Jun, suddenly free, tried to run past. Kal grabbed her with the help of one of the other monks and they forced her back inside. "Be still. You cannot help him. His fate is in Buddha's hands now."
"No! No! I have to help him! Let me go." Jun struggled to get free of their arms.
"Do you wish to share his fate?" The monk's face was close to her own.
Tears sprang in Jun's eyes, for she knew that what Kal said was true. "It's not fair!"
Kal said nothing but only held her until she stopped struggling. As soon as she seemed calm enough, he let her go.
Jun raced up the ladder at her brother's panicked call. Kal and the other monk watched after her, still guarding the door.
Jinpei was at the window, his small face was full of tears. "They're taking him, Neechan."
She ran to his side. Below, the other two boys had already been chained and stowed inside the back of the transport truck. One of the soldiers was throwing a bucket of water on one of the soldiers that had yet to get up, while a third and fourth picked up an unconscious Rikaw by the arms and dragged him away.
"Oh, Rikaw..." Jun's own cheeks grew wet, leaving streaks in the yellow tinted salve.
Jun collapsed to her knees and took her brother in her arms. He sobbed in misery.
"It'll be all right, Jinpei. It'll be all right." Except she knew, of course, that wouldn't be the case at all.
"Everyone! I have news!"
Jun looked up from her work, her attention drawn by Mettil's excited shouting.
The sun was high in the sky, the temperature at the summer high of 65 degrees. It'd been two months since Rikaw was taken from them. Though she knew it highly unlikely, a part of her hoped Mettil's news would be of him.
All the kids hurried to gather around him.
"I overheard some of the monks talking. Someone is coming soon--A foreigner. A famous foreigner!"
A foreigner? Jun couldn't believe her ears. Foreigners didn't come here. It was unheard of. Only the Chunese and their allies ever came here.
Mettil's faced glowed. "And he's coming to adopt one of us!"
Everyone started talking at once. Who was this man? Adopt one of them? Impossible! Why would he come here? He was lying! No one was coming!
"It's true! He'll be here before the end of the summer. I tell you, I heard the monks talking about it. He even sent a letter to the Holy One! I swear it!" Mettil's expression dared anyone to contradict him.
Jun turned away. Could it be true? Could it be really true? And before the end of summer. Maybe... maybe...
"Neechan, isn't it great? He'll pick us for sure!" Jinpei said.
Jun looked at her brother's excited face, knowing he just spoke her hope out loud. "We, we don't know that."
"I'll pray to Buddha everyday, neechan. He's got to pick us. He's just gotta."
As the days passed, Mettil's information was confirmed by others as they too kept their ears to the ground to hear news. The whole monastery was in an uproar about the coming visit, everyone in better spirits than they were in months. The excitement was contagious and all looked forward to the day when the foreigner would arrive.
"He's coming! He's coming!"
The word spread like lightning through Ximang. T'lay's cart had been spotted on the mountain trails and he wasn't alone. The foreigner was here! Here to adopt one of them, not just drag them away to become cheap labor or chattel. Even now, no one could entirely believe it. Why would someone like that go through all the trouble of adopting one of them? It was unheard of.
All the children scrambled at the news, racing for the well. With eager hands they reached out for a bit of the water to quickly wash the grime and protective yellow salve from their hands and faces. They all knew from the monks that foreigners didn't understand why they wore it, so they washed it off to make themselves more presentable to foreign eyes. It was said it was foreigners gazing on the inhabitants of Tebet wearing the yellow salve and cured furs for the first time that sprang the old tale about them coming from the coupling of a monkey and a mountain ogress.
Jun pushed her chopped hair away from her face with her wet fingers. This once, it would be all right to expose her round features and light skin. This once, it would not endanger her at all. For this man, this visitor, wasn't one of the ones to avoid. This man would be the chance of a lifetime, the only one she might ever have to get out of here. And she meant to take it, for her and Jinpei.
"I'm all done," her brother said.
Jun glanced down at the familiar grubby features peering up at her, the sweet smile waiting for her there almost larger than the small face could contain. "I thought we'd agreed that we'd only speak in Japanese or English to one another now. You need the practice."
The boy's large brown eyes looked quickly away even as he dried his wet hands on his britches and got them dirty again. "Sorry, neechan."
"That's much better." Jun tousled her brother's unruly hair. "Come, let's go grab a place up front before the others beat us to it."
Jinpei eagerly took off to lead the way.
Dozens of bare feet slapped against the packed dirt road along the high wall. They wove between the tall squared buildings, some with sloped roofs and effigies of enraged elephants or ogres watching them as they ran below.
Jun and Jinpei lined up next to the compound's only cobbled street, which ended at the monastery's huge wooden gates. The gates were over twenty feet tall and were hinged to the angled wall surrounding Ximang. The children pushed and shoved for position but grew instantly quiet at the sound of a soft bell.
Down the cobbled way, from the center of the compound, came two lines of monks in their bright orange robes. Jun's heart sped in her breast as she noticed their freshly shaved heads and clean linen. The foreigner really must be someone important indeed! Never had she seen them go this far for any visitor before. Behind the monks, carried on a small litter, came the Lama himself, a shriveled old man any of them would be glad to give his life for. His gold badge of office gleamed brightly in the early afternoon sun.
Excitement and hope flared through her as Jun glanced at the crowded buildings and narrow pathways that had been her home for the past several years. She wasn't like the others. She wasn't born in this land. The newcomer had been born elsewhere like her. It was her hope this difference would for once work in her favor. She hoped this would be the edge that would get her chosen above all the rest.
In Tebet you were born to your position in society, or were sometimes placed there by circumstance. All the children here knew their place, their chores and duties. They all knew why they were here. The monastery had never been meant to be an orphanage, but fate made it so. Only the fact the monks consented to take the children had actually saved them from persecution by the reinvented government. Though she didn't entirely understand it all, Jun knew this was also why the Lama did nothing when an official or others with writs from the government came to take some of them away. It was why everyone always felt fear. As all had learned from experience, the price of defiance was high.
Four monks separated from the Lama's escort and took hold of the large bar that held the gates closed. Heaving with all their might, they pushed it sideways to release the doors. They slowly pulled them open.
All the children pushed forward trying to be the first to catch a glimpse of the stranger. Jun kept a tight grip on her brother knowing he'd be tempted to jump out onto the road. If they didn't stay on their side of the street, they'd already been warned their opportunity to be seen, and therefore selected, would be forfeit. As they were often told, all had their proper place and staying in it and following the rules would be the fastest way to reach a higher plane in one's next life.
The first thing Jun saw was T'lay's two yaks as they entered through the gate. The large oxlike creatures with their humped shoulders chewed at their bits; strolling in as if they were mighty kings and all before them their rightful subjects.
T'lay and his yaks were a common sight in Ximang. He was one of the few contacts the monastery had with the outside world. Once every seven days, T'lay would visit them, bringing provisions and news in exchange for the compound's crafts, cheese, and butter that he'd take back and sell in Ihasa. T'lay always smelled of cheap liquor and sweat and seemed happiest only when complaining about something or other. He was also as punctual as the sun.
Seated next to T'lay was the man they'd all been waiting to see.
The foreigner had a serious, almost chiseled looking face, but this was offset by his light brown hair and warm eyes. A pair of rimless glasses sat precariously on his nose, while a small mustache decorated his upper lip. He wore a thick, dark blue jacket, with corduroy slacks and hiking boots. Even in those clothes, however, it was easy to see there was nothing usual about this man. Perhaps the rumors about what he had come for would really prove to be true.
T'lay and the Holy One quickly traded courtesies even as the foreigner slowly climbed down from the cart. Jun strained to overhear their words as T'lay brought the stranger forward for an introduction.
"Great One, this is Kozaburo Nambu. He is a man of great power and influence. He is a world renowned scientist." After giving the words time to sink in to his impromptu audience, T'lay moved on. "Mr. Nambu, let me introduce you to the honorable Lama of Ximang. This is one of the few bastions of the Yellow Sect left in all Tebet."
Jun was a little surprised to discover T'lay knew mainland Chunese. The foreigner seemed to have no trouble understanding the tongue. Yet from his features, she was sure he wasn't Chunese.
In halting tones, the foreigner gave the Lama a proper greeting for his rank and even bowed to the proper depth. The Holy One blessed the newcomer, obviously pleased.
"Welcome to Ximang! We have awaited your coming most anxiously as you can see. We hope your stay with us will be a fruitful one." T'lay quickly translated the Lama's words.
"Please tell the Lama that I'm happy to be here and that I hope good fortune will shine on us all," Nambu said.
Jun frowned slightly. The foreigner's Chunese was flawless, but it still had a slur of an accent. Strangely enough, it seemed like a familiar one. Where had she heard it before?
"Would you like to see the children now or would you prefer to rest a while after your long journey?"
Eager eyes riveted themselves on the foreigner, all trying to will him to look at them now.
"I mean no disrespect, Holy One, but while I am sure all the children here would make any parent proud, I've actually only come for one particular boy. His name is Rikaw."
Rikaw? How had this man heard of him? The other children murmured to one another in barely restrained tones as the statement was translated for the Lama. Jinpei wiggled beneath Jun's hold on his shoulder.
"Ah, I am so sorry, but the boy is no longer here." The Lama's face crinkled with distress and sorrow. "He was taken but a short time ago by the military. He had become of age."
The foreigner frowned. Zipping down his jacket, he reached inside and removed a number of sheets of paper from his coat. "Wouldn't that have been a little premature? I thought the boy was only fourteen."
The monks and especially the Lama looked suddenly embarrassed by the question. T'lay quickly answered it for them. "There have been some skirmishes up in the north border of Chuna and the casualties have been high. It's was felt by the government that our country should bear most of the burden to replace the troops because of the trouble we caused in the past. Some of our younger men have been forced to grow very fast."
The foreigner's frown deepened. "I see."
Jun only partially paid attention to what was said. The ache she thought she'd buried had come back in full force at the mention of Rikaw's name.
Her friend was one of the two survivors of one of the many massacred villages on Jupiter Mountain. That was the same time her aunt had died, along with many others. The fires that raged that day were so great the mountain still bore scars from their touch.
It was there that she first met him, on Mt. Jupiter, the fires having driven her to a destroyed village after her aunt's expedition was killed by the bombs. She'd heard the wailing of a child and found Jinpei hidden in a cellar. They were later found by the monks as they and all belonging to the monastery came to put out the fire and search for survivors. Later the same day, Rikaw stumbled into the village and collapsed once he saw Jinpei nestled in her arms.
Jun had never really known her parents, they died when she was very young. She was raised by her Aunt Lucille, her father's sister. She'd been a scientist. They'd been living in Tebet for about a year, her aunt on a special project, when things went bad and they got stuck in the country. Despite all the fighting, her aunt had gone her own way, continuing her work. It killed her.
Left with no one, Jun took Jinpei to be her own. And in the same way, Rikaw had taken them to be his.
Though he never mentioned anything about what happened to him on that day, Jun had noticed over time that he never strayed far from Jinpei's presence. As soon as her adopted brother started to walk, Rikaw had approached her and insisted the boy had to learn certain things and only he could teach them. He told her that because of her kindness to the boy, he would teach her as well.
Doggedly, Rikaw strove to educate them in what he referred to as The Art. All their lessons were always conducted out of sight of the others, at their place. He'd insisted that what he was teaching them would help them stay alive.
Jun went along with it even though she'd not understood it all at first. Rikaw had proved as protective of her brother as she was and that was all the reason she needed. She often suspected the two might be in some way related, but he never said and she never asked.
Strangely enough, it was Rikaw who insisted she teach Jinpei the other languages she knew even as he helped her with her Tebetan. It'd been Rikaw who explained to her why it was dangerous to be female and also how to conceal the fact.
Jun roughly wiped at her eyes, a painful lump in her throat.
"Neechan, why does he want Rikaw?" Jinpei's eyes had also filled with tears.
"I - I don't know, Jinpei." Again the question of why this foreigner had come all this way for one specific boy bounced around in her mind.
"Though the child is gone, perhaps you might find another?" The Lama drew the foreigner's attention to the line of young eager faces behind him.
The stranger glanced toward them, a sad expression in his eyes. He searched through them, but it looked more like he was just being polite.
"Before you answer, why don't we first withdraw and have some tea? We can contemplate the day together and perhaps pray for enlightenment," the Lama said.
The foreigner seemed doubtful as T'lay translated the words, but consented to the Lama's suggestion anyway.
The Holy One smiled and returned to his litter. He asked the foreigner to walk beside him on the way.
All the children watched them go and some looked as if they would try to follow until several monks walked up to bar their path.
"Back to your places. You will be told when the foreigner's decision has been made. Trust the Holy One." Many disappointed sighs followed the pronouncement. The group of children dispersed. Jun never moved, however, her gaze never leaving the direction the grown ups had gone.
"Neechan?" Jinpei tugged questioningly at her ragged sleeve. "Isn't he going to take one of us?"
"I'm not sure, but I think I'm going to go try and find out." She looked down at him her face set. "Start the weaving without me, okay?"
Jinpei's young face crinkled with an uncharacteristic frown. "I wanna go with you."
"I know, but you can't."
"I want to help," he insisted.
Jun knelt down before her brother staring into his defiant little face. Her heart swelled in gratitude. "I really appreciate that, but I have to do this alone. You can help me best by starting the weaving. When I get back, I'll tell you a story if you do."
His face brightened immediately. "Okay!" He took off toward their quarters at a run. She stared after him until he disappeared from view.
As soon as he had, Jun took off down one of the alleys parallel to the main thoroughfare. Just as she assumed, the Lama's entourage was making its way toward the center of the large compound at an easy, leisurely pace. She looked down the connecting alleyways to catch glimpses of the foreigner as they walked on, not entirely sure what she expected to do there.
Everything in the vast universe had its place. She was sure that sneaking around following an important guest was probably not hers. Despite this, she found herself wishing for a way to get even closer and perhaps even eavesdrop on their conversation. She knew she should be ashamed of it, but she wasn't. A gnawing need had been growing inside her since the foreigner first mentioned Rikaw. Why did he come specifically for him? Why wouldn't he take one of them instead? How could this man have no idea of what it would mean to them to be able to leave there?
Jun risked another glance toward the foreigner at the next intersection and froze. The stranger was looking right at her! Forcing herself to move, she rushed out of his sight.
She'd have to make up her mind now. She'd known for a short while where the foreigner was likely to be taken. Dare she risk capture and the anger of the monks to try and quiet the questions buzzing in her head? Jun bit her lower lip in indecision for a moment. Shaking her head, she took off at a run toward the main temple structure. She had to know.
With unconscious grace, she leapt up and grabbed hold of a low hanging roof corner and swung herself up to it. Carefully moving over the slopped roof, she traveled from tiled roof to hatch roof, angled to flat, traveling steadily toward the largest structure in the compound.
The inside housed a large bronze Buddha that had been cared for by the monastery for centuries. The original small building which housed it still remained within, just as those that were built later to house the first. One to cover the other, like a children's puzzle, growing with each new layer until there was no room to build any more. It grew larger and larger as she approached, almost as if trying to rival the mountains around them.
Using cracks, protruding beams, and overhangs, Jun pulled herself upward, ever higher on the temple wall. As she went, she fervently prayed to every god and spirit that would listen and asked for understanding and forgiveness for what she was doing. The cool afternoon wind whipped about her making her way even more treacherous, the spirits of the air jealously guarding the temple as they should.
By the time she was able to reach the windows of the High Room, her arms and legs throbbed from the strain. She'd made it. She'd reached the High Room--a place only a privileged few were ever allowed to enter. It was the place she was sure the Lama would bring his important guest. The wind had calmed a little. The thick window shutters were open to catch the light of the sun. Jun's heart beat at a thousand miles a minute as she dared to take a peek inside.
The scent of sweet incense swirled past her as her eyes gazed on the wealth of color inside. Large braziers smoked lightly at the entryway to the room. Red, yellow, and orange banners swept from the tall wooden ceiling to the floor below. Bronze statues of the guardian spirits of Buddha sat along the walls of the room and all faced the direction of the door guarding the small altar at the far end.
Close to the altar, sitting before one of the largest windows, were the foreigner, T'lay, and the Holy One. Except for them and the spirits guarding the room, they were alone.
Jun sent one last prayer for the safekeeping of her soul and held her breath as she dared to sneak herself inside. Using the banners and statues for cover, she silently made her toward the three men.
"Things have not been quiet in our land for some time." T'lay spoke in soft tones. His manner was unusually polite and restrained. "The Holy One only wants what's best for all concerned. Surely you can see this is no real place for children."
The foreigner said nothing, his eyes drinking in the view of spanning cloud covered mountains. He sipped at his tea for a moment, as if he were carefully gathering his words, and then turned toward them.
"I understand the Holy One's concerns, but there are reasons why I can't take any of the other children." Jun felt a pain stab into her chest like a knife. "Once I've returned home, I promise to do what I can to have appropriate supplies and food sent to you. The ISO should be able to use some of its influence to have the Chunese government consent to this. There are also a number of other organizations that would be more than happy to help the children."
T'lay relayed the foreigner's words to the Lama. Jun could only sit and listen, her whole body cold.
"We would appreciate anything you could do for them. I thank you for this, yet I am also puzzled. Why would one such as yourself come all this way for only one specific child?" The Lama asked.
Jun gasped, this being one of the very questions she'd hoped to have answered. She hunkered down a little farther behind the statue, half afraid that somehow the Holy One already knew that she was there.
"I'm afraid I can't discuss my reasons. Let's just say the boy was to have been a part of something of extreme importance to us all."
"Ah..." The Lama nodded slowly, his gaze drifting to the view outside.
Silently, the three men drank their tea as they contemplated the soothing panorama. Within, Jun seethed with emotions as they clashed within her breast. He told them nothing! Why Rikaw? Why not choose one of them? Why weren't they good enough? The urge to jump out and ask was almost more than she could bear. What could be so terribly important that none of them but one would do? And she already knew his promises meant nothing. What could one foreigner do against all the might of the Chunese?
"Since you did travel all this way, I hope you will honor us by availing yourself of our hospitality. The way back, as T'lay can tell you, is a long one, and best taken at the start of a new day."
"I'm very grateful, Holy One. You honor me." Nambu bowed. The Lama's face crinkled as he chuckled in pleasure at the foreigner's politeness.
Jun ducked down and stayed perfectly still as the three men rose to their feet. As they headed toward the door, she risked a quick glance after them. To her horror, as her eyes rose, she realized the foreigner was looking back. Their eyes met. She saw the foreigner's brow rise. Before she could panic, he turned away and walked out the door.
Jun sank quietly out of sight, her body shaking, listening for any hint that the stranger was alarming the others of her presence. Nothing happened, and soon they were gone.
Once her heart slowed to more manageable speeds, she bowed to the floor and once more asked the spirits around her for forgiveness at her trespass. Promising them offerings after the evening meal, she quickly went back out the way she came.
After reaching the ground, Jun made her way back to her assigned quarters. She didn't dare push her luck any more than she already had that day. And though she'd not found out much, she needed time to mull over what she had.
"Neechan, you're back!" Jinpei jumped up from the dirt not far from the squat building where they slept. He and two other boys had been busy racing beetles. He bounced across the short yard and hugged her hard.
"Jinpei, I wasn't gone all that long." She pushed aside her worries and questions to smile at her brother. She quickly hugged him back. "Did you get all the weaving done?"
Jinpei abruptly wouldn't meet her eyes. "Ah, um, most of it?"
He sneaked a look at her face after a moment to see how she took the news. Not finding a too displeased expression waiting for him there, he decided to push his luck. "Do I still get a story?"
"Hm," Jun unknowingly mimicked the risen brow she'd seen on the foreigner not long before. "I don't know..."
"Oh, please, neechan! Please! I promise I'll get the rest of it done. Pretty please!" His eyes pleaded with her almost as much as his words.
She couldn't help giving in. "Okay, okay, you'll get a story. Let's go finish the weaving and I'll tell it you while we work."
Her brother ran off to get their working materials while Jun chose the ground before one of the few, scrawny trees nearby and sat down. With practiced ease, she wove the dried reeds as she recited in English one of the few stories she remembered from her life before. Sleeping Beauty... It was one of her most treasured stories. She told him this one and a few others, some Tebetan and some not, many times, but he seemed never to tire of them. Sleeping Beauty was one of his favorites as well--but mostly due to the grand fight between the dragon and the prince. As usual, when she got to that part of the story, he scrambled to find a stick to use as a makeshift sword and danced through a fierce imaginary battle with the dragon himself even as Jun told of it.
"I'll save you from the dragon, neechan," he exclaimed.
She happily applauded at his bravery even as she laughed at his antics. But even though she seemed pleased enough, it was all for his benefit. She told this story at times to lift her own spirits when she was feeling down, but today it seemed to work entirely the opposite. As she recited it, she came to realize that just like the fairy tale itself, princes weren't real. They weren't any out there and wouldn't come to rescue you in times of danger.
Up until he was taken, she'd fancied to herself that Rikaw was their prince. She'd always thought that somehow, sooner or later he would be the one to find a way to steal them away from the monastery before it was too late. Yet in the end, it was Rikaw and not them who'd needed rescuing -- And no one had been there for him. When their own time came, as it was inevitable that it would, no one would be there for them either.
With sad eyes, Jun stared at the sun as it slowly descended toward the horizon.
A loud bell rang throughout the compound. It was time for the evening meal.
"Jinpei, let's get all this put away." Her brother got rid of the items even faster than he brought them out. They then moved to follow the others toward the kitchens.
"Do you think they'll serve something special tonight, neechan?" His eyes were eager. "That man is so important! Everybody says so. Do you think he'll pick someone tonight?"
"I don't know, Jinpei. We'll have to see." She was already sure he'd pick no one, but didn't have the heart to tell him.
"Neechan, what's a scien - scien - "
"Yeah! That's the one! A scientist," he said.
"Well... a scientist is like, like a sorcerer, except instead of dealing with spirits or magic, he works with science." Jun saw her brother frown. "A scientist knows how things work; like the trees, or the sun. He would know why the wind blows or how the birds sing." Her parents had been scientists like her aunt, that much she remembered of them. And they had known all these and many other things.
"A sorcerer..." Jinpei's eyes grew wide. "Can he, can he tell these things what to do? Can he turn himself into a dragon?"
"Hm, they can tell some things what to do, but not everything," she said. "And, though I'm not sure, I don't think they can turn into dragons. They don't even believe in them. They don't even believe in spirits."
"That's dumb! Everybody knows the world's full of them. Otherwise nothing would ever run right. Isn't that so, neechan?"
Jun ruffled Jinpei's hair, smiling at the intense look on her brother's face. "I don't really know. But you may very well be right."
They stood in line outside the kitchen door to receive their share of dinner. Rather than being handed their portion and being sent back outside, the monks led the children on through to the dining area on the other side. From the youngest to the oldest, all chattered excitedly at the unexpected event. Normally, the only times they were allowed inside were for a few of the Holy days. It only proved to them yet again how important their current guest really was. Their dinner was even unusually lavish. They were served large portions of wind dried goat meat, cheese, tsamba, and butter. Jun knew this was more than they could really afford, that they'd have to work long and hard to replace it all, but no one seemed to care. A feeling of excitement and celebration mingled in the air. She felt none of it--she knew it was all a lie. The food soured inside her like rotten milk. Why did the Holy One permit this? He already knew the foreigner would take none of them. Was this a way to apologize to them or was he hoping to bribe the stranger into changing his mind?
Searching for them in the crowd, Jun found the foreigner sitting at the place of honor on the Lama's right. T'lay, for once, was beaming, for he'd been allowed to sit there as well, thanks to his present role as translator. Jun noticed that as the foreigner ate and talked, his eyes were roaming the room as if he were looking for something. She crouched down a little, certain he was looking for her. Was he hoping to single her out so he could finally tell the Lama about what she had done? Jun had even less appetite than she had before.
"Neechan, isn't this great!"
She forced herself to smile. "Yes, Jinpei, wonderful."
The Lama spoke a few words before the meal was over, but still said nothing about the foreigner's decision. He blessed them all as they were dismissed.
Jun kept her eyes on the foreigner during this time, even as she snuck some of her food beneath her shirt for the offerings she'd promised to make earlier. As the foreigner moved to stand, his coat caught on the edge of the table. As he turned to pry it loose, she caught a glimpse of the inside of the jacket. Sticking out from an inner pocket were the papers she saw him pull out before. It was then she remembered that he'd looked at them when he talked about Rikaw. She couldn't catch a glimpse of anything else as one of the monks hurried her outside with the others.
The air had turned cooler with the disappearance of the sun. Sending Jinpei ahead, Jun braved the cold to make her offerings. The wind howled, lightly biting all those it touched. By the time she was able to return to her room, she was chilled.
When she arrived, Jun found that Jinpei had already retrieved their worn blanket from its niche and placed it over their pallet on the far side of the room. The other ten children they shared the room with had already arranged theirs as well. Kal came in to check on them a while later. He extinguished the small candle in the room and bid them good night before going to check on some of the others.
Whispers ran rampant in the ensuing darkness as everyone found themselves too excited to sleep. Speculations flew back and forth about who the foreigner would pick and where he would take them. The one he chose would be blessed beyond belief; for surely this man was some sort of king. Riches and wealth would be theirs! They'd be inheritors of a large foreign estate! Surely he'd pick one of them before his departure in the morning.
Jun tried to shut out the eager voices. It hurt to listen to them. It hurt because she knew all their hopes were for nothing. The foreigner was taking none of them! All their dreams would turn to dust with the rising of the sun.
Once they all finally calmed down enough to sleep, Jun found that she herself could not. Her questions had come back to haunt her and she knew only too well that any chance that they might ever be answered would vanish with the arrival of the sun. And though it was foolish to think this way, she felt in her heart that only these answers might show her the way to get out of this place.
Though she hated to even think of it, she was only too aware her time at the monastery was growing short. Sooner or later, the tricks Rikaw taught her to disguise her sex wouldn't work anymore. Sooner or later, one of Them would come and realize she wasn't what she seemed. Already parts of her were changing, curving out, growing faster than before. It became more difficult every day to walk like a boy. Soon, it would become hard to even look like one. Then even the dumbest of Them would be able to figure it out. When one did, she'd be taken away like the others. Yet, worse than the fate that would then await her would be the fact she'd be taken away from Jinpei.
She'd held so much hope in the foreigner's coming! If he'd chosen her, she was sure she could have convinced him to take her brother as well. Why only Rikaw? Why were none of them good enough to save too? Jun sat up shaking with anger and pain. Why?
She would know why!
Carefully, removing her legs out from her brother's arms, she rose silently to her feet a determined look on her face. Gingerly, she made her way past the others out into the small hallway outside their door. Rather than going down the ladder, Jun opened the wooden shutters of the small window there. With practiced ease, she pulled herself out and up.
The cold wind bit into her exposed skin, making her shiver. Jun moved from rooftop to rooftop not willing to let it slow her down. She knew where the foreigner was. There was only one place he could be. He'd be at the guest building where all their visitors slept.
With barely a sound, she lifted the latch on the door and slipped inside. She dropped to her knees and sent quick prayers to the two statues guarding the rooms from evil spirits. Staring at the floor, she made her way past them, on through the small shrine room and the private bathing area, on to the guest rooms in the back. Of the three rooms, Jun knew two would be occupied. She chose the first on the right, sure it would be the place of highest honor and therefore given to the foreigner.
Taking a long, deep breath, Jun opened the door to the room.
By the thin shafts of moonlight that made their way into the room from the closed shutters, she spotted the foreigner's sleeping form in the rear section. Silently, slipping all the way inside, she allowed her eyes to roam over the rest of the room.
Jun spotted the foreigner's coat, folded neatly in a corner. Glancing one last time at the sleeping body before daring to go further, she slinked toward it. Within moments, she found the papers she was looking for.
She quickly leafed through them, straining to make out what they were in the dark. On top of one of the papers, she found a picture of Rikaw clipped to it. Her heart ached as she stared at it for it was truly him. She looked at the writing on the pages and saw it wasn't the familiar Tebetan script. Yet though she couldn't read them, something about the symbols looked incredibly familiar. There had to be a way she could find out what they meant!
"What are you doing?"
Jun twisted around at the unexpected voice the papers in her hands falling to the ground. She jumped back pressing her back to the wall as she spotted the foreigner sitting up in his bedding.
"It's you," he exclaimed.
Jun's heart threatened to explode inside her. He recognized her! Surely now he would tell the others of her intrusion. The monks would take this as a personal shame, especially because such a transgression had been committed by one such as she. How could she have been so stupid. She wanted to wail in misery.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" The foreigner's Tebetan was slow and heavily slurred, but understandable. Still, Jun said nothing; she had no intention of answering any of his questions. She was the one looking for answers here!
"Why aren't we good enough for you?" The question left her mouth before she could stop herself.
The foreigner's brow rose in surprise. "You speak Japanese?"
Jun didn't realize that was what she'd done until he brought it up. His question had been asked in the same language. Suddenly, the mystery of the foreigner's strange accent was made clear--her aunt's accent had been the same as his. This man was Japanese! Bitter tears rose in her eyes as she realized they'd all been rejected by one of her own. "Answer my question," she demanded.
The foreigner's brow rose again. He sighed. "It's got nothing to do with whether any of you are good enough or not. It's just that I'm looking for something very specific."
"That's not an answer!" Jun took an angry step forward. She had nothing to lose anymore. If she must take the punishment, she would have her reward as well. She shook with her need and her fear.
The foreigner sighed again. He took off his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. "The boy I came for, Rikaw, had some very special skills, skills he learned from his family. These skills are extremely hard to come by and I have need of them. That is the only reason I came here--because of his skills."
Skills? Rikaw had special skills? Could he be talking about the Art? "Jinpei and I learned from Rikaw. He taught us many things! We might have the skills you're looking for." Jun took another step forward.
Nambu's brow shot up a third time. "Jinpei?"
"Yes, my little brother. Rikaw taught the Art to both of us before he was taken away." A kernel of hope flared in her chest. Might Rikaw inadvertently have saved them after all?
"How old is your brother?"
Jun didn't dare hesitate. "He's almost five."
She felt her hope vanish. "You still won't take us--why?"
His gaze rose to meet hers. "I just can't. I'm sorry."
"But we have his skills!" Her voice cracked.
The foreigner would no longer meet her gaze. "I know this will probably sound cruel and unfair to you, but because I can't explain all that is involved, it is the only reason I can give you for not taking either of you. You're but a young girl and your brother only a child."
Jun bit her lip drawing blood. Tears flowed unnoticed down her cheeks.
Here it was again. It had come down to what it always came down to--she was female. She'd always hoped things would be different in other countries. So many other things were. But it looked like in this one thing, at least, they were the same--women were of the lowest caste. And because of this and the fact she was an orphan as well, her prospects were few. At the most, she could keep her disguise working until she came of age. Then she could leave the monastery and find a local man to marry her, if they'd have her, or join a foreign missionary outpost and become a nun. At worst, though this was the most likely option, she would be picked up by one of Them and dragged away to live the rest of her life as a prostitute. But why? What crime did she commit in a previous life to demand that Buddha punish her like this?
"Look, I promise you I will do all I can to have you and your brother taken out of here."
"Liar! Liar!" Jun put her hands over her ears and rushed from the room. She didn't want to hear his promises, his lies. She didn't want to hope; she didn't want the pain when it was crushed again.
Ignoring the foreigner's call, she rushed through the building and out into the night. She ran blindly down the compound's narrow streets until she finally couldn't run anymore. She fell on the ground, badly scraping her knee and elbow, but she didn't care. Though she was lying on the hard cold ground, she felt as if she'd never stop falling. Why? Why? Why? WHY?
It was over--her last hope shattered. She would be taken, there was no denying it. She would be taken and Jinpei would be left all alone... Alone, like she had been...
No! It wouldn't be that way. She possessed Rikaw's special skills. She'd learned all that he taught them--everything! She'd learned it for Jinpei's sake; she'd learned it for him. And she was good, Rikaw told her so. If she could do all those things, why was it so important that she be male? It made no sense! She wouldn't give in.
If the foreigner didn't want to help them, that was fine. She didn't need him! Jun would find a way for her and Jinpei to make it on their own. They had to. All she needed to do was find a way out of this place. Though always kind, the monks would never willingly allow them to leave. It would go badly for them if they did, or they would have done so long ago. She had to find a way out that wouldn't involve them.
She sat up trying to find a way for that to be. Her eyes widened--perhaps she could use the foreigner to get them out after all.
Jun rose shakily to her feet, her eyes gleaming with new determination. They would soon be free.
As quietly as she left, Jun sneaked back inside her quarters. Her body felt drained and exhausted, but another part of her was filled with exhilaration. For the first time, she felt that her fate wasn't resting on someone else's hands. This time, whether for good or ill, she was making the decision on her own. She liked the feeling.
"Jinpei." Jun knelt down and whispered the name close into her brother's ear. "Jinpei, wake up."
The five year old whimpered for a moment and then turned on his side still fast asleep. Jun frowned knowing she should have known better than to have expected it to work. Her brother normally slept like the dead. With no time to deal properly with him at the moment, she wrapped him up in their blanket and then lifted his slim form into her arms.
With a strong heave, she threw him over her shoulder once she got him out of the room. Gingerly, she navigated the ladder down to the first floor. Jinpei didn't even stir. Jun quietly got them outside.
Moving from shadow to shadow, she took her brother toward the more isolated sections near the protective wall. When she found a quiet, out of the way corner, she set her brother down.
"Jinpei!" She shook him hard. "Wake up!"
"Ne - neechan?" Sleep-glazed eyes slit open to stare at her in the darkness.
"I need for you to wake up now, Jinpei. I can't carry you all the way. You're too heavy."
"I'm sleepy, neechan..." His eyes closed again.
"Oh? Does that mean you want me to go on this adventure all by myself?"
His eyes snapped open. "An adventure? Like in the stories?" His voice squeaked.
"That's what I said, wasn't it?" Jun asked. "So get up, sleeping beauty, we have things to do."
Her brother sat up all signs of his previous sleepiness gone. "What? How? Neechan, tell me!"
"Shshshsh." She whopped him lightly on the head. "Do you want the Holy One to hear you?"
Jinpei's eyes grew wide and he clamped his hands over his mouth and shook his head no.
"Okay, that's much better. Let's go." Jun picked up their blanket and her brother's hand before leading him out to the street. Taking a convoluted route, she led them to the kitchens.
"Jinpei, stay right here and watch for anyone that might be coming, okay?"
"What for, neechan? What are you gonna do?"
"This is just part of the adventure. Here, wrap yourself up in this so you won't get too cold." Jun hadn't dared tell him that she intended to steal. If her actions were going to damn her in her next life, she had no intention of dragging him down with her. "I won't be long."
She sidled up to the kitchen door and listened for any sounds that might indicate someone was within. Hearing nothing, she bypassed the latch and slipped inside. Moving carefully in the darkness, Jun found a small sack and stuffed it full of what leftovers she could find from the evening meal. As she took every piece, she apologized to the spirits profusely for what she was doing. Once finished, she slipped back outside to join her waiting brother.
"Okay, Jinpei, we can go now."
"Where, neechan?" he asked.
"We're going to the stables. T'lay and the foreigner will be leaving in the morning. We're going with them."
"We are?" His eyes grew round. "The foreigner picked us?"
The eagerness in his voice made her heart ache. "No, he didn't pick us. He's not going to choose anyone. But we're going to use him to get out."
"We won't need him or anyone else after that. We have each other; don't ever forget that." Jun just hoped and prayed it would be enough. "Come on."
Jun led them quietly back toward the gates. When they came close, she veered to the right to a long building set against the wall. As quietly as she could manage, she opened the large stable doors just wide enough for the two of them to sneak on inside.
The warmth gathered within was a shock to their wind chilled skin. The heavy scent of animal sweat and leavings washed over them clinging to their clothes. Jinpei clung to his sister's side as they waited for their eyes to adjust to the place. Querying sounds came from the back as the yaks, goats, asses, and other animals housed there wondered who'd wandered into their home.
After several minutes, Jun moved away from the door, her brother in tow. She made straight for T'lay's distinctive covered cart. Moving to the back, she was relieved to find the cart had already been unloaded of its provisions and reloaded with the merchandise T'lay would be selling for them. Carefully shifting what she could, she made a place for them to slip into between the stacks of baskets and barrels of butter and cheese. The two of them squeezed tight into a corner even as Jun set the cover back over them as best she could. She cradled Jinpei before her and then covered them both up with their own blanket just in case. If all went as she expected, they'd be long gone from there before anyone realized what they'd done.
"Neechan, are we, are we doing a good thing? Maybe, maybe I'm not really ready for an adventure..." Jinpei's voice quivered lightly.
"Shshsh, just go to sleep now. I'll take care of everything." Jun kissed the top of his head and hugged him hard. This had to be a good thing--it had to be.
Jun woke with a start as her body rattled against the side of the cart as it lurched forward. It was time.
Quirks of small pain and discomfort called for her attention as her body rocked to the swaying of the cart. She forgot all about them as light suddenly poured through the fibers of the covering over them. She tensed, realizing the cart was out of the stables. It came to a stop a short distance away.
Muffled voices grew closer. Jun stayed perfectly still recognizing one of the voices as T'lay's. She held her breath as the trickiest part of the plan arrived. Before every departure, T'lay or one of the monks, normally checked the contents of the cart. Her plan, their only hope, lay on the slim chance that distracted by the unusual presence of the foreigner, they wouldn't check it
"Shshsh." Jun brought her lips as close to her brother's ear as she could. Not now!
The cart creaked and after a few more moments jerked into motion. When it didn't stop again, Jun felt herself relax. They'd made it out of Ximang! Yet, instead of the overwhelming joy she thought she'd feel at the fact, all she could think about were the others who didn't make it out with them.
They'd been riding silently for a number of hours when Jinpei began wiggling against her side.
"Ne - neechan, I've got to go..."
Jun bit her lip. "Try to hold it for a while."
"I can't! I really, really have to go."
"Jinpei!" She snapped at him, annoyed at her discomforts and nervousness as well as his own.
Her brother whimpered in misery for a moment but said nothing else.
She'd have to do something about this. Sooner or later he'd be unable to hold it anymore. She bit her lip again undecided on what she should do. If her brother soiled himself, they possessed no other clothes for him to change into and T'lay was likely to notice the smell. If they tried to leave the cart, they were sure to be spotted. Either way... "I'm sorry, Jinpei."
Jun sat up as best she could and then took in a large lungfull of air. "Stop the cart! My brother has to go!"
The cart came to an abrupt stop jostling the two of them against one of the barrels. With as much dignity as she could muster with her numb, tingling limbs, she pulled the cover back and climbed out of the cart before helping her brother out.
From what she could see, they'd made it to about half way down the mountain. Already the trees didn't look as stunted or repressed as they did in the higher regions.
"All right, Jinpei, go behind those rocks over there," she said.
"Yes, neechan!" The boy made for the rocks as fast as his still wakening legs would take him.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jun risked a glance at the two men she was sure were watching them. Both had turned on their seats, looks of surprise still etched on their faces.
"Jinpei, hurry it up!"
The foreigner slowly dismounted from the cart. Jun stepped around to put the main bulk of the cart between them.
"Oh, why do these things happen only to me?" T'lay moaned. "You children know it is forbidden for you to get on my cart. Do you know how far behind schedule it will put me to have to take you back?" He gazed at her in bottomless misery.
"You don't have to worry. We're not going back."
"I thought I made it clear back at the monastery that I couldn't take you with me." This came from the foreigner.
Jun set her hands on her hips and tried to look as confident as she could manage. Her stomach turned into knots inside. "Sir, you were very clear. But we're not here to go with you."
A look of horror crossed T'lay's face. "Oh no! You can't mean you expect to come with me. I have no room for children!" He dragged a jug from a cord beneath his seat and took a long desperate swig out of it.
"We're not planning on staying with you either. My brother and I are quite capable of taking care of ourselves."
Jinpei came out from behind the rocks and quickly made his way over to his sister's side. Jun placed a protective arm around him.
"Were you that unhappy? Were they treating you badly?" the foreigner asked.
T'lay, Jun, and Jinpei all looked at the him in open faced shock. "Dr. Nambu, please, no one would ever mistreat children there! The Holy One would never allow such a thing!"
"Is this true?" The foreigner stared directly at Jun waiting for her to answer the question.
"They took care of us as best they could. It was home. For those of our station, we could never have received better."
The foreigner frowned at her words, his face growing even more serious than before. "Then why are you leaving?"
It was Jun's turn to frown. Surely he knew why! "Because, like Rikaw, we too would eventually be taken."
"Taken?" The foreigner glanced over at T'lay. The latter wouldn't meet his gaze.
"Yes, they would take me from my brother, and then later he would be taken as well. I won't allow such a thing. He needs me."
"I need her!" The two of them clung to each other.
"Who would take you away?"
Did this man know nothing? How couldn't he know? Everyone knew! "The Chunese, or one of their friends. They've always come to the monastery to look for girls, sometimes boys. I have been hiding myself from them as Rikaw taught me, but soon I won't be able to hide what I am anymore."
"Neechan!" Her brother looked terrified. Jun had never confided this to him before.
"Don't worry, Jinpei, it doesn't matter," she said.
"T'lay, is what she says true?"
The driver still wouldn't look at the foreigner. "To our great shame and sorrow--yes. But there is nothing we can do. Nothing the Great One could do. They are too strong... This is why he placed such faith in you."
The foreigner said nothing.
"We will go our own way now. Don't try to stop us." Jun grabbed their small sack of food out of the cart. "Come on, Jinpei. We've bothered these people enough."
Jun looked back and was surprised at the earnest expression on the foreigner's face. "We're not going back."
"Yes, I know that, but, but at least, at least let us give you a ride to the bottom of the mountain. It will get very cold up here at night."
Jun frowned, wondering why he should suddenly care about their welfare. She glanced over at T'lay. The driver looked as surprised as she at the offer. After a moment, however, he nodded that it would be so.
She hesitated, still unsure of what to do. Finally, she just decided to risk it. As soon as she and Jinpei were back on board, the foreigner resumed his seat. With a glum look, T'lay urged his yaks forward.
T'lay stopped the cart an hour or so later to rest the yaks and have lunch. He dipped heavily into his bottle, ignoring the two children as much as he could. Jun took her bag and her brother, and moved a short distance away from the cart to take their meal. Without a word, the foreigner approached them and left them a bladder full of water. Jun stared after him as he returned to the cart.
"I like him, neechan," Jinpei said.
"Don't even think about it! It's not going to happen. The two of us are all we need." Jun chewed on her lower lip a moment before popping a piece of dry bread in her mouth.
"I still think he's nice."
Late in the afternoon, T'lay once more brought the cart to a stop. The dirt path they'd followed down the mountain had broadened into a road as they reached the valley. It later merged with a paved way. In the distance, they could see the outline of a fairly large city.
"Dr. Nambu, the children can come no further." T'lay wouldn't look at the foreigner directly. "There are Chunese officials at the city gate. They will take the children if they don't have the proper papers and if the required bribes aren't made." He licked his lips as if they were terribly dry.
"Come on, Jinpei. It's time to get off." Jun glanced at the horizon and the city nestled there. If things didn't work out for them out here, she and Jinpei might have to try and figure out a way to get in there. She wasn't at all sure how hard that'd be.
"I will pray for you, children." T'lay said. "I will also tell the Holy One what has become of you. I'm sure he will pray for you as well." He bowed slightly toward them, his words sincere.
Jun felt a flash of gratitude at the gesture.
"Thank you, T'lay. Goodbye." June helped Jinpei off the cart, her eyes already searching the area for any likely places where they might find shelter.
Jun looked back. The foreigner was staring at them a frown on his face. Abruptly, his expression cleared. "You'd be a lot safer in the city. I have papers we can use to get you in. I have the needed bribe money as well."
She stared at him, confused, wanting to ask why he would do this for them. He'd made it so clear before that he wanted to have nothing to do with them. What had changed? "Why do you want to help us? I - I don't understand."
"I'll need some information for the papers. I already know your brother's name, what's yours?" The foreigner took out some documents from his coat as if she had already agreed.
"Well?" he asked.
"J- Jun. My name is Jun."
The foreigner took out a pen and wrote it down. He wrote a number of other things down, though Jun didn't know what they were. Occasionally, he'd ask her a question or two. Some she could answer; others, she couldn't.
"I guess that'll do. Shall we go on?" The foreigner looked over at them.
Jun stared at him still confused by his actions. Jinpei, however, didn't hesitate and climbed back into the cart. "Come on, neechan!"
After hesitating a moment longer, Jun moved to follow suit.
"Dr. Nambu, are you, are you sure about this?" T'lay seemed as confused as Jun herself.
"Yes, T'lay. Please drive on."
"As you say..."
In another hour, they reached the city gates.
"Come down off the cart." A hefty Chunese soldier signaled for them to get off.
T'lay, Jun, Jinpei, and the foreigner moved to comply as two other Chunese soldiers moved forward to check through the cart's cargo. The soldier that had spoken took their papers and riffled through them.
"So, you got these two from the monastery, did you? An awful long way for their kind... All paperwork must have the monastery listed as the Shiroyuki Orphanage. You will change this on them now." The foreigner looked surprised but quickly complied. As he finished the changes, he handed the papers back to the soldier as well as a number of crisp bills. The soldier smiled.
"Hm, one boy and one girl." He spared Jun and Jinpei a glance. "A fair skinned one at that. Still, they both look like boys. Have you tried to find out which is the girl? If not, I'd be happy to check for you. I promise not to use her too much."
The other guards chuckled.
T'lay's eyes fell to the ground. Jun and Jinpei both followed suit. Before she did so, however, Jun saw the foreigner tense. She felt a tendril of fear, not sure what would happen next.
"If that's all, we'd like to be on our way." The foreigner's voice was cold.
The guard didn't seem to notice. "Ah, she must be a virgin then. I guess I can't blame you much." The guard gave them a leering smile.
"Can we go?" Nambu's voice got even colder.
"Yes, yes, go on ahead." The soldier waved to his comrades. T'lay quickly shooed the children back into the cart.
"Neechan, what's a virgin?" Jinpei asked.
Jun felt her cheeks grow hot. "Shshsh, not now. Not now." She glanced back, feeling someone's eyes on her. It was the foreigner. As soon as their eyes met, he quickly looked away. Jun wasn't sure what to make of it.
Jinpei weaved his way from one side of the cart to the other as they moved in through the city gates. Buildings, old and new, rose beside them on the streets. Many had a familiar feel like the buildings at the monastery. Others seemed strange and out of place, made in the European and modern styles, things Jinpei had never seen before. All the streets were paved, and T'lay's cart lumbered easily through them. Crowds seemed to be everywhere, like ants in a hive, moving to and fro with a zillion destinations. Other carts filled the streets, but there were cars as well. Jinpei ogled as they passed a street where a lumbering truck was moving toward them.
"Neechan! Neechan! A dragon!" Jinpei's voice quivered in fear and awe as he raised his hand to point at it.
Jun remembered the pictures in her storybook enough to know it wasn't one. "Dragons aren't that small, Jinpei."
"Wow." His brown eyes grew large and round.
T'lay followed a small road paralleling the city's short outer wall for most of the way. After a short while, he turned into a small roadway that ended at a walled area with a gate. He stood up after bringing the cart to a halt. "I'm back. Open the gate," he shouted.
"T'lay!" They saw a young man's face peer out through the gate and then rush to open them. T'lay steered the cart off to the side of the small yard, over toward a squat open-faced building. A bell rang around them and a number of men poured out into the area and started unloading the cart. Jun and Jinpei jumped out to get out of their way.
"Thank you for the ride, T'lay." The foreigner extracted a number of bills and handed them over to the Tebetan.
"I am here but to serve, sir." His eyes twinkled as he took the offered payment.
"Come on, Jinpei." Jun took her brother's hand and started toward the gate. They were in. They were free! She thought of thanking the foreigner for getting them this far and then thought better of it. The sooner they cut off all ties with the past, the sooner they could make their new lives here. They'd almost reached the gate when Jun heard quick footsteps coming up behind them.
Jun stopped but didn't turn around, puzzled he would have them hesitate yet again. "We really have to go now. We must find a place before it gets dark"
"That won't be necessary," he said.
She tensed, her heart skipping a beat. Had all this been a ruse of some kind up to now? Was he going to have T'lay's men take them and then send them back to the monastery?
"I'd like the two of you to return with me to my home."
"Neechan, did you hear?" Her brother's face had lit up with joy. Jun didn't move.
"I heard." But she didn't understand it. They hadn't been good enough for him before. What had changed? "I appreciate your kindness, but it really isn't necessary. We'll be all right on our own."
"Neechan!" Jinpei tried to pull his hand away from hers, but she wouldn't let him.
"You can't stay here," the foreigner said. "Conditions are even worse than I was led to believe. I'm willing to take you with me. I can find a good family to take you in, one that will take both of you so you can stay together. This city is no place for you."
Jun glanced back at the foreigner and saw only sincerity in his face. She bit her lip. She and Jinpei could survive here, of that she was sure, but life would be hard and there would be danger. This man was suddenly not only offering them passage from this place, but a family for the two of them. Why?
"Come, I have rooms at a hotel not too far from here. It'll be warm there and they'll have fresh food." The foreigner waved at them to follow as he walked past.
"Neechan..." Jinpei's eyes pleaded with her own. "Can't we go with him? Please?"Jun bit her lip again and glanced at the departing foreigner before once more looking into her brother's face. A life of hardship or the hope of something better. Dare she let this chance pass by? Not entirely sure she was doing the right thing, Jun nodded and headed after him.
Jun and Jinpei clung close to one another as the foreigner led them through the crowded streets. With unabashed curiosity, they stared at everyone they passed, amused by the strangely cut and colored clothes and hairstyles of people walking by. The scent of perfumes, oils, food, and bright cloths dazzled their senses as they walked past a set of open storefronts. Sounds played around them, some familiar like that of animals and people, others less so, like cars and machinery.
The building the foreigner led them to was different from those around it. The most obvious thing was how it wasn't crowded next to its neighbors like the rest, but actually had an open area around it rimmed by trees. The building in the center reeked of newness and seemed to almost glare against the antiquity around it. It was white and filled with glass. Jun stared at it and was shocked to realize it had none of the serenity or unity of the buildings in Ximang. This building stood here on its own as if defying all that was around it.
The foreigner followed a pristine walkway through the trees up to the building and up a set of short steps leading to a double glass door.
Inside, the light was blinding, almost as if the building were trying to outdo the sun. Plants and bright colors inundated every space available, overwhelming the eyes. For a large part of her life, Jun lived in a place that was arid and cold, vegetation sparse. Yet, here, not that far away, existed a seeming miracle of life. She had never realized there could be so much green.
As they moved forward, she noticed the crisply dressed men lounging about the lobby. When they walked past, all turned to stare at them. Jun's skin itched as she felt their eyes roam over them. Her mind screamed at her they didn't belong here, that this was not their place. Stubbornly, she kept her eyes on the floor and followed the foreigner.
Seemingly oblivious to it all, Nambu led them past the hotel's front desk and on to a set of mirrored doors.
Jun almost jumped as the foreigner touched a button on the wall and a small bell dinged. She felt Jinpei press close to her as the mirrored doors whooshed aside on their own.
"Come on inside, it's only an elevator," Nambu said.
Jun didn't entirely understand why he would want them to go into such a small room. It had no windows, no other doors. Keeping a tight hold on Jinpei's hand, she went inside. Her nervousness increased as the doors closed on them. Would they be spending the night here? The walls felt too close.
Nambu pressed the button for the ninth floor. Jun and Jinpei both let out a small squeal as the room abruptly started up.
"Don't worry, this is quite safe. It'll be over in a moment." The foreigner smiled reassuringly at them.
Jun forced herself to nod and smile back. As quickly as she could, she asked the spirits for mercy and to help them get through this. Something about the sensation in the elevator felt familiar to her, but she didn't know if it was a good thing or not.
They reached their floor and Nambu exited as soon as the elevator doors opened. Jun and Jinpei were close on his heels.
"Neechan," Jinpei's voice was very low, "scientists can tell spirits what to do." Jun didn't know what to say.
"Here we are." Nambu took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. Jun stared at its strange knob as the foreigner ushered them inside.
Like all they'd seen within this building so far; the room was filled with colors. The walls here were a light pink and held paintings filled with bright orange and red flowers. Jun looked about her that strange feeling of familiarity coming back.
The foreigner moved toward another door on their left and opened it. Beyond it they could see another room that looked very much like the one they were presently in. "This will be your room." He strolled on inside. The two of them followed.
Jun was amazed to realize the new room was the same size as his. She wondered how many others they'd have to share it with.
"The bathroom is through here." Nambu opened another door and switched on the light.
"Please feel free to look around in here for the next few minutes. I've got to make some calls. I'll be right next door if you need anything." He smiled and then moved off to the room they were in before.
"Ne-neechan! He is a sorcerer. He even has the lights!" Jinpei's eyes were wide on his small pale face. Light bulbs were nothing new to them, but their use was. Electricity, which they obtained from a small gasoline generator, a concept not ever really explained to most of the children, was seldom used and then only in times of great need.
"It's all right, Jinpei. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of things that are going to seem strange to us." She gave her brother a long hug, not feeling entirely comfortable. She couldn't wipe out the nagging feeling they didn't belong there at all.
"I - I want to go home, neechan." He shook in her arms.
"We can't, Jinpei. You know that." She made herself smile. "We're on our grand adventure, remember? And we're the heroes, and heroes are always brave." He buried his face against her.
"Don't wanna. I wanna go home," he insisted.
"Nothing is going to happen to us."
"But, neechan..." His voice was close to tears. "He's - he's a scientist. What if, what if scientists are evil like the sorceress and he puts us to sleep forever?"
She knelt down and brought her eyes level with his. "You don't really think that will happen, do you? The Holy One would never have been so happy to see him if he was evil. Don't you think so?"
Jinpei's small brow furrowed as he gave her words some thought. "I - I guess not."
"Don't worry, I'll be brave for the two of us. If anything happens, I'll protect you." She tousled his hair.
"Do you, do you think we'll see a dragon, neechan?" Jun brushed the hair away from his face as he spoke.
"Probably not, so don't worry about it." She smiled at him. "Would it make you feel better if I told you a story?"
His face lit up. "Yes, please, neechan!"
She sat down on the lavender carpeting, setting her brother down on her lap. The carpeting felt strange against her legs. Jun tried her best not to think about it. Clearing her mind, she started in on the old tale about the turtle that carried the world on its back.
After a while, Jinpei left his sister's lap and gingerly started looking about. She continued, happy the story had done the trick, and watched him as he poked his head into every nook and cranny of the room.
"Are you two doing okay in here?" Nambu stepped up to the doorway between the rooms. His expression turned curious as he noticed her sitting in the middle of the floor.
"Yes, sir, we're fine." Jun suddenly realized she didn't know how to address this man. Yes, she knew his name, but she had no idea of his true ranking in relation to her or others, and therefore didn't know what term to use in reference of him. "Sir, how should we address you?"
The foreigner's brow rose. Jun wondered if she'd insulted him. "Nambu or hakase will do fine."
"Thank you, Nambu Hakase," she said. She remembered the word hakase meant to have a doctorate, like her parents.
"Ah, I've ordered dinner for us but it will be a short while before it gets here. Would you like to watch some television while we wait?"
Jun saw Jinpei glance over at her at the question. She had decent recollection of what a television was and so nodded yes.
Nambu moved across the room to what she was sure her brother assumed to be a strange kind of chest or box. He pressed the on button below the screen to the TV and it blasted out at them with light and sound. Jun cringed back from the unexpected deluge even as her brother screamed and dove behind a table.
"What's wrong?" Nambu shut off the TV a concerned expression on his face.
"The television..." Her hands were clamped over her ears. She hadn't remembered it ever being so loud.
"It frightened you?"
Jinpei whimpered loudly from his hiding place.
Nambu's face suddenly cleared with understanding. "Oh, I see. My apologies, I forget neither of you have had much exposure to the outside. Please forgive me."
Jun looked away, not used to having her betters apologize to the likes of her.
"This won't hurt you. It's nothing to be afraid of," he said.
Jinpei whimpered again.
"This is only a box full of pictures and sound. None of them can hurt you. We use them to watch stories and get information."
"Stories?" Jinpei's query was so low they barely heard it.
"Yes, yes, all sorts of stories." Nambu touched one of the knobs on the front. "Here, I'll turn it on again, but this time without sound. I promise it won't hurt you." He pushed the on button.
As promised, only light poured out from the set into the room. Jun stared as miniature people filled the box, walking and talking as if they had no idea they were in there. Flashes of cartoons and old shows she loved as a child flashed in her mind's eye. She found herself smiling.
"Jun, come closer."
"Jinpei, it's just pictures. I've seen one of these before," Jun said.
"There's a panel of glass here in the front, see?" Nambu knocked on the screen.
She took a couple of steps toward the TV. "It can't hurt you, Jinpei." She took a deep breath and impulsively reached out to touch it.
There was a momentary tingling sensation on her fingertips as they came close and then just the soft, cold smoothness of glass. The moving people on the screen in no way reacted to her presence. They seemed totally oblivious to them all.
"Jinpei, it's all right. Come on out. See?"
Wide eyes peeped out at her from the edge of the table. Jun stared at the TV screen, fascinated by what she saw there. It almost felt as if she'd just saved a piece of her past.
"They really are just pictures, Jinpei." Jun tore her eyes away from the strange scenes on the screen and glanced over at her brother. "Come see."
"But, but, neechan, there's spirits in there!"
Nambu laughed. "No, there are no spirits in there. It's just a lot of pictures, very good pictures. They're made by machines."
She waved for Jinpei to come to her. Shaking like a leaf, her brother gingerly left his hiding place and moved forward. Prodded on by her encouragements, he finally made it to her side. Still telling him not to worry, Jun took his hand and brought it toward the screen. He flinched as his fingers touched it, but when nothing else happened, he relaxed slightly and looked at what it had to show. He was soon as captivated by it as his sister.
After giving Jinpei several minutes to get used to it, Nambu reached over and slowly raised the volume on the set. His eyes got wide, but he no longer seemed afraid or tried to run. Once sure they were comfortable with it, Nambu extricated himself and left them on their own.
"Neechan, I want, I want to be able to do stories like this! Do you think he would teach me this magic?" Jinpei's voice was a bare whisper, his eyes never leaving the TV.
Jun felt a chill of fear mixed excitement at the thought. "I - I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see."
Not long after that, they heard a knock on Nambu's door. "Jun, Jinpei, dinner is here," he said.
Jun forced herself away from the TV and had to drag her brother away from it as well. Gingerly, the two of them entered Nambu's room. On the table in the room, they spotted a large tray filled to overflowing with food.
There was tsamba, milk, tea, butter, all of which they were familiar with. There were also, though, a large amount of other things neither could remember having seen before--different kinds of meats, cheeses, and breads. After some prodding from Nambu, they filled their plates and even tried some of the stuff they were unfamiliar with. By the time they finished, they both felt terribly bloated.
"That was good." Jinpei licked his fingers. "Did you like it, neechan?"
"Yes, it was very good. Thank you, Nambu Hakase."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it. I wanted to make sure you had enough." The doctor put their empty dishes back onto the tray. "Now that we got that done, I think it's time we got the two of you cleaned up a bit."
Jun and Jinpei exchanged glances. They were clean. At least as clean as they normally were unless it was a Holy Day. Was it a Holy Day for him?
"Come, let me show you how to use the tub." Nambu ushered them into his room's bathroom.
The walls and floors were tiled and they felt strangely smooth to their bare feet. With the light on, the room seemed glaringly bright.
"These knobs here turn the water on and off," Nambu said. "This one is for hot water, that one's for cold."
Jun stared at the knobs the whole process somehow very familiar. Yet, where was the well? Where was the fire to heat the water? Nambu turned the knobs and water flowed into the tub.
"Why is there water in here, Hakase?" Jinpei was staring down into the toilet.
"Well, rather than having to take your wastes outside, the water in there will do it for you," he said. "Watch." Nambu flushed the toilet.
Jinpei jumped back at the ensuing riot of sound. His eyes clung to the swirling water. "Will it take me away if I fall inside?"
The doctor smiled. "No. The hole at the bottom is too small for that. It's perfectly safe."
Jinpei stared inside the bowl and watched the water disappear and then slowly fill back up.
"Go ahead and take off your clothes. The tub should be ready for you by then." Nambu had left his coat in the other room and was now rolling up his sleeves.
Feeling a little apprehensive, but not really worried, Jun took off her thick vest, shirt and pants. Jinpei did the same.
"Okay, you two, climb on in."
Jinpei stood in front of the tub watching the steam rise from the water. Jun prodded her brother's thin body forward.
The water stung a little as they got in. It was hot! Jun couldn't believe it. And he did it without a fire.
"Is it too hot?" Nambu asked.
Both of them shook their heads, too amazed to complain. He turned off the water.
"I've got a hand towel for each of you as well as a bar of soap. Get the towel wet and then rub the soap on it until you get a lather. Here, do it like this." Nambu demonstrated what he wanted. "Clean your arms first. I'll help you both with you backs and hair." He handed them each a small hand towel and a bar of soap.
Nambu washed their hair for them after they'd been scrubbed from head to toe. By the time he finished with them, the water had turned to a deep, muddy yellow.
With deft efficiency, he got each of them out of the tub and dried them with large, fluffy towels.
Jun caught her reflection in the mirror and just stared. It was as if a stranger were there looking at her. She knew she was light skinned due to her father's side of the family, but with the dirt and protective pigment washed away, she looked startlingly white. With her disguise all gone, there was no doubt she was foreign and female. Shivering, she turned away from the sight.
"Here, you'll have to use these for tonight. Your new clothes won't arrive until tomorrow."
Jun stared at the two large undershirts in Nambu's hands. "We normally just sleep in our clothes, Hakase." She pointed to the dark pile on the floor.
"That may be so, but those are dirty and these are clean like you," he said.
"Is that important?" Jinpei stared at Nambu a confused frown on his face.
"Yes, being clean is always important. Where I come from, we were clean clothes every day and take baths every night."
Jun and Jinpei traded startled glances.
"Here, put them on."
Jun slipped on the undershirt. The fabric felt strange and smooth, the shirt being of a much finer weave than she was used to. It draped over her shoulders down past her thighs. Jinpei's reached him past the knees.
Giggling, the young boy ran out into the room and spun around to make the shirt balloon out around him. "I'm a monk! I'm a monk!" He spun until he got too dizzy to keep his feet and fell laughing.
"It's been a long day, and there's much to do tomorrow. I suggest we turn in for the night. All right?" Nambu went over to their room and the two of them followed. He turned down the covers on the king sized bed. "Come on, you two."
They stared at the bed for a moment and then climbed on. It was easy to figure out it was some kind of raised pallet, they just had no idea why anyone would want to sleep so high off the floor. Nambu tucked them both in.
The semi-firm mattress felt strange to Jun. Yet, as the doctor tucked them in, she got the feeling that she'd done this before. Unlike some of the other things that seemed familiar, this one felt very right. It was the first one that made her feel like she might have made the right decision.
Nambu turned on the bathroom light and partially closed its door before turning the lights off in the room. "Good night. If either of you need anything, you know where to find me."
"Good night, Hakase." Two small pairs of eyes watched him as he left.
As usual, regardless of where he was, Jinpei fell asleep in minutes. Jun though, found that she wasn't going to be as fortunate. She twisted and turned trying to find a comfortable position and just couldn't manage it. After a while, she gave up and silently got out of bed. Taking one of the covers off the bed, she set it down on the carpeting and curled up on the floor. She quickly fell into a deep sleep.
Jun woke slowly, warm and content. Opening her eyes, she found herself cuddled up with Jinpei before her. He must have awakened during the night and joined her on the floor. She sat up carefully, trying hard not to disturb him. Looking toward the adjoining door of the room, she found it was open. It suddenly occurred to her to wonder if Nambu would be offended if he found out they slept on the floor instead of his bed. Before she could try and do anything about it, Nambu's body filled the open doorway.
"Good morning, Jun. I was just coming to wake you."
She held her breath looking for any signs of displeasure on his face. She found none. Jinpei stirred slightly against her side.
"Breakfast is already here, if you're hungry. Come on over whenever you're ready." He smiled and left.
Jun's heart was thumping in her chest as she turned to shake her brother. He hadn't looked upset, but surely he would be if they made him wait too long. "Jinpei, it's time to get up." The young boy mumbled something and then turned away from her. "Jinpei, Hakase is waiting for us!" She didn't get much of a response to that either. "Food's here."
His eyes fluttered open for a moment. "Food?"
"Yes, sleepy head, and if you don't hurry, I'm sure Hakase won't keep any for you!" In a seeming huff, Jun rose abruptly to her feet and left him. Jinpei scrambled to follow after her.
The scent of freshly cooked breakfast coiled around them as they entered Nambu's room. Jun's mouth watered with expectation, even as she approached one of the two empty chairs at the table. There was fresh baked bread, butter, cheese, fruits, tea, milk, and a cup of broth for each of them. Jun felt Nambu's eyes on them as they wolfed it all down.
"Jun, when were you sent to Ximang?"
She had to think hard about that before she was able to give him an answer. It wasn't something she usually cared to think about. "I, I was about 8, I think."
"Was your mother there with you for a time?"
Jun's brow furrowed. "N, no, Hakase. My mother was killed when I was very young. I only went to Ximang when my aunt was killed."
"I thought you said Jinpei was your brother?" he asked.
"I am!" The small boys face screwed up tight, ready to fight over the fact of necessary.
Jun frowned, suddenly not liking the turn the conversation was taking. "He is my brother. I found him and claimed him. I raised him from a baby. We're family." She dropped her eyes, realizing she was being incredibly rude to her betters. "Family is important... Hakase..." She was sure to have made him angry this time for sure.
"It's okay for Jun to be my sister, isn't it?" Jinpei's voice was small and unsure.
"Yes, actually, it's quite all right."
Jun looked up surprised by Nambu's gentle tone. He wasn't angry? Maybe his foreign ways were a lot different from their own.
Nambu stood and put his dishes on a tray. "Your new clothes were brought in early this morning." He moved to pick up a couple of boxes stacked amidst others on a chair. "I hope they fit all right." He opened one of the boxes. "You'll need to put these on first." He handed each of them a pair of underwear.
Jun stared at hers, noting how different it looked from her brother's. Hers was as blindingly white as Nambu's undershirt and had small blue flowers painted all over it. Jinpei's were plain, but looked to have folds hers did not. She put hers on without comment.
"There's a pair of pants and matching shirts in there. I also have socks and shoes for you as well."
Shoes? In summer? Jun and Jinpei both exchanged startled glances and then opened their respective boxes. Her shirt and pants were a deep green with blue flowers. Jinpei got a stripped shirt and pants of the same colors. The clothes felt strange on her skin, very much like Nambu's undershirt.
Jinpei dressed in a rush, thoroughly pleased by his clothes. All they'd ever owned before were hand-me-downs, patched and repatched until none of them knew what the original clothes looked like. Yet these were new and their very own.
Nambu handed them each a pair of heavy socks and brown leather shoes.
"Look, neechan, look!" Jinpei lifted his foot so Jun could see his shoe. His face broke out into a wide smile.
Jun found herself smiling back in earnest.
"Well, we probably best get going. There are a few things we'll need to get done if we're going to leave the country today." Nambu retrieved a small bag from his bathroom and put it inside a large open suitcase on the bed. He put the rest of their boxes inside before closing the case shut.
"You two might want to go ahead and use the bathroom before we go."
Jun disappeared into one while Jinpei vanished to the other. Jinpei didn't return until after his toilet flushed and refilled.
Jun held onto her brother's hand as they left the room and headed toward the elevator. She squeezed it hard as the car dropped and left their stomachs on the floors above. Nambu, as always, took it all in stride.
Once at the lobby, he guided them toward the front desk. Jinpei took off to run circles around the lobby's couches and chairs, showing off his new shoes to any who'd even dare glance at him. Jun stood quietly at Nambu's side, feeling oddly exposed without her thick clothes and yellow pigment. Her identity, her gender, were there for anyone to see. Nambu paid for their rooms and then asked for a car.
"Come along, you two," he said. He headed off toward the front hotel doors.
Jun's brother looked over from his latest victim and quickly rushed over to join them.
The three of them waited outside for a few minutes until a white sedan pulled up to the hotel steps.
"Are we, are we going in that?" Jinpei pointed toward the sedan.
"Yes, we are. It's much faster than a cart or just walking." Nambu opened the back door and waved them on inside.
Jun took her brother's hand and pulled him behind her as she entered the vehicle. Nambu climbed in after them.
"Where to, sir?" asked the driver.
"The Manchu Hospital, please."
The engine roared as the driver gunned the car and then had it move forward. Jinpei clung to his sister unprepared for the loud sound. Jun tried her best to emulate Nambu's calm, though she felt far from it, hoping that as long as he looked that way all was safe for them as well.
The way to the hospital was slow. Many of the streets, though wide, were heavily congested with pedestrians, carts, and lumbering traffic. As the blocks passed, Jun and Jinpei gained confidence in the non-rocking vehicle and soon forgot their earlier discomfort. Jinpei's face was stuck to the window for most of the rest of the trip.
The sedan stopped before a long two-story building that seemed to be filled mainly with Chunese. Nambu led the two children inside and moved confidently through the halls as if he knew where he was going. He led them up the stairs onto the second floor and heading off to the right, stopped several doors down and knocked. He opened the door.
"Dr. Nambu!" A gray haired Chunese man with thick glasses stood up from behind a small desk to shake the doctor's hand.
"I hope I'm not too early."
"No, of course not," Dr. Chung said. "It's been a long time, Kozaburo." The small man smiled, looking truly pleased to see the foreigner.
"Yes, yes it has. Did you get my message?"
"Oh yes. I have all we'll need already here. Are these the two youngsters?"
Nambu gently pushed Jun and Jinpei up before him so they could be seen. Jun wondered what they were doing here. She felt uneasy being so close to a Chunese. Did Nambu change his mind about taking them after all?
"Jun, Jinpei, this is my friend Dr. Chung. He's going to check you out and give you some shots. You'll need to have these before you're allowed to leave the country with me."
Jun tensed even more than before. She knew about shots. She didn't like them. She had to have them when she and her aunt had traveled. They were bad news.
"What's a shot?" Jinpei looked inquiringly at his sister and then at Nambu.
Jun bit her lip, knowing if she told her brother the truth, he'd never go for it. Could they really keep them from going away?
"Shot's are a way of putting medicine inside your body--special medicine." Dr. Chung made it sound like it would be a treat. "Let's go to my workroom next door and I'll show you." He led them to a room across the hall.
"Sit here, please." Chung pointed out a small bench just the right size for children. Nambu stayed in the background, letting Chung become the focus of Jun and Jinpei's attention.
The doctor checked them quickly, all his tests always beginning with Jun. He took pains to explain everything he was doing and made it all seem harmless and purely routine.
Jinpei laughed with awed delight as Chung tapped Jun's knee with a small hammer and her lower leg jumped up on its own. He laughed even harder as Chung did the same to his own knees.
"You've both done excellently so far and we're just about through." Chung moved over to a cabinet and removed a prepared batch of filled syringes. As he had done with everything else, he approached Jun first. Jun found her eyes riveting themselves to the sharp needles waiting there.
"Now, Jun, this will be over before you know it. It will help if you don't watch while I do it." Chung picked up one of the syringes.
"He's right. Don't worry. The more you relax the better it is." For the first time, Nambu moved forward to stand by them. "It'll help Jinpei."
Jun sighed, fear gnawing at her insides. She made herself look toward her brother and think how this was necessary to give him a better future. She tried to smile at her brother as Chung dabbed something cold on her arm, seeing her own nervousness reflected in his eyes.
Jun jerked minutely as she felt a pricking pain on her upper arm. She sat absolutely still, forcing herself not to look as every nerve in her body insisted she must.
"There's just two more to go," Chung said.
"Neechan, are you okay?" Jinpei stared up into her anxious face, his eyes wide as he watched the needle penetrate her arm.
"I'm, I'm fine, Jinpei." Her arm throbbed.
"That's it. You did very well."
She looked up at the doctor in surprise, amazed it was actually over.
Chung picked up the tray and set it on the bench's other side. "Do you think you can do as well, Jinpei?"
"Of course he will. Won't you, Jinpei." The pain was nothing like she remembered, but she still doubted her brother would like it.
"I - I guess so." Jinpei looked from Chung to Jun a small frown on his face.
Chung dabbed Jinpei's upper arm with a disinfectant. "Look at your sister, Jinpei. This will be over before you know it." He brought up the first syringe.
"Ow! That hurts!" Jinpei tried to jerk away but Jun stopped him.
"It's not that bad. It'll be over really fast if you sit still." Jinpei wiggled around trying his best to keep Chung from giving him a second injection.
"But, neechan --" His eyes filled with tears.
"I'll tell you a story later if you do. A special one. And if you're really good, I'll tell you two!"
Jinpei's face screwed up in indecision and then cleared. "O - okay..."
Chung quickly gave him the other two injections. Jinpei's eyes had filled with tears but otherwise came through it fine.
"You both did excellently. Thank you. And for that, you've earned a reward." Chung reached inside a pocket and brought out four pieces of wrapped candy. "Here you go."
Jinpei stared at Chung's offer, his curiosity over the reward overriding all of his residual discomfort over the injections. "Wh - what is it?"
"It's called chocolate. Try it," he said.
Tentatively, Jinpei reached for his share. He took a nibble of it and made a face.
"You'll need to unwrap it first." Chung was smiling.
Jinpei watched as the doctor did it for him and then took the offered morsel. Trying it again, his face abruptly lit up and he popped the rest of the chocolate in his mouth. "That's good!" He quickly unwrapped and ate the other.
Jun ate hers with relish. It had been along time since she had any chocolate. Maybe it was worth it.
"Kids, please wait here for me while I talk to Dr. Chung for a few minutes, all right?"
They both nodded. Nambu and Chung left them and returned to the doctor's office. Nambu wasn't gone long.
After saying their good-byes, Nambu and the children returned to their waiting car. An hours ride later, they left the city and its walls behind and approached a small airport surrounded by a large security fence. Their car was forced to stop at the closed and guarded entrance. Nambu got out and after a quick exchange of papers and a few bills, the gate was opened and they were allowed inside.
On their left, close to a long, one story building, were three DC-10's. As they watched, one of the planes brought its engines to life with a deafening roar.
"It's a dragon! A dragon!" Jinpei's' voice squeaked with excitement laced fear.
"Actually, that's an airplane. It's like this car, except bigger, and can fly. We'll be taking one of those to take you to my home."
Jinpei stared at the scientist with large, disbelieving eyes. "Really?"
"Yes, really." Nambu looked at both of them for a long moment. "Don't be afraid, it looks big, but it can't hurt you. From now on, you're going to see all sorts of strange and new things, but that's all they are--new. They're nothing to be afraid of, and soon you'll get as used to them as the rest of us."
Jinpei turned his attention to the window and stared as the noisy DC-10 ventured down the runway and then lifted into the air. Jun knew she had flown in such things before, yet found the sight before her still awe inspiring.
The car stopped at the entrance to the lone building and they all got out. Nambu retrieved his suitcases and briefcase before leading the two of them inside.
They walked into a wide room with a row of counters on the opposite wall. Off to the left, a large waiting area opened before a large glass wall, which looked out onto the main runway. Nambu steered them in that direction.
"I need for the two of you to wait for me here," he said. "I need to go take care of a few things. I won't be long. Remember, wait for me here. All right?" Nambu made sure they both nodded their understanding before moving away toward the counters they passed before.
Jun watched as Nambu spoke to a uniformed Chunese there. Jinpei paid that no attention, having made his way over to the wall and staring at the two remaining DC-10's. They looked even more imposing up close.
Jun tensed as the person speaking with Nambu turned and pointed in their direction--his expression didn't look friendly. The man then left and came back with another man. She saw Nambu take out a lot of papers and more words were exchanged. The conversation looked as if it was growing heated. Jun felt a tendril of doubt work itself through her. Perhaps even a great man like Nambu wouldn't be able to get them out of Tebet after all.
She tore her gaze from the counter and glanced back at her brother. Jinpei was eagerly pointing out the window where a new plane was turning in the sky preparing to land. Despite her trepidation, she was captivated by the sight and watched as the plane gracefully came in for a landing. As if aware they were there, it slowly approached them. They both stood perfectly still as the metal behemoth grew before them. Right when it looked like it might be coming after them, the plane turned to the right and moved on.
"Ne - neechan! Did you see? Did you see?" Her brother ran back and forth between her and the window, a broad, fascinated smile on his face.
"Yes, Jinpei... I saw." Jun felt slightly out of breath.
"And we're going to go inside one. We're going to fly!" His smile grew even brighter than before. It was almost more than his small face could contain.
"Yes..." Her brother's words reminded her about what had been happening before. She turned around to check on Nambu's progress only to find that he and the two men were gone. She felt herself grow cold. Where did they go? A touch of panic rushed through her veins.
"Neechan, do you think more of these will come?"
Jun forced her attention back to her brother. "I - I don't know, Jinpei."
"I hope so!" He skipped back to the wall-sized window.
What should she do? Jun looked once more toward the counter area still finding no sign of Nambu. She wanted to go looking for him, to find out what had happened to him, yet he'd told them explicitly to wait there for him. But he could be in trouble!
Jun didn't move gripped by indecision. Even if he was in danger, what could she do? The minutes ticked by and her apprehension grew. She stood up, finally deciding to look for him and work the rest out when she got there, when Nambu appeared from a door set behind the row of counters. She sighed with relief and sat back down.
Nambu spoke a moment longer with the unformed men and then joined Jun and Jinpei in the waiting area. "I apologize for having been gone so long. Things took a little more to put together than I originally expected," he said. "Are the two of you ready?"
Jun stood, nodding slowly, her apprehension not easing as she noted the tight lines around Nambu's eyes. They may be getting to leave, but they'd obviously caused the foreigner an awful lot of trouble. "Jinpei, it's time to go."
At her call, her brother disengaged himself from his perch at the window and ran back over to them. His face lit up as he spotted Nambu. "Are we going to fly now? Are we?"
Nambu's face relaxed all at once, a small smile tugging at his lips. "Yes. Yes, we are."
"Yippee!" Jinpei ran circles around them his arms splayed wide.
"This way." Nambu took charge of their luggage and led them off to the right. They joined a short line of people going one by one through a small gateway manned by guards.
As it came to be their turn, Nambu handed the guards a large packet of papers. The guard eyeballed them quickly, taking a long look at Jun and Jinpei. Finally, he stamped several of the pages as well as a small book with Nambu's picture before waving them through.
"When do we go in the air - airplane?" Jinpei's eyes were shining.
"Well, we'll actually have to wait for a little while before they allow us to board. When we reach our gate, you'll be able to see which of the planes will be ours though." Nambu led them to the last of the small airports' three gates.
Jinpei went directly to the window to look at ‘his' plane. Jun followed after him even as Nambu chose a seat close to the ramp.
Jun and Jinpei stood and watched in fascination as a group of men worked like ants over the plane to get it ready. They'd been standing there for about ten minutes, when Jun suddenly noticed her brother fidgeting beside her. "What's wrong, Jinpei?"
He wouldn't meet her gaze. "Neechan... My, my shoes hurt."
She glanced over her shoulder in Nambu's direction. The doctor was still in his seat pouring over papers from his briefcase. He didn't seem to be aware of them at all--good.
Quietly, Jun pointed her brother to a couple of empty seats set before the window. "Come, let's sit over here. Let's take those off for a little while."
She gently slipped Jinpei's shoes off his feet and placed them on the reddish carpet. Jinpei wiggled his toes in obvious relief. Jun took off her own shoes, only now willing to admit they'd been feeling a little sore for a while. The back of her calves thrummed with relief.
Ten minutes later, a voice boomed above them making the two of them jump in their seats.
"Neechan, it's a spirit!" Jinpei's voice was shrill.
"Let's get our shoes back on, hurry."
He complied, still staring wide eyed about him trying to locate the source of the voice.
They'd just about finished when Nambu appeared before them. "Come on, you two. It's time to board the plane."
Nambu led them to the back of the line of people that formed not far from where he'd been siting. Jun followed, her brother holding on tightly to her hand.
They moved through the gate and followed the small hallway leading to the plane. A woman at the door took their tickets and told them to follow the way on the left. They moved on to a small area filled with large, plush chairs. There were two of each on either side of the isle and they ran four deep.
"Those are yours." Nambu pointed to the two seats on the left in the third row. He sat down on the one across the isle from them. Jinpei scurried into the seat next to the covered window.
"If you'll raise the blind, you'll be able to see outside and watch the takeoff. Our flight will only be a couple of hours. We'll be taking another plane once this one lands. Remember, this will feel strange to you, but there's absolutely nothing to be scared about. Flying is perfectly safe."
Jun tried to recall what it felt like to fly but couldn't. The fact that Nambu went out of his way to reassure them made her wonder just how strange it would seem. Undaunted, her brother raised the blind and eagerly peered out at all the window would show him. After a minute or so, she couldn't stand the suspense and got up to take a look out the window herself.
"Excuse me, we're about to take off in just a few minutes. I'll need for you to sit down and put your seat belts on."
Startled at the unexpected voice, Jun turned around only to find a young woman dressed in a short blue uniform smiling brightly at her. Embarrassed and not daring to question the stranger, she quickly sat down.
Still smiling, the woman took the seat belt straps on either side of Jun's chair and strapped her in. After making sure it wasn't on too tight, she moved to do the same for Jinpei. Glancing past the woman, Jun noticed that Nambu was doing the same with his.
Jinpei's attention was finally drawn from the window as a low hum vibrated through the ship. A disembodied voice called out to them.
"Welcome aboard flight 834. My name is Ahier Butang and I will be your captain for this flight," the disembodied voice said.
Jinpei's head snapped this way and that, his lips pale. Jun heard him gasp as he looked at his window and noticed the plane had started to move. "Neechan, look!
Jun peered past him as best she could, his moist hand in hers. As the plane finished backing out onto the runway, the vibrating hum moving through the ship increased.
"We estimate the flight to take about one hour and fifty minutes. The skies are clear and I'm foreseeing no weather problems enroute. Please sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight."
The runway outside sped past faster and faster until it became a blur. Jun felt her body being pressed back against her seat even as the plane suddenly tilted upwards. With a soft jerk, the plane was in the air.
She felt her heart jump into her throat as she watched the land drop away from Jinpei's window. Houses, roads, cars, and people all grew smaller and smaller as they rose toward the clouds.
"Neechan, we're flying!"
"Yes, we are." Jun stared down at the place that had so recently seemed to have sealed her fate. With a sparkling of joy, she realized they'd made it. They had outrun their bleak future. They were free!
She was still trying to make herself believe it was really true a half hour later, when the attendant came by pushing along a large cart. "What would you two like for lunch?" she asked. "We have Chicken Cordon Bleu or Curry and Rice. Which would you like?"
Strange smells tickled Jun's nose from the cart. Her stomach growled with anticipation. The deliciously strange smells even got Jinpei to take his eyes away from the blue sky outside.
"What's chicken?" he asked.
The stewardess raised and eyebrow and then smiled. "It's a type of bird. Very tasty. This one is wrapped in ham and Swiss cheese."
Jinpei made a gagging sound. They ate birds? Everyone knew fish and birds were the same as worms! Why would anyone ever want to eat them?
Jun stepped in before her brother could do anything more. "The cu-curry please. For the both of us." The name sounded half familiar. She hoped it would be all right. Jun was sure she'd eaten chicken long ago with her aunt, but the priests and others had discouraged it so much... Surely the Holy One knew what was best?
Eavesdropping, Jun heard Nambu order the chicken. Her stomach grew tight. Both she and Jinpei watched as the stewardess put the food on Nambu's tray. On it, there was a round, brownish thing that Jun assumed had to be the chicken. Another plate was filled with spinach and lettuce as well as other vegetables. Nambu was going to eat worms and weeds? Surely they couldn't be good for you. He should eat cheese, milk, butter, not these things! But, she had eaten these very things herself before coming to Tebet. Hadn't she?
The two of them watched in morbid fascination as Nambu ate his food with evident relish. Maybe since he was so powerful, he was able to eat these things without harm. The monks never lied. Surely there was something wrong with them. Jun stared at her own plate perplexed by the seeming incongruity.
As she forced herself to try her own food, she got the intense feeling she had this before. And she liked it! Her appetite revived somewhat.
"Is the food all right?" Nambu peered at them from across the way.
"It's hot but not hot. I like it!" Jinpei grinned from ear to ear even as he took another spoonful of food.
"It's good." She tried hard to smile.
"It won't be too long before we reach Indiene. When we trade planes there, the next flight will be a lot longer, but we'll also be in a bigger plane."
"Bigger?" Jinpei's eyes grew round.
"Yes, bigger. A 777 in fact," he said. "What we're in now is actually considered to be a small commuter plane. It's good for short flights."
Though he obviously only understood half of what had been said to him, Jinpei looked even more amazed than before. "Bigger..."
Nambu smiled, obviously enjoying his reaction. "The airport has a viewing deck, I believe. We can go there for a while before our next flight and you can look at what the bigger planes look like before we board."
"YES!" His excited yell echoed through the cabin.
"Sorry, neechan." His small body drooped in submission but his eyes shone as brightly as the sun.
The rest of their flight was uneventful and not over soon enough to suit Jinpei. Now that the prospect of seeing an even larger plane was put before him, there was room for nothing else. Jun's patience wore thin as he kept asking her every few minutes how much longer it would be before they'd get there. She finally got a reprieve as the captain came on to inform them they were about to land.
Jun stared out the window with her brother as a miniature world appeared below them and grew larger as they approached.
When they left the plane, she noticed how the types of people changed around them as they got further into the new airport. Though many were Asian, there were more whites here. But the majority were even more dark skinned than the Tebetans and had broader features. Like a cold rain, it truly hit her that they were no longer where they'd been. All that was close and familiar was gone.
As promised, Nambu took the two of them to the large airport's roof viewing deck. Before them lay an entire field of planes--metal giants of all shapes and sizes. A deafening cacophony of sound blasted all around them as the planes paraded one by one in front of them before taking to the air.
"Wow!" Jinpei dashed to the guardrail. Jun rushed to pull him back before he tried to climb it.
"Which one is ours, Hakase? Which one?" His eager face scanned the field.
"It will be one just like that one over there." Nambu pointed toward one of the largest planes on the runway.
"Yes! Yes!" Jinpei did a little dance around them. A number of the other people watching the planes couldn't help laughing at his antics.
"Why don't the two of you stay here for a while and watch the planes? I need to make a couple of phone calls. I won't be long."
"Yes, Nambu Hakase."
Jun and Jinpei watched the planes with rapt fascination doubting they could ever get tired of the sight. Before they knew it, the doctor had finished his calls and returned. Not long after, they left the deck and headed off toward their gate.
Once on board, Jun immediately noticed the differences between their DC-10 and the 777. The plane held a lot more seats and the aisles were wider. First class was lavish and Jinpei tried to wear out his chair by pushing in and out his seat's footrest.
After they'd been up in the air for a while, Nambu told them they could remove their seat belts and explore if they wished. Jinpei didn't need to be asked twice. He checked out everything he could get into with Jun in tow trying her best to keep him out of trouble.
Throughout the flight, they were given more strange food to eat and many drinks to try. Their area had a large television screen that also helped keep them occupied. Despite all there was to see and do, however, the long day and the strangeness of everything drained the two of them until they gave in and fell asleep in their chairs.
Jun woke once, needing to use the facilities, and found that someone had covered her and Jinpei over with a blanket. Surprised, she glanced over at Nambu and found him asleep, a blanket thrown over his form as well. As she moved to the restrooms, she noticed most of the people on board were also asleep. When she finished, she returned to her chair and slept again.
A slight jolt brought her awake about three hours later. Staring about with sleep filled eyes, she noticed that Nambu was awake as well as most of the other passengers in first class. A strange bell rang over them and then a woman's voice spoke out to them telling them they'd reached the Utoland Airport.
"Ah, you're awake. We're in my city now. We're in Utoland."
Utoland... What a strange name. Jun repeated it to herself a number of times trying to become familiar with it--with her new home. Quickly, she turned to look out the window to get a glimpse of the new place, but other than for a few far off lights, all she saw was darkness.
Once the plane stopped, people stood up and started moving around. Jun stood and folded her blanket before setting it on her seat. Her brother had yet to stir. A bit of spittle pooled at the corner of his mouth as he remained oblivious to all that was happening about him.
"Jinpei, it's time to wake up." Jun shook his shoulder wondering how much it would take to wake him up. "Jinpei!"
"Let him sleep," Nambu said. "He's earned it. If you'll carry this for me, I'll get him."
She nodded, heavily embarrassed he was being forced to do so. Their lives in so many ways rested in this man's hands, she wanted to do nothing to make him regret his decision.
Nambu swept Jinpei up into his arms as Jun took command of his briefcase and her brother's discarded shoes. They followed the other passengers off the plane and after going through a couple of lines moved to go pick up their luggage.
Unlike what Jun half expected, they had no problem going through customs. The guards were quiet and pleasant and never once leered at her though it was thoroughly obvious what she was. Jun found their lack of interest confusing but not displeasing.
"This way," Nambu said. "There should be a car waiting for us outside."
She followed the doctor, pushing the cart with all their belongings.
An extremely polite man in a black uniform took their bags off the cart and placed them in the trunk of a dark blue Seville. Nambu sat in the back with Jun, still carrying an oblivious Jinpei. Jun watched fixedly out the window as they pulled away from the airport, eager for her first close up view of Utoland.
The first thing to impress itself upon her were the lights. They were everywhere. Though it was late at night, they lit up the streets and stores making it seem like early twilight. Lights of all colors and sizes flashed and blinked on the side of buildings and sometimes even made pictures that moved and talked. The bright headlights of cars floated by like disembodied spirits enjoying the never ending show. It seemed eerie yet very beautiful to her.
After a short while, the number of lights began to decrease until other than for a few streetlights, the night held sway again. With the help of their own headlights, Jun noticed the increasing number of trees and bushes that sprung from the houses around them. With more fervor than she would have expected, she found herself wishing desperately for Nambu's home to also have trees and plants like these.
The Seville eventually came to a stop before a large metal gate. The driver rolled down his window and spoke into a box set on the side. Jun tried not to be too surprised as the gate abruptly opened on its own. The car drove on in.
A small smile grew on her face as the driver took the car along a winding drive and she spotted all the plants and trees that grew on Nambu's estate. Eagerly, she stared out the front window wanting to see what kind of home a man such as him made for himself.
The house was large, almost as big as one of the minor temples in Ximang. The walls were straight and not slopped though, and were rough, not smooth. The roof was sloped, but had no tiles and no protective figures at the corners. Still, it didn't look too foreign and with a little time she was sure she could get used to it. Jun quickly reminded herself that wouldn't be necessary--they were only staying here for a short time.
The driver brought the car over into a covered area and stopped. As they got out of the car, the main door to the house opened. An old, wiry woman with a long white braid came from inside to greet them. She was followed by a man that looked like as wrinkled and wise as many of the older monks at the monastery.
"Welcome home, Kozaburo," the old woman said.
"It's good to be back." Nambu smiled, still holding the sleeping Jinpei in his arms. "Pho, Pham, I'd like to introduce you to Jun."
"Hello, young one." The woman smiled at her showing her a gap filled smile. The old man did the same.
Jun was horrified that people of their obvious age and position would greet one as lowly as her. "He- hello."
"The small one in my arms is Jinpei."
"A gangly little thing, isn't he?" Pho's eyes danced as she stared at the sleeping bundle in Nambu's arms.
"It's been quite a day for the two of them." The doctor headed indoors. Jun followed with Pho behind her even as Pham took charge of the luggage and bid the driver good night.
Jun stared at the large foyer and its wood paneling as Nambu walked on through into a hallway and led them to a large set of stairs.
"Are the boys asleep?" he asked.
Pho laughed. It was a sweet sound. "Oh yes, though they did try to come up with all sorts of excuses for why they should have been allowed to wait up for you. They didn't win, of course." She laughed again.
They rose up the stairs to the next landing, the scent of wood oil tickling Jun's' nose as they went. She liked the smell. She liked the dark look of the walls. For some unknown reason, it all reminded her of her parents.
"The rooms are down this way, Kozaburo." Pho led them down a short hallway filled with doors. She stopped before two sitting across from each other that were open. "Jun, this will be your room," she said. "Jinpei's will be right across from yours."
Jun took a peek into her room and was amazed by its size. This would be hers? Alone? It was bigger than the room she shared with the others at the monastery.
Quietly, she turned to look into her brother's room as Nambu and Pho went inside. Pho turned down the large beds covers and Nambu nestled the sleeping boy into the bed. The old woman tucked the covers around him and gently brushed his unruly hair away from his face. Jinpei never stirred.
"Is the room all right, Jun?"
She looked up, startled, not having noticed Nambu coming toward her. "Yes, Hakase." It was more than she could have ever hoped for. Still... She glanced back toward her sleeping brother in the bed all alone.
"Go ahead and get some more sleep. Pho will come and wake you about nine if you two aren't up before then."
"The two of you will probably be feeling a little tired over the next few days," he said. "Don't let that worry you, it's only normal. You've traveled quite a long way today."
Jun nodded slowly but said nothing.
"See you in the morning then. Good night."
"Good night, Hakase." Jun watched Nambu go down the hall. She was left alone with Pho.
"Do you need anything before going to bed?"
"N-no, thank you, ma'am." Jun blushed not used to having others being concerned with her needs.
"Ma'am? Just call me Pho, young one. We girls don't have to be so formal with each other, do we?"
Jun wasn't sure what to say. She still had no real idea of her status here, let alone of anyone else she'd met so far. In Tebet it would have been a major breach to call a better by just their first name. It felt wrong. Was that not how they did things here? "Thank you...Pho."
"Good night." Pho turned out the light in Jinpei's room but kept his door open and the hall light on. Jun took off her shoes and turned out her own light before getting into bed with her clothes on. Though she felt tired, she found she couldn't fall asleep. Her eyes kept returning to her open door and the room on the other side of the hall.
The house was quiet, too quiet. The normal sounds she was used to of light snores and breathing weren't there. Giving up, Jun got up. She took one of her blankets off the bed and sneaked over into her brother's room. Using the light from the hallway, she set her blanket down on one side of Jinpei's bed and curled up to sleep. She drifted off almost immediately.
"Time to wake up, children."
Jun's eyes snapped open, instantly alert as something gently touched her on the shoulder. She turned over even as her brother groaned sleepily beside her. Pho was there, kneeling before them, a soft smile on her expressive face.
"Good morning," Jun stammered.
"Good morning. Did you sleep well?"
Jun sat up slowly, nudging her brother from beneath the covers. "I slept fine, thank you." Her cheeks colored slightly as she realized that they'd been caught sleeping on the floor again. She hoped once more that Nambu wouldn't take offense.
"I've got some clothes set out for you. We'll go shopping this afternoon and get you both some proper nightclothes and other things. At least Kozaburo gave me enough notice of your coming to get you a few of the most important items. Let me show you where I've put them."
Jun quickly stood up, dragging her brother up with her. She let him go and he remained standing, but his eyes were still closed.
"Jinpei!" Jun hissed at her brother as she pinched him in the arm once Pho had turned away to show them the way.
"Ow! Neechan!" Jinpei's eyes snapped open his expression changing from annoyance to surprise as he caught his first look at their surroundings.
Pho was smiling at them from the doorway. "Good morning, Jinpei. My name is Pho. It's nice to finally meet you awake." Her smile grew until they could see all the gaps in her teeth.
Jun nudged him in the side as her brother just stood there and stared. "Goo - good morning."
Pho's smile grew even brighter. "Come on this way."
The two of them followed after her.
"Ne- neechan, where are we?" Jinpei's query was barely above a squeaky whisper.
"You'd know if you hadn't slept through everything. We're in Utoland. At Nambu Hakase's house."
His eyes grew wide. "We are?"
Pho opened a door on their right. "This bathroom is just for the two of you. Your toothbrushes, combs, and other morning things belong here." She waved them on inside.
A long counter with two sinks sat before a large mirror. At the other end of the room were a large tub and a toilet. On the counter, sitting side by side, were pairs of blue and pink brushes, combs, toothbrushes, and cups.
For the next several minutes, Pho took the time to show them the basics of teeth brushing. She exaggerated all of her movements for their benefit, eliciting laughter from both of them. Jun remembered having done this before but it had been a while ago. Jinpei had never seen it done. Things got a little messy when they tried to emulate Pho with actual toothpaste on their brushes.
"Bleah!" Jinpei spit out the foaming goo in disgust.
"It's not the best taste in the world, but you'll get used to it. It's good for your teeth. That is unless you want your smile to look like mine, eh?" Pho laughed as Jinpei made a face.
Once they finished in the bathroom, they went back to their rooms and changed clothes. Pho helped them make their beds and showed them where to put their dirty laundry. When they were through, she led them back to the bathroom and grabbed the brushes and combs to deal with their unruly short hair.
After working out the worst of the knots, and drying two sets of tears, Pho brushed Jun's hair in a number of ways. Her small mouth was set in a dissatisfied expression as she went through each one.
Though undoing the tangles had hurt, Jun found herself enjoying the unusual attention.
"Okay, I guess that will have to do for now. Let's go get you some breakfast, shall we?" Pho quickly led them downstairs to the kitchen.
Jun and Jinpei stared at the clean, crisp room, unsure it was really a kitchen. There were no fires burning, no overlaying scent of fermenting butter or cheese. They weren't sure what to make of it. Where was the food?
"Is there anything special the two of you would like?" She looked from one to the other of them but they said nothing. "Okay... how about some pancakes then?"
Jun and Jinpei traded glances. Jinpei shrugged. "Sure."
"Here, let's start you off with some juice while I get them ready." Pho poured them each a tall glass of orange juice and set it on the large dinette table for them.
Gingerly, the two of them tasted what she gave them. Jun immediately knew she'd had this before. She swirled a large swallow in her mouth enjoying the familiar tangy taste.
"Neechan, it has little things in it." Jinpei whispered over at her while pointing emphatically at his glass.
Jun looked down into hers and saw that she had them too. They didn't look like worms or bugs, so she assumed they were supposed to be in there. They seemed to taste right anyway. "It's okay. Just drink it. It's good."
Pho was humming lightly to herself as she took down a large mixing bowl and started putting ingredients into it. Jinpei quickly finished his juice and made his way over to Pho's side to see all that was going over there. He jerked back as she turned and poured some of the batter into a skillet and it hissed.
When he saw that Pho wasn't alarmed by this, he moved in close again and watched as the batter began to bubble. After a minute or so, Pho took a spatula and flipped the pancakes over.
The old woman smiled to herself and after a minute or so, scooped the pancakes out. She poured more batter into the pan. As it hissed, Jinpei didn't flinch back at all.
"Here, why don't the two of you start on these?" Pho took the cooked pancakes and placed them on two plates which she brought over to the table. "Let me put some syrup on the side so you can try it. Some butter too, I think." She placed both on the table and quickly set nice portions of each on their plates.
The butter smelled different from what they were used to, but Jun smothered her pancake with it anyway before taking a taste. Jinpei did the same and then dipped a bite in his syrup. His face lit up. "I like this!" He eagerly reached for the bottle of syrup to pour himself some more.
Pho kept adding pancakes to their plates until the two were certain they would explode. "Are you sure you two have had enough? You really haven't eaten all that much."
"Yes!" Jun doubted she'd be able to get up from her chair for at least a day.
"Well, just sit there and rest then while I take care of the dishes." That she was laboring for their benefit made Jun nervous, but she felt so full she didn't dare to try and do something about it.
Once Pho finished up and the two of them felt capable of walking, she took them on a tour of the house. Though she took them through all three floors, they saw no one else. The place seemed much too big to be so empty.
To Jun's delight, Pho then took them outside to tour the grounds. Everything around them was green and wonderful, more beautiful than it had looked when they first arrived. Pho showed them the manicured front yard and then the back where trees dotted a lot of the farthest part. A large separate barn like garage sat to one side as well as a maintained wood shed. The garage was quite spacious with all manner of tools and things hanging from the walls. A ladder in the rear of the building led up to a loft filled with workbenches, tools, and machines. On one of the benches, Jun spotted what looked like a miniature airplane, it's small engine partially taken apart. Pho didn't let them tarry there long.
Jun loved all she saw, couldn't get enough of it, but also started feeling uncomfortable. Something about the air felt strange. It was hot outside, hotter than it had ever been at Ximang; and the air itself, it felt oppressive and sticky. Were the spirits here displeased with them? She was sure they were working hard to drain her of her strength. What had she done? Jun looked over at her brother and knew she wasn't alone. He looked tired, light circles beneath his eyes, his whole body drooping. She sighed with relief when they finally returned to the relative coolness of the house.
"Are you two okay?" Pho asked. "You look very tired. Would you like to take a small nap?"
Jinpei shook his head no even as he rubbed at his eyes.
Jun remembered what Nambu told her the night before and decided they probably needed it. "Yes, I think we should."
"It'll do you good. And don't worry, I'll come get you in a couple of hours for lunch. Then you'll get to meet the boys." Pho's eyes lit up. "I'm real eager for you to meet them. I know they want to meet you too."
Jun frowned, wondering who these boys were. Why hadn't they seen them when they toured the house? Were they Pho's children or perhaps Nambu's? She kept her questions to herself as the old woman led them upstairs.
Pho tucked the two of them in Jinpei's bed, then closed the door most of the way, before leaving them on their own.
"I like her, neechan. She's real nice." Jinpei nestled up next to her, his voice already sounding sleepy.
"I like her too, Jinpei."
Though she'd doubted she could actually fall asleep on a bed, Jun felt her eyes closing on their own before long.
"Time for lunch!" Pho's gap filled smile greeted them as they woke. "Everyone is waiting. Let's go meet them."
Jun swallowed a yawn, her stomach knotting at the prospect of meeting new people. It had never really been such a good thing at Ximang and though here things were different, she no longer had any idea on what she might expect. She got off the bed, Jinpei only half conscious as he followed her. Pho quickly made them detour to the bathroom and redid their hair.
"Everyone, they're here!" Pho pushed a reluctant Jun and Jinpei before her so they could be seen as they entered the kitchen.
The table they ate at that morning had been made longer and two new chairs had been added to those already there. Nambu was seated directly across from them and signaled at them to come forward. To his right sat Pho's husband, who greeted the two of them with a small smile. Of the boys, there were three. Two sat on one side of the table, with the largest of the three next to Pham.
"Boys, meet Jun and Jinpei." Pho gently pushed the two of them forward a little more. "Jun, Jinpei, these are the boys--Ken, Joe, and Ryu." She pointed each of the three out in turn.
Ken sat beside Nambu. His hair was a very dark brown, almost black. His face was sweet, almost pretty. Yet the first thing that caught Jun's attention were his friendly, sky blue eyes. She felt a small pang of loss inside as she realized that he looked to be about Rikaw's same age. Ken smiled at them as soon as they were introduced. The smile was warm and friendly.
Joe looked to be about the same size and age as Ken. His eyes were blue, but were a much darker shade than Ken's. His face was somewhat square in shape and was harsher looking than Ken's as well. His hair was a lighter shade of brown. His dark, unreadable eyes looked them up and down without a touch of warmth. The expression on his face was grim. It was almost as if he were the dark to Ken's light.
Ryu, the last of the boys, was much heftier in size than the others, but also looked as if he might be younger than them. Though his dark hair was cut close, it gave the faint impression that if allowed to grow, it would pick its own way and no other. Ryu's shy, broad face split in a welcoming grin. "Nice ta meet ya."
Jun nodded in reply feeling terribly self-conscious. For years she'd done her utmost never to become the center of attention--it felt odd having it thrust on her. With an effort, she made herself take a seat at the table. Jinpei promptly did the same, seemingly undisturbed by their scrutiny.
"Jun and Jinpei will be staying with us for a time," Nambu said. "I expect the three of you to do your utmost to make them feel welcome. They've come a very long way."
Jun stared at her plate at Nambu's words, still feeling everyone's eyes on her.
"Here you go. Eat up everyone." Pho set a large bowl of salad on their plates as well as a split tuna sandwich.
Jun saw her brother make a face and then open his mouth to say something. In a panic, she reached over and quickly pinched him on the thigh.
"Are you okay, Jinpei?" She asked the question with all the sweetness she could muster. This wasn't the time for him to complain. If Nambu decided they should eat weeds, they would eat weeds! As well as whatever strange stuff had been placed in the bread.
Jinpei didn't look at her. "I'm fine, neechan..."
Jun picked up her fork and took a large bite out of her salad making sure not to look at anyone else. Poised to hide her distaste if need be, she was surprised to find the salad didn't taste all that horrible at all. A tangy orange colored sauce covered some of it, making the salad even more palatable.
All the others had started in on their food as soon as Pho served them. Jinpei worked himself up to tasting what was before him and when it didn't make him gag, he ate some more.
"Hakase, I thought you were bringing home a boy."
Jun saw Nambu frown at Joe's question, his gaze momentarily flickering toward her. "He was no longer there."
Joe scowled as he waited for more of an explanation and got none. "So what are you going to do now? We can't wait forever."
Jun saw Ken flinch even as Nambu's brow rose at Joe's tone.
"Joe..." Ken threw the other boy a pleading look.
Ryu rolled his eyes even as he continued eating.
Jun got the distinct impression they'd gone over this topic, whatever it really was, a number of times before.
"Couldn't we keep our conversations a little lighter today?" Nambu asked.
Joe looked about to protest the suggestion when the doctor cut him off. "Tell me how you've been doing with your studies while I've been gone."
Joe's face blanched and he quickly looked away. "I've... been doing okay."
Ryu glanced over at Jun and Jinpei and lightly shook his head no while making a face. Jinpei giggled loudly, earning him a low level glare from Joe.
"Here, Joe, your plate is looking a little bare." Pho dumped two more sandwiches on his plate.
"All our papers are waiting on your desk, Hakase."
"Thank you, Ken. Hopefully I'll be able to go through them sometime before tomorrow."
Joe's expression darkened.
"Hakase, would it be all right for us to show Jun and Jinpei around during our free period tonight?"
"Yes, by all means." Nambu gave Ken a pleased smile.
"Yeah, we'll have us some fun!" Ryu winked at Jinpei.
Jun felt her cheeks grow warm, still somewhat overwhelmed by it all.
Pho kept all their plates full, though Jun noticed she did push a lot more food on Nambu and the boys than she did on everyone else. After the meal they'd had earlier, she was only too glad not to be given the same. The two of them were allowed to stop before the others, so they sat quietly and watched them eat, not sure of what they were supposed to do.
As soon as Nambu finished, he told them he needed to go upstairs and excused himself. Pham left with him. Ken and Ryu finished up and then moved over to Jun and Jinpei's side of the table. Joe left the room, never once looking back, the moment Pho told him he was through.
"We've got to go do homework now, but we just wanted to make sure you knew that we think it's real nice to have you here. I'm looking forward to us meeting together later and getting to know one another." Ken's bright smile shone on them full force.
Jun found that she liked it.
"Yeah. You'll love it here. This place is great!" Ryu beamed at them. "I have a brother who's just a little younger than you." The bigger boy playfully ruffled Jinpei's unruly hair.
Her brother threw him a dirty look, but didn't do anything else to try and make him stop.
"Can't wait for us to play some games," Ryu added.
Jinpei's eyes lit up and he nodded enthusiastically.
"Well, we gotta go. See you later." The two of them left.
Pho stood back by the stove a pleased smile on her face. "Aren't they nice boys? They work really hard." She turned her attention to the sink and turned on the water. "If you wouldn't mind, would you bring the dishes over for me? As soon as I get through, we'll be able to go shopping!"
Jun and Jinpei quickly cleared the table. Jun was just grateful everyone was gone and that she had something useful to do. As Jinpei put the plate mats away where Pho showed him, Jun took a damp cloth and cleaned the table. When they were about finished, Nambu strolled into the kitchen looking for them.
"I've brought the car around to the front. I'm ready whenever you are."
"Ah, wonderful," Pho said. "I believe we're just about ready now, Kozaburo."
Going out the front, they found a slick red convertible waiting for them under the covered parkway. The top was down.
The oppression Jun had encountered outside earlier swept back around her in full force. She wasn't sure she could stand it, until they actually got under way. The wind swept past them as Nambu drove and as it swirled about them it seemed to brush away the worst of it.
Nambu took them to a set of huge buildings called the Utoland Mall. Jun and Jinpei stared as he parked the car, amazed at the size of the structure as well as the sea of cars parked around it. Inside, the hum of activity rose as people from all walks of life busily moved to and fro on the hallways.
Pho took charge and dragged them from one clothing store to the next. As Jun and Jinpei were dazzled by the sheer quantity of choices and styles, Pho took their sizes and grabbed one outfit after another, asking them if they liked this color or that and keeping just about all that she chose. Surely they didn't need so many! And the colors were so bright. Did they make it easier for parents not to lose their children in the crowds? Pho chose shirts, pants, shorts, socks, underwear, bedclothes, dresses, and even bows and ribbons. As the purchases stacked up she handed the wrapped bundles to Nambu to carry. Jun guardedly studied all this, wondering why he allowed a woman to treat him that way. She also wondered at what they expected her and her brother to do with it all. Jinpei was a bundle of energy, barely able to stand still for longer than a few seconds at a time. He ran up and down the isles, hiding occasionally amidst the racks of clothes, giggling with glee.
When Pho finally slowed, Nambu suggested they stop at a place called Ice Land. Expecting yet more clothes, Jun was pleasantly surprised when he led them to a table where they could sit. Minutes later, he returned with what he called ice cream cones. After a hesitant lick, Jinpei devoured his. Jun wasn't far behind. Ice cream, she'd always loved ice cream! Strange, wispy memories flittered through her mind of previous times when she had it before. Too vague to know when or where, it was the taste itself she remembered the most. Pho laughed as she watched them eat it up.
The group made one more stop before going home. They stopped in a bookstore. Though Jinpei had no interest in the place other than looking at the strange pictures they had here and there on the walls, Jun walked down the aisles in awe. These were books--real books! Most of her stories had come from books; books her aunt had bought and read to her. In Ximang, there had been many scrolls but few books, and those had never been the types that were allowed to be looked at by the likes of them. Jun barely dared breathe as an idea came to her, might some of these books Nambu was getting for them? She didn't dare ask. They left the place with a bag full.
Jinpei finally settled down on the ride back to the house. They'd only gone a few blocks before he fell asleep leaning against Jun's shoulder. He woke up when the car stopped at the house, but looked out of sorts. Jun nudged him to move and volunteered them to help carry some of the packages inside.
Once the load got taken upstairs, Pho helped them put it all away. Jinpei dragged along with his share, an unhappy frown on his face, until Pho suggested he just sit and watch them. He lay down, his eyes following their movements and fell asleep again.
"We really exhausted him, didn't we?"
Jun only nodded feeling pretty tired herself.
"I need to go start supper," Pho said. "Why don't you stay with your brother and I'll come back and get the two of you in a little while?" She gave Jun a knowing look.
Jun had the sudden feeling not much got past her. She nodded.
Pho moved Jinpei under the covers and Jun crawled in with him. It wasn't long before she fell asleep as well.
A knock at the door startled Jun awake. She sat up, momentarily disoriented. She frowned slightly as she spotted Ken standing just outside the doorway.
"Hi! Hope I didn't scare you. Pho asked me to come up and get you guys for dinner."
Jun looked away from the eager, friendly gaze, embarrassed though she wasn't sure why. She turned to her brother. "Jinpei, wake up. It's time for dinner." She shook him lightly until he finally opened his eyes. She helped him sit up.
"Ah... Thank you for coming to wake us up." Jun stared intently at her hands for a moment.
"No, problem." Ken flashed her a bright smile. She thought it was a good smile. "I think you'll like what we're having tonight. Pho's casseroles are really delicious," he said.
Jinpei rubbed at his eyes as he and Jun went out of the room and joined Ken in the hallway.
"Nambu Hakase told us you came here all the way from Tebet. I've never been there. Is it a nice place?"
Jun stared at the floor, not entirely sure how to answer the question. She wasn't sure what people here considered nice. "It's very different from here. Not as much green."
"Are you a sorcerer too?"
"Am I a what?" Ken stopped at the top of the stairs and looked back at them in confusion.
"But I wanna know, neechan!" Jinpei stood before his sister, a small defiant pout on his face.
Jun glared at him until he backed down. "I apologize. My brother isn't trying to be impolite. He's just momentarily forgotten his place." She directed the last at her brother.
"No, that's okay. He can ask me anything he wants. Really." Ken gave Jun a reassuring smile. "So what was the question again?"
Jinpei threw his sister a triumphant look. "Are you a sorcerer like Nambu?"
"A sorcerer?" Ken frowned in momentary confusion, but his face suddenly cleared. He grinned. "Yeah, I guess some of what he does would look like magic. I never really quite thought of it like that." The grin grew into a smile. "Hakase is one of the most famous scientists in the world. But he's not a sorcerer, and I'm not a scientist, though I have thought about it. What I really want to do though is follow in my father's footsteps--I want to become a pilot." Ken started down the stairs.
"What's that?" Jinpei hurried to catch up with him.
Ken stopped and gave them a strange look. "A, a pilot is the person who flies an airplane. You flew on one to get here."
"Oh!" He wanted to fly! Jun and Jinpei both stared at Ken with such open wonder that Ken's cheeks quickly colored with embarrassment.
"Ah, come on, we'd better get downstairs. Everyone's waiting for us." He rushed down the stairs his cheeks still fused with a touch of color.
When they entered the kitchen, they received warm, friendly greetings from all except the boy named Joe. The scowling, disapproving look on his face made Jun wonder if they somehow did something to make him angry at them. No one else seemed to pay his displeasure any attention. Jun decided she'd do the same.
The casserole was as wonderful as promised. Yet though Jun enjoyed and ate all she was given, she strangely found herself missing the simple fare of the monastery. It just didn't feel quite right to have so much variety. She wondered if her tongue would overload and stop working from the strain.
"If you guys are through, Ryu and I will give you that tour we promised." Ken got up from his seat.
Jinpei's eyes lit up. "And play games?"
Ryu laughed. "And play games!" He stood up, his eyes dancing. Jinpei got up to follow.
Jun stood up more slowly, noticing that Joe was making no move to join them. He stared in their direction a scowl on his face. Again, she couldn't help wondering at what they could have done to anger him so.
Ken and Ryu took the two of them on a tour of the house, embellishing even more on the things they saw than Pho had and showing them all sorts of details she hadn't. They ogled at the large TV screen and more so at what Ryu called video games. The two boys showed them the stereo and computers that were hidden in desks in the study. Jun marveled again at the number of books there, thinking they had to rival the number she'd seen at the store.
"You can read any of these you like," Ken said. "Hakase doesn't mind as long as we make sure to put them back where we got them."
Jun pulled her hand back from where her fingertips had been brushing the spine of a leather bound book. "We, we can't read very well." She felt her cheeks grow hot. "I've taught Jinpei a little, but we didn't have books to practice on at Ximang."
"Oh... but your Japanese..."
"People like us had no need to know how to read." She shrugged as if it didn't mean anything. "I knew how to read from before, but they said we didn't need to there."
Ken looked surprised for a moment but his face quickly changed back to a smile as if she never said anything surprising at all. "Well, I think you'll find that things are a lot different here. Nambu Hakase can make sure you learn how to read and you can do it whenever you feel like it, if that's what you want."
She looked away and said nothing. She'd like nothing better, but they'd already gotten from Nambu way more than was their due.
After Ken and Ryu showed them where their rooms were and gave them a warning about never going into Nambu's office unasked, they went outside. Though it was already getting dark, lines of light lit the paths around the house and in the gardens. They took them to the far back and showed the two of them which trees were good for climbing and which would bear fruits.
Jun enjoyed this part of the tour immensely, especially as she noticed that the air didn't seem as oppressive and close as it had during the day. Jinpei pointed over toward the garage. "What's all the stuff in there for?"
"It's mostly things to take care of the lawn and the car. The stuff in the loft though is to make and fix things. It's one of Joe's favorite places," Ken said. "He's fixing my remote control plane for me now."
"What happened to it?"
Ken threw a teasing glance in Ryu's direction. "Someone flew it into a tree."
Ryu reached up behind his head and scratched it, his face coloring. "Heh heh."
When they finished with the tour, the four of them returned to the TV room and were promptly indoctrinated into the fine art of video games. They all sat on the floor close to the television and took turns. Jinpei took to them with wild abandon.
"I'm hoping to save enough to send my brother one of these for his birthday. He'll love it," Ryu said.
"Does he live here too?" Jinpei's eyes stayed glued to the screen as he avoided another Galaga attack.
"Aw, no, he's back at the fishing village with my father."
Jun stared at the large boy, frowning as she thought she detected a note of sadness in his voice. She couldn't imagine leaving her own brother behind for anything.
"What's a fishing village?"
Ryu stared at Jinpei in surprise. "You don't know what it is?"
"No." Her brother kept his eyes on the game. "Is it a strange kind of monastery?"
Ryu burst out laughing. "No, no, nothing like that!"
Jinpei threw him a dirty look. Messing up his hair, Ryu then described for them what it was as well as his home, his brother, father and their lives there.
Jun tried to picture what it might be like living in the type of place he described but couldn't. Oceans and beaches were only vague far off concept in the tall mountains of Tebet.
"Why are you here, Ryu? Did you run away too?"
"Jinpei! That's none of our business." Jun would have soundly smacked her brother for his impoliteness if the others hadn't been there.
"I -- uhm, no, not exactly. I, I volunteered to be in a program for Nambu Hakase."
"A program? What's that?"
"Jinpei!" This time, she did smack him.
Ryu opened his mouth to reply. "It's, it's--" Jun saw him glance over at Ken, who shook his head no.
"Nambu Hakase is letting us stay here so that we can go to a special school." Ken's face was blank as he spoke. It reminded Jun of Nambu for some reason.
Just then, Pho came into the room looking for them. "Sorry, boys, but you're going to have to let our guests go." She waved at Jun and Jinpei. "Come on, you two."
Obediently, the two of them hurried to comply. "Thank you for the tour and the games."
Ryu stood up. "No problem. Maybe we can do it again tomorrow."
"Yay!" Jinpei zoomed excitedly about the room.
"Good night, Jun." Ken smiled.
"Good night, boys."
Pho led the two of them upstairs and then got a bath ready for them.
"We just had one a few days ago!" Jinpei stared at the water indignantly.
"Well, around here, we take one every day. It's very important." Pho's expression was grave.
Jinpei turned to Jun for help. "Neechan, do I really have to?"
"We should follow their rules, Jinpei, even if we don't like them. We must show Nambu Hakase we appreciate what he's doing for us." Jun kept her voice low.
"Baths really aren't so bad, young one. They can even be fun if you let them." Pho stuck her hands into the lightly steaming water and wove her fingers together. She suddenly closed her palms and a small stream of water leapt into the air.
"How'd you do that?" In his eagerness to see, Jinpei almost fell head first into the tub.
"I'll show you how once you get in." The old woman's brown eyes sparkled with mirth.
Once they complied, Pho happily showed them the art of squirting. The bathroom soon got very wet amidst a lot of laughing and splashing.
After they got dry and put their pajamas on, Pho tucked Jun and Jinpei into their respective beds. She turned out their lights and spoke to them from the lighted hallway. "Sleep well, you two. I'll see you in the morning."
Jun lay in bed and stared up into the dark, sleepy but unable to fall asleep. A light sound made her glance toward her door.
"Ne - neechan?" Jinpei stood framed in the doorway by the light in the hall, his face hidden in shadow. "I - I can't sleep. Could I stay with you?"
"Of course." Jun smiled, not at all sorry for the company. "Let's put some of these blankets on the floor."
Eagerly, Jinpei helped her pull her blankets off the bed. The two of them curled up together. It wasn't long before they both fell into a deep sleep.
Jun woke after a short while and went to the bathroom. Finding herself strangely alert after she was through, she wondered the darkened hallways trying to get used to the strange feel and smell of Nambu's home. As she skirted the hallway that she'd learned led to Ken and Joe's room, she stopped, hearing the sound of raised voices. Curious, she battled with herself for a moment before silently making her way toward the thin line of light coming from the closed door at the end of the hall.
"Calm down will you? You're making too damn much out of this!"
Jun stiffened, recognizing Ken's voice, yet surprised by the emotion in it.
"You calm down! I'm telling you letting them stay here is a major mistake!"
"There's no harm in it."
"Oh sure! No harm in having kids around here that have nothing to do with the team. No harm since they'll only be distracting us from our lessons and making life harder for everybody since we have to hide everything we do now. What was Nambu thinking? He must be nuts! Next he'll be telling us the girl and kid can join the team!" Joe's voice undulated back and forth almost as if he was pacing in the room.
"Hakase said it was only temporary. They're only here till he can find them a home."
"Temporary my ass! He said that about Ryu too, remember?"
"Yes, but that was different. You know that," Ken said. "This is just a girl and her baby brother, Joe. What's wrong with you?"
"It just feels wrong. They don't belong here."
Something smacked against the door from the inside and made Jun jump snapping her out of a dazed trance. She backed up slowly and once around the corner high tailed it back to her room.
Her head spun with all she heard. Projects, teams, had this been what Nambu wanted Rikaw for? It all fit. Rikaw was about their same age. But, what kind of project? What type of team? Nambu had said he wanted Rikaw for his skills. Did that mean these boys had them too?Jun shivered as she snuggled up against her brother's sleeping form and tried to still the mounting questions. It took her a long time before she was able to go back to sleep.
She woke up slowly. Bright sunlight poured in through her window and lit up the still unfamiliar room--her room. The thought of it still boggled her mind. They'd come so far, and it was all still so hard to believe. -- They don't belong -- Joe's words echoed in her mind and she quickly forced them away. Everything had been going so well. If only...
Pho had yet to show up to wake them so Jun knew it was still early. They really needed to start doing their share to repay Nambu for all he'd done for them. It wouldn't be much, but getting up and getting ready on their own might be a start. "Jinpei, it's time to wake up."
Jun got no response.
With a small smile on her face, she stuck her small finger into her brother's ear and wiggled it. Jinpei moaned quietly for a moment but other wise showed no signs of waking. Jun's smile grew--it was time for the ultimate weapon.
Carefully, she reached beneath the blankets and searched for her brother's sides. Raising his pajama shirt, she lightly ran her fingers up and down his sides.
Jinpei moaned again and tried to move away. Jun stayed on him and increased her efforts. He tried harder to get away his body wriggling beneath her hands. His eyes suddenly snapped open as bubbling laughter burst forth from his lips. "Ne -- nee -- neechan!"
He squirmed in earnest trying to get away but Jun wouldn't let up her laughter merging with his.
She kept it up until tears rose in his eyes and she was sure he was thoroughly awake. "It's time to get up."
Jun's cheery tone earned her a surly look. "Why? Pho's not here yet."
"Because I told you to, that's why. Just because we're somewhere new doesn't mean you should sleep your life away, you know. Besides, we have to do our share. Now get up and help your wonderful sister with these blankets."
He stared at her unhappily, obviously thinking her anything but wonderful at the moment. Still, he got up to help.
"Now let's go brush our teeth."
"Aw, neechan. Couldn't we skip it? Nobody would know."
"Jinpei..." Jun gave him a highly disapproving look.
"But the stuff tastes like yak dung..." Jun's stare didn't waver. "Awww, neechan." His young shoulders slumped as he gave in and marched like the condemned toward the bathroom.
After they finished and got dressed, they headed downstairs to the kitchen. Pho was there, busily cleaning dishes at the sink. She spotted them as they came in.
"Why, good morning." Pho dried her hands on a small towel and gave them a bright smile. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you." Jun glanced at the pile of dishes. It looked like they were the last to get up. She wondered where the others had gone. -- we have to hide everything we do -- Jun felt a cold shiver roll down her spine.
"So, how about some scrambled eggs and bacon this morning? Sit down for a bit while I get them ready."
They sat down obediently and watched her work. They both jumped in their seats the first time the bacon snapped in the hot pan. Intrigued, at least once he saw that Pho wasn't concerned by the noise, Jinpei slipped out of his seat and moved closer for a better look. He stared fascinated as she fished out the browned bacon and started in on the eggs.
Pho stuffed them to the gills with milk, juice, eggs, bacon, and toast. Jun stared at her emptied plate and wondered how they could keep eating it all. Surely sooner or later it would all come out pouring from their ears.
After a short rest to let the food settle, Jun got up to help clean the table while Pho tackled the dishes, humming as she went. As she was wiping off the table, Jinpei quietly wandered down a small hallway on the other side of the kitchen. When he didn't come back, Jun frowned and went off after him hoping to retrieve him before Pho noticed he was gone.
The short hall opened into a small laundry room but Jun caught no sign of her brother. Moving toward the back, she noticed a thin line of light coming from the far wall. Curious, she touched the wall and felt it give. Holding her breath, she pushed on it some more until it swung aside to reveal a set of stairs descending beyond.
"Jinpei?" The whisper seemed awfully loud to her ears as she stared down the unexpected stairway. -- hide everything -- Her brother was nowhere in sight. Did he go this way? She felt her apprehension grow. Jun tried to be as silent as possible as she made her way down. She'd have to smack her brother for this once she found him. This place had not been part of Pho's tour or the boys'; that and the words she overheard from Joe served as more than enough for her to know they were never meant to be there.
The stairs stopped at a large hallway that went off in either direction. Taking a peek each way, Jun spotted her brother. Jinpei was pressed against the wall, peeking into a slightly open doorway. She rushed over toward him.
As she came close, she picked up the sound of voices coming from the room. She moved a little faster. If they caught them here....!
"Jinpei!" The boy jumped away from the door at the harsh whisper.
"Shshsh!" Jun pulled him farther away from the door. "What are you doing here? Are you trying to get us in trouble?" She put her hands on her hips and glared at him wanting to make sure he understood she wasn't pleased at all.
"I, ah, I - " Jinpei averted his gaze in guilt but only for a moment. When he looked at her again his eyes were bright. "They're here, neechan! The boys are here. And they're practicing the Art!"
"What?" Jun felt her heart skip a beat.
"Come look, neechan, come look!" Jinpei took her hand and dragged her toward the door. Though she knew this was probably the worst thing they could do, she didn't resist. This was a chance for answers.
The room was large and filled with mats. Ken, Joe, and Ryu were in the middle of the room doing katas under Pham's watchful gaze. Though the Art the boys practiced was not the same as theirs, still, Jun could see that in many ways they were similar. Why would Nambu want boys who knew the Art? What was he planning on doing with them? What kind of team did he want?
Jun shook her head trying to drive out the questions. None of that mattered, they were free now and that was their only concern. They needed to get back before they were missed and not take the risk of angering Nambu for being where they didn't belong.
"Good morning, young ones."
Jun froze, her hand midway to her brother's shoulder as she was about to pull him away. They'd been caught! But how? She never once saw the old man even glance in their general direction.
"Come in. Get a closer look. We won't hurt you." Pham waved for the two of them to enter.
The boys stopped their routines and stared at the doorway. Ken and Ryu looked surprised. Joe was livid.
"Sensei, they don't belong here. Nambu won't like it!"
"Young Joe, they have already found us through no fault of our own, so what is the difference?"
"They don't belong here!" Joe's fists lay coiled at his sides. "They're just children. They're a liability."
Pham stood his face blank. "Could it be you think so little of your skills you do not wish them to be seen, even by mere children?"
Joe's cheeks flushed, his gaze dropping to the mats. A deep scowl marred his face.
"Sensei, Hakase really wouldn't like this. Even if they're just watching." Ken said this softly, his cheeks coloring as if embarrassed to have to say these things in front of them. Even Ryu looked a little uncomfortable at seeing them there.
"The responsibility will be mine. And nothing they couldn't learn elsewhere will be done while they are here. Do not concern yourselves."
"As you say, Sensei." Ken half bowed in his direction.
"Please do come in. Do not be shy."
Pham gestured for Jun and Jinpei to enter. Before she could decide how to turn him down, her brother got past her and dashed inside. "Jinpei!" Jun hesitated and looked back down the way they came. Despite Pham's words, she knew they shouldn't be here. She was torn between following a command from an elder and the fact that being there though never voiced, was forbidden.
"Come on in!" Ken and Ryu waved at her enthusiastically since the blame wouldn't be theirs.
Hesitating for one last moment, Jun finally gave in and went inside. She and Jinpei sat down toward the back of the room out of everyone's way. Ken sent her a small tight smile. She didn't dare to meet his gaze.
"All right, let's continue." All three boys moved to take a ready stance. "Begin."
Jun held her breath as they began, knowing that if fate had been kinder, Rikaw would have made this group equal four. His silent presence would have added much to the group, and he would have enjoyed that. He had always been such a quiet and pensive person, almost a mixture of the extremes she'd seen so far in Ken and Joe. With all her heart she prayed the spirits would somehow grant him the freedom she and Jinpei had found in his stead.
Jinpei wiggled beside her; mimicking the others' moves as best he could while sitting down. Jun smiled sadly, only too clearly understanding how he felt. In all the chaos of new and strange things they'd had to experience, this was the closest they'd come to something familiar. She felt the urge to get up and join them herself.
Instead, Jun set herself to study the boys and their movements.
Ken, with his bright smile and clear eyes, was relaxed and fluid in his manner. There was an undercurrent of strength and power in all he did that was belied by his grace.
Ryu's moves were conservative and smooth. His hefty body moved easily, almost as if it were unaware of its own size. Each blow conveyed an impression of great force; one anyone in their right mind wouldn't want to get caught in front of.
Then there was Joe. A scowl still marked his face even as his eyes seemed to be focused elsewhere. His manner was quick, sharp, his hands moving like deadly snakes. His entire body was coiled tight, ready to strike out at anything. She suddenly wondered if he was thinking of them as he struck.
"Ah, there you are!"
Jun glanced sharply at the door caught off guard by the familiar voice. She rose guiltily to her feet her head bowed as Pho entered the room. Jun quickly prodded her brother with her foot to get him to do the same. They rushed forward to meet her.
"I'm sorry, children, but we must go. Kozaburo has plans for you this morning."
Jun stopped in her tracks. Did Nambu already find parents for them? She felt a sudden tightness in her chest.
"Young ones, we will be here again tomorrow. If you would like to return then, please do." Pham waved at them and at his wife, a gap toothed smile on his face. Pho waved back before leading Jun and Jinpei out of the room and down the hallway.
"Come, we must hurry. Kozaburo should be arriving in a few minutes to pick us up. We must not let him discover that you are here." Pho hurried down the hall and the two of them had to speed up to keep up.
"We didn't mean to cause trouble. We won't come here again." Jun tried not to sound as desperate for forgiveness as she felt.
"Neechan!" Jinpei's face collapsed at the news.
"Don't worry about it. If you were able to find the stairs, then it must have been meant to be. It is only because Kozaburo has yet to accept these things that we shall keep it from him." Pho winked at them and then smiled.
Jun wasn't sure she understood and so said nothing.
As soon as they reached the top of the stairs, Pho closed the hidden door on the wall. Once she did so, there was no hint whatsoever that it was there at all. "Come, he should be in the front waiting for us."
Nambu drove up in his red convertible just as they made it out to the driveway.
"Good morning." Jun and Jinpei echoed the greeting as Nambu leaned over to open the side passenger door. They piled on inside.
"All right, Kozaburo, let's get going. You promised me we'd make it back before lunch time."
"Yes, I remember." Nambu nodded quickly as he put the car on drive.
"No rushing off once you bring us back either. You'll be having lunch with us today. It'll do you good." Again Jun was surprised that Nambu let her speak to him this way. As far as she knew, they were in no way related and so as a woman she should have deferred to him in every way.
The doctor groaned quietly. "Whatever you say." Pho grinned from ear to ear.
The car ride didn't last long. Jun studied all they passed trying to remember it all so it would become familiar. The oppression she felt each time they went outdoors didn't seem as bad today. It made the ride that much more enjoyable.
Nambu brought them over to a long two storied building.
"Dr. Braun is a friend of mine, like Dr. Chung. He's going to do some more test on you now that we have more time, so we can make sure you two are as healthy as you should be."
Jun felt Jinpei tense at her side as he recalled their previous experience with a doctor. The medicines of Nambu's world were a lot different from what they experienced at Ximang. There, the monks had always been the ones to care for the sick. They'd give you foul tasting medicines while they burned sweet incense and sent prayers to the gods at your side. Nambu's world was full of needles and pain and who knew what other atrocities. She didn't know what she could say to make her brother feel better. She clearly remembered not liking doctors before her time at Ximang.
The four of them entered the building and made their way down a short hall into a broad open area with a number of doors on each side. Nambu chose one on the right and went on in. They followed.
In the room beyond, a woman dressed all in white spotted them from a window from an adjoining room. She disappeared from view after waving to them and then reappeared through a door on the far side. A number of parents and their children stared as the small group came in.
"Dr. Nambu, how nice to see you again! Dr. Braun has been waiting for you. This way please." With a smile, she led the four of them down a narrow passage with large numbered doors. She took them to the one marked with a three.
Like Dr. Chung's office back in Tebet, this place too had no statues or icons to summon healing spirits; no insense or burning herbs. Instead, it was a bright room with light blue walls and a white ceiling. It contained a large cushioned table with a long, thin sheet of paper placed over it. A smaller table was full of covered glass containers. There were two chairs against the back wall and a stool with wheels. A cabinet sat on the wall by the door and a triangular stick with a hose and bulb by the cushioned table.
The nurse brought in a scale and took Jun and Jinpei's weight and height measurements. After that, they were asked to sit on the table with the cushioned top. Jun was able to get up there on her own. Nambu picked Jinpei up and set him beside her. Jinpei's face looked a little pale, his eyes wild.
A minute or so later, the nurse returned, this time with a jolly looking man in tow.
"Hello! And who might you two be?" The kindly round-faced man ignored the two adults his attention totally focused on the children. Jun stammered out an answer for the two of them. Jinpei clung to her arm his eyes riveted on the new face.
"And how are we feeling today?"
"O - okay."
"That's great. I'm sure Nambu told you that you're here just so we can make sure everything is okay, right? And if something does happen to be wrong, were going to take care of it and get you in tip top shape. Wouldn't that be great?"
Jun nodded slowly, not sure what getting them to tip top shape would entail.
"I hear that neither of you has really been to a western doctor before. Don't worry, there's nothing mysterious about it. If either of you have any questions you just up and ask, okay?"
Braun frowned for a moment at Jinpei's outburst. "Don't like those, do you? Well, most people don't and I don't blame them. But, Jinpei, sometimes they're just necessary. That little bit of pain can keep you from feeling really bad for a long time. I'd rather have a shot than to be sick and feel really bad. Wouldn't you?"
Jinpei didn't answer, looking unconvinced.
"Tell you what, I promise not to give you any shots unless it's absolutely necessary. Now would you like to know what this does?" Braun brought their attention over to the blood pressure gauge on the wall.
"O - okay."
Braun explained the device to them in simple terms and even demonstrated it on himself before asking them to allow him to check theirs. He moved from one thing to another, always talking, telling them about whatever it was and distracting them from what he was doing. He checked their blood pressure, their temperature, checked their ears, throat, and eyes and even took X-rays. The worst, however, was left for last. After a lot of talking and cajoling, Braun was able to get the two of them to agree to allow him to take a blood sample.
Jinpei cried out as the needle entered his arm but didn't jerk away. Tears welled in his eyes and spilled on his face, his misery so plain Jun ached to reach out and hug him. Braun went through the process as quickly as he could.
"Now, that wasn't so bad was it?" Braun smiled brightly. "These will be very helpful in telling us how you're doing. And since you both have been so brave today, I think you deserve a treat!" Braun gave them each a lollipop and a couple of pieces of chocolate. Jinpei actually brightened at the sight.
"Dr. Nambu, I'll give you a call in a day or two as soon as I get back all the test results. Overall, I tend to agree with Chung. The two of them do seem to be in pretty good condition. The better diet and some vitamin supplements should help them fill out to their proper weights in no time." He turned back to Jun and Jinpei. "You two are in pretty good tip top shape."
"Thank you, Braun, I appreciate the time."
Pho gave the doctor a disapproving look. "You could have held back on the sweets though, it's close to lunch time." Jun and Jinpei stopped in mid bite. Pho turned to them and grinned. "But I guess I could make an exception this time. Just don't do it again."
Jinpei shoved the rest of his treats in his mouth before Pho could change her mind.
Nambu drove them back to the house and Pho dived into preparing lunch. The doctor helped Jun set the table even as Jinpei watched what Pho was doing with interest. During their meal, Jinpei proudly displayed his orange band-aid and his "good patient" sticker to the boys. Ken and especially Ryu oohed and ahhed appreciatively at his courage while Joe only snorted and strove to eat his lunch while ignoring the scene as much as possible.
After lunch was over, Jun kept an eye on Jinpei not sure he wouldn't try to go off exploring on his own again.
"Is getting a shot the only way we can get that cho - chocolate stuff?"
Jun stared at him and thought about his question for a moment. "I'm not really sure, Jinpei. We'll have to wait and see."
"We're going to start something very important today." Pho gave them a knowing look and then retrieved a package from the pantry. From it, she took out several books, papers, and pencils and set them out on the kitchen table.
"What?" Jinpei's eager face looked from Pho to the books and back again.
"Today, we're going to find out how much you know about reading and writing and then I'm going to teach you more."
Jun's heart soared. To read! But, how...? Had Ken told her they couldn't? She wasn't quite sure how to feel about that until she realized the books on the table were some of the ones Nambu had bought the day before. The doctor had planned this for them all along? Why?
"There is something I want to ask you before we start though, so I have an idea on some things." She stared at both of them mysteriously, building up the sense of suspense before speaking again. "What do the two of you want to be when you grow up?"
Jinpei never hesitated. "A knight! A sorcerer! A pilot! A scientist!"
"Oh my, we do have ambitions, don't we?" Pho hid a smile behind her hand. "And what about you, Jun?"
Jun stared at her hands and said nothing. What did she want to be? She'd never thought about it. She'd never thought she'd had a choice. "Wha, whatever Nambu Hakase wants me to be..."
Pho frowned for a moment. "Jun, child, it's not what Kozaburo wants. What do you want?"
Jun still wouldn't look up at her. "I - I don't know..."
Pho frowned again. "You do know, don't you, that here you can be anything you want, anything at all?" Her expression cleared. "Even a knight-sorcerer-pilot-scientist like your brother."
Jun looked up wondering if she was truly serious. Surely, surely, it really wouldn't be up to her, would it? Surely she couldn't choose to be any of those things.
"Yes, you can be all that and more if you want. Women can be anything men can. Sometimes, we're even better." Pho gave her a full fledged smile.
Despite Pho's assurances, Jun couldn't quite get herself to believe it was true.
For the next couple of hours, they practiced on a basic reader and a letter practicing book. Pho praised them often on what they knew and tied this to things they didn't so they'd want to learn it that much more. When they began to grow tired, Pho suggested they go outside for a walk in the gardens.
Jun followed quietly behind Pho and Jinpei as the old woman pointed out each tree and bush and told them their names. Jun wasn't paying much attention; her thoughts still lingering on Pho's insistence she could be anything she wanted. Nambu was a scientist. Ken had already professed that he wanted to be a pilot. What would Ryu want to do? Would he follow in his father's footsteps or chose something else? She had no ideas about Joe. Even less about herself. But what if she really could learn to fly?
Jun came out of her reverie only to realize she'd somehow been separated from Pho and her brother. Wondering how she lost them, she followed the fork in the path leading off toward the kitchen's back door. Her gaze drifted over to the large garage and she remembered the loft inside with its benches and tools, and Ken's broken plane. Before she realized what she was doing, Jun switched paths and headed toward the building.
The scents of oil, grease, and old paint lay heavy in the still afternoon air as she made her way inside the dark interior. Jun flipped the light switch beside the door and hesitated as she stared at the large empty space. Maybe this was wrong. Maybe she shouldn't be there. But this wasn't one of the forbidden places. It wasn't one of the ones they didn't belong in. Biting her lower lip, she stepped inside.
With quiet steps, she moved to the large ladder and gingerly made her way up to the loft. Walking past the benches, she found Ken's plane exactly where she'd last seen it. Part of the casing had large cracks running through it and looked to have been glued back on. The small gas engine of the plane lay exposed, pieces of it lying on a towel beside it. Jun stared at the components before her and marveled at their curves and how it instinctively appeared to her they should go together.
A book lay open nearby and it had schematics of the engine inside it and others as well. A small stack of other books sat on top of a shelf set with papers, but they looked to be of other things. Jun's eyes drifted back to the schematics. She found herself fascinated by the lines, by the fact that this, if she understood correctly, was what made the plane fly. Tentatively, she touched the clean engine parts and the half finished whole. Her eyes moved from them to the picture and back again. It was a puzzle, a puzzle like the giant sand pictures the monks made on holy days. Her hands reached out on their own for one piece and then another. Everything the pictures called for was here. The puzzle grew in her mind, twisting in her brain telling her where this went and how that should fit. she lost all sense of things around her as she began to work.
"Don't touch that!"
Jun jumped back, her heart jumping to her throat, one of the last pieces falling from her hand to the floor.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"I --" Jun glued her eyes to the floor after only one glance at Joe's boiling features. She took a hasty step back as he stomped forward to retrieve the fallen piece. "I didn't mean --"
"You don't belong here. Get out! Get out!"
Jun scrambled to get past him and out of his way. She almost fell in her hurry to go down the loft's ladder. The air burned in her lungs and her heart sped on at neck-breaking speeds as she stumbled out of the garage. Idiot, idiot, idiot! She knew it was one of his favorite places. Ken had said so. What had she been thinking? How could she have been so stupid!
Jun leaned against one of the trees and tried to catch her breath in the humid air. Surely this proved Pho was wrong, didn't it? They would belong if she could be anything she wanted.
At dinner that night, Jun kept her eyes centered on her plate, afraid of accidentally meeting Joe's gaze. He disapproved of them so much. Would he bring up the fact of where they'd been this morning to get back at her for having touched the plane?
"Jun, Jinpei, how was your day today?"
Jun swallowed hard, not sure what to say, but Jinpei answered the question for them. He barraged Nambu with the names of plants and kanji they had learned that day. "And I decided I want to be a knight-sorcerer-pilot-scientist!"
"That should keep you quite busy for some time." Nambu's eyes were bright even as Pho smiled behind him. "And Jun, what did you decide?"
She tensed in her seat not sure what it meant that he'd ask her this but made herself look up to answer the question. "I, I haven't decided yet."
"That's quite all right, there's still plenty of time to choose."
Jun focused back on her food hoping there wouldn't be any more questions. Everything looked like it would work out okay, until the end when Joe decided to speak up.
"Ken, about your plane..."
Jun's heart skipped a beat and she felt herself go cold all over. Was he going to try and turn Ken against her too?
"I finished it off today. It looks like it'll work okay now. All that's left is to give the shell a new paint job."
Jun looked up despite herself, not sure she heard right. Joe glanced at her for a moment, his gaze level and cool. She had no idea what to make of it.
"Thanks! I didn't think you'd have it finished on time. That's great." Ken grinned from ear to ear. "Jun, Jinpei, I can show you how it works on Sunday."
"Cool!" Jinpei bounced up and down in his seat too excited to sit still.
Jun picked up her milk and drank it hiding a small frown. Did this mean she hadn't messed up the plane after all?
After dinner, Ryu and Ken dragged Jun and Jinpei off to watch television and play more video games. Joe, as he had the night before, didn't deign to join them.
"Aniki, why doesn't Joe play too? Doesn't he like video games?"
Jun stared at her brother in surprise. Before, he'd always reserved the familiar term for Rikaw. She was amazed he felt confident enough to give it to another, not that she disapproved of his choice. She set the whole thing aside, however, interested despite herself, on the answer to Jinpei's questions.
Ken's face seemed to mirror similar emotions to hers for a moment but then flickered over to neutrality. "Ah, no, he's not much into them. He's more into doing things alone, like working on engines or practicing. He's not your friendly sort."
"That's for sure!" Ryu laughed.
"He looks so mean all the time, though. Doesn't he, neechan?"
"Well he does!" Jinpei pouted as if daring her to dispute the obvious truth.
"He's just had a hard life, that's all. He really doesn't know he looks like that."
"Did his parents kick him out?"
"Jinpei that's quite enough!" Jun stared at her brother horrified he'd ask such a thing. Part of it was she half suspected it might be true.
"Jun, it's okay." Ken touched her hand, his blue eyes meeting hers. She felt a tingle rise up her arm, but didn't understand it. "Joe's parents are dead. They were murdered. The people who did it almost killed him too. He was hurt pretty badly. He was in a hospital for a long time."
So, Joe was an orphan like them--his parents killed like her aunt. It made her feel strange to have something in common with Joe when he so fervently believed they didn't belong.
"What about your parents, aniki?"
Jun saw Ken's eyes cloud over for a moment, a flash of deep hidden grief going by before they cleared again. "Officially, I'm an orphan too. My father disappeared after a plane accident a long time ago. My, my mother was very sick for a long time and then died."
"All our parents are dead too. But neechan found me and we're a family now. Maybe since you have nobody either, you can be part of our family too," Jinpei said.
Ken's eyes grew wide at the suggestion almost as if such a thing had never occurred to him before.
"Hey, I want in too! Both my father and brother may be alive, but I've no family here and I'd like one." Ryu looked suddenly shy and hopeful.
"Okay." Jinpei leapt up and messed up Ryu's hair. "You'll be my little brother!"
"What? I don't think so little, little brother!" The two wrestled around on the floor as each tried to mess up the other's hair.
Jun glanced unobtrusively over at Ken during the ensuing melee finding herself strangely excited by Jinpei's idea but wanting to get a clue as to how Ken felt. His face was turned away from theirs and when he faced them again, his features looked pleasant and calm as they always did. It told her nothing at all.
Like the evening before, Pho came for them so they could go take their baths and get ready for bed. After she tucked them in and left, Jinpei sneaked over with his blanket so they could sleep on the floor.
"Jinpei, I hope you weren't serious about what you said tonight. About adding Ken and Ryu into our family."
"Why not, neechan? Don't you like them?" His voice squeaked at the last.
"I like them fine, but did you forget we're not going to get to stay here? Nambu Hakase is looking for a home for us. When he finds one, we will leave."
"No buts! And don't you dare go ask if we can stay either. Hakase has done more than he ever had to for us already." Jun tried to make her voice sound as stern as she could.
"O - okay, neechan." She could see from the bit of light coming in from the hallway that he was about to cry.
Jun hugged her brother to her understanding only too well the void he was trying to fill. "We will have a family, Jinpei. Don't you worry about that. I love you."
"I love you too, neechan." He hugged her back, hard.
The next morning, Jun woke early and roused her brother so they could get dressed and join Pho downstairs. As was becoming his habit, Jinpei watched in fascination as Pho went about the task of cooking breakfast. This time, unlike those before, Pho actually asked him to get this or that for her and showed him what it was she'd asked for and where he should go get it. Jinpei glowed as he seriously undertook each task.
Jun was clearing away the table after they ate when she noticed her brother's gaze straying toward the small room with the hidden stairs. "Jinpei..."
He stopped what he was doing, a guilty look on his face. "But, neechan, couldn't we go again? It was so much fun before." His tone was low.
Jun sighed. She knew why he wanted to go, knew why she desired it as well--but it just couldn't be. They didn't belong there, despite what Pham had said, and though Nambu hadn't found out about it the last time, there was no guarantee he wouldn't today. "No, Jinpei."
"But, but, neechan! He said we could come back. You heard him!" His eyes pleaded with her even as he tried hard not to pout.
"My dear husband did say that didn't he?" Jun glanced back toward the sink surprised Pho was listening. "I do have some things to do up here and Nambu is at work, so if the two of you want to go watch for a little while, it should be all right." She dried her hands on a dishtowel while watching them.
"See, neechan. Can we, please?" His small face stared at her, eager and full of hope.
"Is it, is it really all right?" Jun didn't understand why Pho would allow this when she'd been one of the ones to point out Nambu wouldn't approve.
"Yes, child, it's quite all right." Pho smiled a knowing look in her eyes.
"Let's go, neechan!" Jinpei took his sister's hand and tugged as she continued to hesitate. Jun finally gave in.
Jinpei led her to the secret door and reached up and pressed on a secret tab next to it. The door opened. He shot down the stairs.
"Jinpei, slow down!" By the time Jun reached the bottom of the stairs her brother had already disappeared from sight.
Jun approached the room they went to yesterday feeling uneasy. She wanted to be there as much as her brother, but... She took a peek inside and found Jinpei already sitting at the place they chose the day before. He was already in--it was too late now. With a small sigh, she sneaked inside and joined him.
"Welcome children." Pham turned to greet them though Jun was sure he couldn't have possibly heard them come in. "It's nice to see you here again."
Ken worked in a small wave into his current routine and Ryu smiled in welcome. Joe went on as if they weren't there at all.
Jun watched them continue their practice studying their moves as they flowed through them. Jinpei wiggled and jiggled beside her as he tried again to mimic their moves while sitting down.
As they progressed, she ached to join them, to try for herself the complexity and flow of the moves. The Art had always seemed to her like a dance, a way she could learn to know herself while breaking all ties with everything around her.
Real dancing was forbidden at Ximang, especially to the girls. They'd been told over and over it was one of the ways women led men to sin. The Art had never seemed like sin, yet it was as freeing as any dance. If only...
As if reading her thoughts, Jinpei slowly stood up his gaze flickering between Jun and Pham. Receiving no immediate signs of disapproval, he started moving in imitation of the others in earnest.
Jun knew she shouldn't let him that the others might take offense, especially since they didn't belong, but she just didn't have the heart to deny him what they both wanted. When he kept on and no one seemed to react, she felt herself relax. Though she knew this place was only a temporary home, she liked it here, liked it very much. And though it made no sense, it was becoming important to her they be accepted here, despite the fact they weren't part of Nambu's mysterious project. She truly wouldn't mind it all that much if they never had to go.
Jun quickly shook her head trying to drive such thoughts away. They had no choice in this!
A smile blossomed on Jinpei's face as he kept pace with the others. Watching him enjoy himself so much, slowly wore away at Jun's resistance until she finally couldn't stand it anymore and stood to join him.
At first, her movements were slow and jerky as she tried to merge into the rhythm. As the patterns repeated, she improved. Neither of them noticed Pham glance over as they worked, a knowing smile on his face.
By the time Pham had the boys stop, Jun was feeling quite exhilarated. She'd really missed this! She sat down on the mats taking deep breaths to slow her breathing as Rikaw taught her. Jinpei giggled at her side as he too moved to sit down. It felt just like old times.
Pham dismissed the boys.
"Nice job, guys." Ken veered toward them.
"Yeah, not bad!" Ryu mussed up Jinpei's hair even as the shorter boy tried to dodge.
The boy glared at them both and then stomped out of the room. Jun felt her previous exhilaration come crashing down. -- they don't belong --
"Just ignore him. Please." Ken's eyes pleaded with her. Jun stared at the floor.
"We have to go get cleaned up. We'll see you guys upstairs in a few minutes. Okay?" Ken and Ryu left.
Jun stood up slowly, noticing that Pham was staring at them a small pleased look on his wrinkled face. "I see the two of you have done this type of thing before." Jinpei's face brightened at his words.
Jun looked away from his piercing gaze not having realized he'd been watching them so closely. "A, a little."
"A lot! We practiced everyday. Rikaw showed us all sorts of things. He was the best there was!"
Jun stared at her brother surprised by his willingness to tell Pham of their mutual friend. Since Rikaw was taken, Jinpei had rarely, if ever, mentioned him to any outsiders at all.
"Oh, I see." The old man seemed to take her brother's words very seriously. "Perhaps you could show me some of what he's taught you?"
Jinpei looked caught off guard by the request, but only for a moment. His face grew bright with intense pleasure. "Sure!"
The request made Jun nervous. Nambu felt they weren't good enough for whatever he had gathered the boys for. If that was so, what could they possibly show this man he didn't already know? They weren't even supposed to be there!
"Do you want me to show you now?" Jinpei's eyes were eager.
"Yes, why don't you show me a little."
Jinpei launched into one of their exercises showing ease and confidence at the long practiced routine. Jun watched his moves critically, hoping if nothing else, he could make a good showing for them.
"Do you know these things as well, Jun?"
She didn't look at him as she nodded.
Jinpei finished his routine with a flourish. "How was that?"
"Most impressive! You've learned very well. Your friend was a very good teacher indeed." Pham turned to look at Jun again. "Perhaps the two of you will come again and show me more?"
"Sure!" Jinpei looked even more delighted than before.
Jun didn't understand Pham's interest at all. They weren't supposed to be good enough. They didn't belong!
"You'd better go and get cleaned up. I wouldn't want to make Pho angry at me for making the two of you late for lunch." He winked.
Jun bowed toward him as she saw the others do. "Thank you for your kindness."
"My pleasure, children."
Jun and Jinpei left and quickly went upstairs to clean up as they'd been instructed. When they returned to the kitchen, the others were already there. Joe was frowning deeply, his eyes rising occasionally to glare at Ken, who acted as if absolutely nothing was amiss and welcomed them heartily to join them at the table.
After lunch, Jun and Jinpei helped clear it as usual. Pho then brought out the workbooks from the day before and they worked on them for most of the afternoon.
"You two, I've got a few chores to take care of for a little while. Do you think you might like to watch a little TV until I'm done?"
Wide smiles greeted Pho's suggestion.
Jun was given responsibility for the remote. Pho left them once she was sure the two of them had found something to watch and settled in. She occasionally walked by to check in on them.
The two of them watched a game show for a while and then they went channel surfing. Jun stared intently at everything the television had to offer.
"Jinpei, did you see anything that you--" Her brother's chair was empty. Jun quickly scanned the room for any sign of him. "Jinpei?" He was gone.
Chastising herself for not paying more attention, she turned off the TV and went looking for him. She searched the majority of the first floor but didn't find him. She felt herself getting more and more annoyed at every step wondering if he was about to get them into trouble. She sneaked into the laundry room next to the kitchen, but found the way down to the secret area closed. Hoping he knew better than to go there again; she decided not to check it for now.
As she headed for the second floor, Jun promised herself she'd only whack him across the head once or twice for him doing this to her. She was making her way down one of the many hallways, when she heard his frantic call.
Jun ran in the direction of the call, her mind screaming when she realized where the call came from. It made her heart thump with fear. What had he done? At the end of a long hallway she spotted the dreaded open door. She rushed inside.
"You little punk! Look what you've done! I should pound your stupid head in!"
Jun stood in Ken and Joe's room amidst the two sets of identical furniture. The carpet before her was littered with comic books and empty candy wrappers. Many of the comics' pages had traces of smeared chocolate. Jinpei was cowering against one of the two beds.
"Leave him alone!"
Both Jinpei and Joe wore identical looks of surprise as they turned to stare toward the door.
"Neechan!" Jinpei scurried to her side a look of relief on his face. "He wants to hurt me."
"You bet I do!" Joe scowled at him, raising his fist. Jinpei yelped and hid his face against Jun's leg. "The little thief needs to be taught a lesson."
Jun took a small step forward not intending to let him do any such thing. "What are you talking about? What has my brother done?"
Joe gave Jun a scathing look. "Look around you. Do you think Nambu lets us keep the place looking like this?" He pointed at the mess on the floor. "Your brother went through my drawers. He ripped up my comics. He even ate my candy bars!" His eyes flashed with anger. "I guess he just couldn't keep his hands out of other people's stuff. Like brother, like sister, huh?"
Jun blushed as she remembered her own intrusion into Joe's things and glanced down at her brother. There was chocolate smeared all over his hands and face. "Jinpei!"
"I'm, I'm sorry, neechan, but he, he had chocolate." His face grew tight and tears glinted in his eyes. His gaze wouldn't meet her own. Jun forced herself to face Joe again.
"I'm sorry about this. I'll make sure we repay you somehow. It won't happen again." Not ever. "Isn't that so, Jinpei?"
"Y, yes, neechan...." His voice was very small.
"I'll believe it when I see it."
Something about the antagonistic tone in Joe's voice rubbed her the wrong way. "He gave you his word!"
"Then he'd better keep it or next time I'll make sure to give him something to make it!"
"You will not touch my brother!"
Joe looked surprised at her intensity, but it lasted only for a moment. "Oh, I'm scared. I'm just so afraid of girls and their textbook martial arts!"
The bastard! He was chosen by Nambu and she wasn't. She might be a girl and therefore unworthy, but damn him if she would let him threaten her brother! Before she thought about what she was doing, Jun dropped and swept Joe's feet out from under him. He fell to the floor with a thump. Her eyes were burning. "I'll kill you before I let you touch him."
Jun turned away from Joe's thoroughly startled expression and grabbed her brother's arm to stomp out of the room. She stopped, her breath suddenly trapped in her throat, as she spied Ken and Ryu standing in the doorway.
Ken's blue eyes were wide, moving from her to Joe and back again. Ryu had both hands clamped over his mouth trying hard to hold in a fit of laughter. Jun felt her cheeks grow hot.
They'd seen it all. She'd overstepped her place and she knew it. Nambu would find out and send them back to Tebet for this. Averting her eyes, and with Jinpei still in tow, she pushed past them, her chest tight.
She never slowed.
"Neechan, that was great! You sure showed him."
Jun pulled her brother into their bathroom and slammed the door shut. She fought against threatening tears as she tried to wash off the evidence from her brother's face and hands. "Stand still."
Joe was right. Jinpei should have never entered his room; let alone mess with his things and she was just as guilty. But what had gotten into him? This was worse than what she'd done. Didn't Jinpei understand they could be sent back? Why had Joe gone and made her so angry?
"Neechan? What's wrong?"
Jun glanced up into the bathroom's mirror and saw tears running down her face. She wiped them away angrily with her sleeve. "I, I just did a very stupid thing, Jinpei. Nothing to be very happy with at all. And so did you!" She dried his hands and face with a towel.
"I - I didn't mean to be bad, neechan." His small face filled with misery. "I'm sorry."
"I know, Jinpei, I know." She tried to smile warmly at him but failed. "It's over and done with." She need time, time to try and figure out what they should do. They'd just proved they were more trouble than they were worth. Surely Joe would tell Nambu about what had happened and then also tell him about the forbidden places they'd been to. It was over. Unless... Jun felt herself shiver. She could maybe fix this, fix it by offering herself to Nambu. Virgin's were considered fine prizes by some. And he, he was not unkind. She could do so much worse. Perhaps he wouldn't hit her if she screamed.... She was surer than ever that Utoland was right for them. Would he accept her offer?
Jun quickly cleaned the sink and then put the towel in the clothes hamper as Pho had taught them. She led Jinpei back to his room and closed the door most of the way.
Jinpei stared at his sister, subdued and quiet, until she made herself tell him a story. She took out some toys Pho had bought for him and watched him play as she talked. She wondered how long it would be before Nambu would come for them.
She almost jumped at the soft knock on the door. So soon? She looked toward the door and found Ken sheepishly staring at her from the doorway.
"Jun, could I speak to you for a minute?"
Her heart caught itself in her throat, never having imagined it would all happen so quickly. Resigned, she asked Jinpei to stay as she moved to meet Ken out in the hallway. She closed the door behind her. "Yes?"
"Jun...." Ken looked embarrassed to be there. Would Nambu not even eject them himself? How was she to make her offer then? "Look, I - I just wanted to make sure you don't take all this the wrong way. Joe, he, he would never hurt your brother." Jun stared at him, not sure what this had to do with kicking them out. Ken's clear eyes locked with hers; his face filled with concern.
"He gets carried away occasionally, that's all. You should never take anything he says personally, he very rarely means it. He's a hot-head and stubborn, but he's good people. He's just not used to having you guys around, that's all. He will though--you'll see."
Jun nodded slowly, a flare of hope rising within her that maybe she could still fix this. "I'll, I'll go and apologize to him right now."
"No, no! Don't do that!" Ken moved to block her way his eyes dancing. "You made quite an impression on him today by taking him down like that." He gave her a mischievous smile. "It wouldn't do to spoil it."
Maybe things really wouldn't be as bad as she feared?
"Tell me, where'd you learn to do a move like that?"
Jun looked away from his questioning stare, feeling suddenly self conscious. "At, at the monastery. I had a friend who knew a lot about the Art. He taught Jinpei and me."
"You did it really well. Joe never saw it coming." Ken's smile grew. "Maybe you could teach it to me sometime."
Jun's cheeks grew hot. She teach him? "I - I -"
"Just think about it. There's no hurry." His blue eyes trapped her own. "See you."
Ken left, waving back at her as he went. All Jun could do was watch him go.
Things progressed as they did before for the next two days. Jun had still been unable to figure out a way to make things up to Joe when Pho brought out two envelopes at the end of that day's lesson.
"Oh, Kozaburo left these for you today. He felt that as long as you're here with us, you might as well get an allowance like the boys." She handed each of them an envelope. Jun took hers, her hands numb, the words "as long as" ringing over and over in her mind.
"What is an allo - ala - allow -"
"An allowance? It's money that's given to you to spend anyway you like. Tomorrow, Kozaburo will be staying home to take all of you out so you can spend it."
Jinpei's eyes lit up. "Really? Ours? To spend?"
"All right!" He did a happy dance about the table. Pho laughed at his antics. Jun just stared at her envelope, her thoughts clouded.
"Why don't the two of you go study up in your rooms for a little while so I can get dinner started. Maybe you can even start planning on what you're going to buy tomorrow."
Jinpei giggled with glee and eagerly grabbed their books and papers. Jun followed him more sedately. When she caught up to him, she found him in his room busily studying his ten dollar bill.
"Jinpei, I need to talk to you." Her brother glanced up in surprise at her serious tone. Jun closed the door.
"What's wrong, neechan," he asked.
She said nothing as she moved to sit beside him on the floor. She set her envelope before her still unopened. "Jinpei, we will not be spending this money, this allowance."
"Why not, neechan? I thought maybe we could buy us some chocolate!"
"No." Jun wouldn't look at him. "This money belongs to Joe. We have to pay him back for the chocolate you ate before."
Her brother's face crumpled. "But -"
"No buts!" Jun looked up at him her face set. "What you did was wrong. It could have gotten us into a lot of trouble. We have to make it up to him. We have no idea how things work here. We don't know who belongs where--it's not like Ximang! Do you want Nambu to send us back?"
Jinpei stared at her tears welling in his eyes. It hurt her to realize she was the cauase of that, but she didn't dare back down. Jinpei quietly handed over his ten dollar bill. "I'm, I'm sorry, neechan..."
Jun's face softened. "It's all right. Everything is going to be all right." She hugged him hard.
Both were very quiet at dinner--Jinpei pondering over what he had lost, and Jun over what she planned to do.
As soon as they were dismissed, Ken and Ryu invited them to go do something together. Jinpei quickly accepted for the both of them, but Jun excused herself for a few minutes as Joe snubbed them as usual and headed out the back door of the kitchen toward the garage. Jun hurried off after him and he'd almost made it to the ladder leading to the loft by the time she caught up.
The tall boy turned to look back at her, his eyes narrowing with displeasure. "What do you want?"
His rough tone and aggressive manner made Jun hesitate. She felt nervous intruding into his domain. She made herself remember why she was here and forced herself to go on. " I - I wanted to apologize for what happened before."
"Whatever." He shrugged, turning his back to her and going for the ladder.
Jun's hand crushed the envelope she held within it. Why was he trying to make this so difficult? "Jinpei and I want to make up for what we did. We were wrong, and we're sorry. Here's everything we have. If, if it's not enough, we'll give you all we get until it is." Jun took a quick step forward and slapped the envelope onto the ladder's step. "It won't happen again."Jun turned and ran back the way she came before Joe could say anything. She missed the startled look on the older boy's face.
The next morning, Jun and Jinpei rose around the same time as usual and found that unlike previous mornings, the boys and Nambu got up about the same time as them.
Smiles greeted them as they arrived for breakfast, a strange, tingling excitement in the air. Joe even looked less harsh than normal. Later though, Jun caught him staring in their direction, a strange perplexed look on his face.
All ate quickly and Pho didn't even try to stuff them as full as usual.
"Jun, Jinpei, since this is your first time and you are our guests, is there anything specific either of you would like to see or do today?"
Jun shot a warning look to her brother hoping he'd say nothing about the fact they no longer had their allowance. Jinpei just sat in his chair and stared at his hands. Jun answered for the both of them. "No, sir, anywhere would be fine."
Nambu studied them for a moment. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, Hakase," she answered.
"Well, I figured we could take a tour of the area so you can see more of Utoland. Now, if you spot anything at all that interests you while we do, let me know and we'll stop."
"Thank you, Hakase."
Nambu nodded and then turned his attention to the others. "How about you, boys?"
He was instantly flooded with requests. He sifted through their wants quickly and organized a route that would meet most of their demands. Pho happily waved goodbye to the six of them as they piled up in Nambu's convertible and left.
Their first stop was at a nearby hobby store called Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Jun and Jinpei both found the place enthralling. Kite kits, model cars, electric trains; all sorts of new wonders lay everywhere. The two of them drifted from display to display their eyes bright.
"Neechan, if, if we had money, we could buy these things, right?" Her brother's face was a mixture of hope and longing.
"Yes, Jinpei, I think so."
"How much would it take? Was what we had before enough?" A sad look crossed his eyes as he thought of what he'd lost.
"I, I don't know. We'll ask about it once we actually have some money of our own."
Nambu's city tour took them past the Utoland Stadium, the Public Library, Government Square, and even past the International Science Organization building where he worked. It was no surprise to the two of them that his building was the tallest and most impressive of those in the area.
Once the tour was over, he treated them all to lunch. He swore them all to secrecy as he decided on Ryu's suggestion and introduced Jun and Jinpei to pizza.
"Isn't this good?"
Jinpei's sauce covered face smiled brightly. "Yeah!"
Afterwards, Nambu drove them to a park with a large pond to one side. Once they parked the car, Nambu opened the trunk from which each of the boys pulled out a remote control unit and a vehicle. Ryu pulled out a sleek red and yellow striped speedboat. Joe had an all terrain vehicle with wheels almost bigger than the car itself. Ken tenderly pulled out his recently fixed airplane.
As soon as he got his car, Joe walked away from the group even as Nambu's frown followed after him.
"Hey, Jinpei, wanna learn how to drive my boat? Her name's Sunrise."
Jinpei's eyes marveled over the boat in Ryu's hands but then turned to look longingly at the Ken's plane. "Could we, could we see the plane fly for a minute first?"
"Sure! We have to see if Joe got it fixed right." He smiled. "Besides, it's quite a sight to see Ken fly it."
Jun hid a smile as she saw Ken lightly blush.
Nambu took a briefcase from the trunk and then closed it shut. "I'll be over at the picnic tables as usual. If any of you need anything, that's where I'll be. Please stay within line of sight."
They watched Nambu go toward a set of tree shaded picnic tables before darting off to an area of the park where the trees were few and far between. Ken set down his plane on the grass and after getting all of them to move back, he took the controls with a grin and turned them on.
Jinpei gasped as Ken flipped a switch and the small engine roared to life. The propeller picked up speed and the plane slowly began to move forward. Ken's grin grew as the plane moved faster and faster and with a bounce leapt up into the air.
"You did it! You did it!" Jinpei bounced around them pointing up at the plane.
"Oh, hold on, you haven't seen anything yet." Ryu lightly jabbed Ken in the ribs. Ken's cheeks grew red again even as his hands expertly moved over the controls. Jun watched in awe and fascination as the small plane rose higher and higher and then dived steeply toward the ground only to rise again at the last moment. As they continued to watch, the plane did loop de loops, barrel rolls, dives, sharp curves, and more.
"Aniki, that's awesome!" Jinpei stared at him in pure adulation.
Ken glanced over at him, his grin growing to a smile even as he blushed deeply. "I'd, I'd better bring her down. I'm sure she's low on fuel by now." He brought her down as expertly as she had risen.
"My turn! Let me show you what my baby can do," Ryu said.
"Yay!" Jinpei beat them all to the pond.
Loud pounding music drifted over toward them as Ryu set Sunrise in the water. Jun glanced over toward the source of the sound and saw a bunch of strangely dressed people strewn over the picnic tables in a pavilion in the middle of the park. Despite her fascination with the boys' vehicles, she kept finding herself distracted by the rhythmic sounds. They weren't like any pieces of music she had ever heard before and she found herself strangely attracted to them.
Ryu handled his boat as if he was born to it. He merrily chased ducks around the pond and made sharp turns that sent water into the air, which made Jinpei squeal with delight. He very nearly ran over one of the ducks that didn't get out of the way fast enough, when a tinkling sound made Ryu look up his eyes alight. "Hey, look, it's an ice cream truck!" He quickly brought his boat to a stop.
"Hakase!" Ryu pointed animatedly at the truck pulling into the parking lot as Nambu looked up from what he was doing. The doctor nodded once and then held up his wallet.
"YES!" Ryu raised his arm and brought it back down in exultation. "Come on, the ice cream is on him." Ryu picked up Jinpei by the middle and amidst screams of fear and delight took him with him on a mad dash to Nambu's table. Jun and Ken followed at a more sedate pace.
Jun and Jinpei got cones like the ones they had at the mall, while Ryu went for a Pink Panther and Ken for an Ice Cream Sandwich. Ryu also bought Nambu an Ice Cream Bomb and Joe a Batman popsicle in case he showed.
Jinpei took one lick of his cone and took off. "I'm an ice cream plane! I'm an ice cream boat!" He shot out swerving and running as if he were the vehicles doing stunts. Jun followed after him to keep him in sight.
Jinpei had almost reached a small brown building with bathrooms when Jun realized the thicker number of trees here had already put them outside of Nambu's line of sight. "Jinpei! Get back here!"
Her brother glanced back as he made the turn and smashed into someone coming around the corner. They both went down.
"Jinpei!" Jun dropped her cone and ran.
"You little shithead!" A teenage boy roughly pushed Jinpei off him onto the ground. He stood up, bright colored hair pointing everywhere from an uneven Mohawk. He straightened up, making disgusted sounds as he found Jinpei's ice cream seeping into the multitude of zipper's on his coat. "My jacket!"
The boy swung a booted foot at Jinpei's side but the latter squirmed deftly out of the way before he could connect. The teenager moved to pursue until Jun got in his way.
"Stop! It was an accident!"
"Out of my way, bitch, unless you're looking to get hurt." He stepped forward to tower over her.
Jun stiffened. "I won't let you hurt my brother!" Her face was set.
"Have it your way then." He reached out to grab her shoulder.
Jun took a half step back, side stepped him and then pushed. The teenager stumbled past her and Jinpei tripped him. He fell flat on his face. Something red dribbled on the ground.
"Now you've done it, cunt..." He stood up, livid with rage, one had pinching his bleeding nose while the other reached into a back pocket. "No more Mr. Nice Guy." He drew out a switchblade and opened it with an audible click. Its sharp blade shone in the light.
Jun stared at the shiny metal, fear filling her to the core. Yet all she could think about was how this man meant to use that on her brother and how she had to do everything she could to stop it. "Jinpei! Run!"
The punk smiled, advancing toward her as he swished his blade slowly back and forth before him. "Come here, chickie, I've got something nice and long for you."
Jun went into a half crouch. He wouldn't hurt her brother.
"Back off, asshole!"
Jun took a half glance off to her right, her eyes wide as they confirmed Joe was there. His car and remote sat on the ground beside him, his hands bunched into fists at his sides. The expression on his face wasn't kind.
"Get out of here, kid. This is a private conversation." The punk made a sweeping gesture in Joe's general direction.
Joe took a step forward, his mouth twisting with a snarl. "I guess it's just not so private anymore."
"Heh, and what do you think you can do alone, little man?" The half grin on the teenager's face predicted it couldn't be much.
"But he's not alone." Ken moved up to stand beside Joe, his face serene but his eyes cold.
"You got that right!" Ryu moved up on Jun's other side and helped Jinpei to his feet.
"I think this means that we have an excellent chance of kicking your ass, puny man." Joe's eyes promised the older boy a very painful death. The boy took a step back finding the odds not so overwhelmingly in his favor anymore.
Jun stared at his eyes, the fear receding as an unexpected feeling of warmth rushed through her. The teenager stared at them gauging his chances. He saw they weren't good, but still didn't want to back down. He took another look at Joe's face. His arm slowly came down and he put the blade away.
"Charlie? Where are ya man!" The teenager glanced behind him in the direction of the pavilion.
"Shouldn't you go clean that up before the zippers rust?" Ken sounded anything but concerned. The teenager threw him a scathing look after glancing down at his jacket. Ken smiled back coldly.
The teenager threw them all one last, long disgusted look and then turned away to go back toward the pavilion.
As he turned away, Jun instantly dismissed him from her mind and turned to her brother. "Jinpei, are you all right?"
"Sure, neechan!" Her brother grinned from his perch atop Ryu's shoulders. "We sure showed him."
Jun wasn't confident on that point, but was relieved he was okay.
"Are either of you hurt?" Ken's concerned voice came up behind her.
"No, we're fine." Jun felt her cheeks grow warm. "I'm sorry about causing all this trouble."
"Don't worry about it, I'm just glad you're okay."
Jun dared to look at him and found him smiling lightly. Beyond him, she spotted Joe's tense form still facing the way the other boy had gone.
Ryu brought Jinpei down and playfully roughed up his hair. "You're one tough little squirt, aren't you?"
Jinpei gave Ryu a frosty glare. "What's a squirt?"
Ken, Ryu, and Jun laughed.
"Looks like the idiot's gone back to his buddies. We'd better go back before grabs a couple of them and decides to come back for more." Ken quickly nodded yes to Joe's suggestion.
"Jinpei, how about I teach you how to drive the boat now?"
Jinpei took off. Ryu was hard pressed to keep up with him.
Joe moved to pick up his things.
"Thank you for your help." Jun didn't look at him directly, not sure how he would receive the thanks. To her surprise, the gruff boy looked suddenly uncomfortable and shrugged. "Forget it."
"Actually, Jun, you probably just made his day."
Joe threw Ken a dirty look. Ken grinned happily totally unperturbed by the daggers being thrown in his direction.
That night, Jun was helping Jinpei out of his clothes when they had an unexpected visitor. Jinpei spotted him first. "Neechan!"
Jun turned toward the door only to find a curiously subdued Joe standing halfway in the doorway. "Joe?"
He tossed a small bag into the room. "Hey, kid, try not to eat them all right away, okay?" He nodded once in Jun's direction and then left without saying anything else.
Jinpei scampered over to open the bag and found it to be full of chocolate candy bars.
The incident the day before didn't make Joe any friendlier, but as they discovered the next day at breakfast, his bite no longer seemed as sharp as it was before. Perhaps Ken had been right about him after all? Still, Jun couldn't forget the fact they didn't really belong no matter how the others felt. After eating breakfast, Jun and Jinpei once more made their way to watch Pham's class. They were welcomed eagerly by the others, and even Joe didn't seem as loath to have them there as on previous occasions.
Slowly, over the next several days, Pham maneuvered Jun and Jinpei away from their corner and had them join the boys in the center of the room. It made Jun feel unexpectedly happy as the five of them moved almost as one. For a time, at least, she could pretend they belonged. And though it wouldn't make the facts go away, she tried hard during these times not to remember they'd never been brought there to stay.
One morning, Pham varied their routine. For the first time since Jun and Jinpei became part of the class, Pham had them all sit while he picked two of the boys to become sparring partners. He chose Ken and Joe to go first.
Jun watched enraptured as the two boys bowed quickly toward one another and then began. Just like in his katas; Ken's movements were all smooth and exact. What Joe lacked in grace, however, he made up for in fierceness and power. Neither spoke as they fought, their entire concentrations focused on their task. Whenever either of them was flipped or hit, they'd still say nothing and would instantly get back up and press on.
When Pham finally told them to stop, he asked them to sit and then gently critiqued all they had done. He asked them questions and remained over each fault or praise until all understood why.
To Jun's surprise, Pham asked Ryu and Jinpei to go next. Jinpei jumped to his feet and ran to the starting position only too eager to go. Ryu got up more sedately, a small worried frown on his face. Joe's expression soured. Ken looked noncommittal. "Is this wise, Sensei?"
"Do not make judgments so quickly, Ken. Watch and you will see."
Jun held her breath, apprehensive despite their Sensei's confidence. Rikaw taught them well, but Ryu was still so much larger than Jinpei's tiny frame.
Ryu immediately swept forward to grab hold of Jinpei. He was fast for his size, but compared to him, Jinpei's small form moved like lightning. Tiny peals of laughter rang about the room as Jinpei avoided all of Ryu's advances. Jinpei circled, dodged, teased, and leapt all over Ryu. Though Jinpei's blows had little impact, still Ryu made no headway. He was breathing quite heavily by the time Jinpei finally misjudged a dodge and Ryu was able to grab hold of him and pin him to the floor.
"Very well done! Both of you," Pham said.
Jinpei was still laughing as the two of them joined the others for their critique. Ryu collapsed next to him and ruffled his hair while still working to catch his breath.
Jun fidgeted as Pham went through the critique of her brother's fight. Would she be excluded from this exercise? She held little hope of participating. They'd never been meant to be there, and she was a girl after all...
"Jun, you and Ken will go next," Pham said.
Joe's scowl grew even darker.
Jun's ears rang, her heart not quite daring to believe she heard right. She stared at their Sensei and he nodded for her to go ahead. She stood up slowly and moved into position. Regardless of what happened, she'd make sure Pham wouldn't regret his decision. She would give all she had to this and more! She didn't dare look at any of the others as she waited for Ken to join her.
Ken got up and set himself across from her. He smiled brightly at her as they bowed, but as he moved to take a ready stance, his expression turned serious. With a nervous jolt, Jun realized he would hold nothing back for her. A grin tugged gently at her lips, as she decided she wanted it no other way.
Ken didn't hesitate and came at her immediately. Jun avoided his first attack and quickly followed it with one of her own. Ken blocked it. The two of them parried back and forth until Ken sneaked through her guard. Before Jun could do anything, he grabbed hold of her gi and flipped her onto the mat. Jun's teeth rattled in her head as she hit the floor and tears sprung to her eyes. Knowing she couldn't stop or she might never be allowed to play again, she forced herself to move rather than lay there. As quickly as she could, she flipped back on her feet and attacked Ken.
Ken had more strength than she did, but she compensated for that with her legs' greater reach and store of power. A tickling chill of success flowed through her limbs as she was able to bring him down once. She was forced to quickly push aside her victory, however, as Ken rose back on his feet and came at her again with renewed vigor.
The two stopped where they stood. Jun tried not to sway as she wiped away the sweat from her eyes and attempted to get her breath back. Ken came up to her and patted her gently on the shoulder, a pleased smile on his face. "Great job!"
The kind words thrilled her more than she would have ever expected. Jun found herself eagerly returning the smile.
"He is quite right. You did very well indeed." Pham bowed in her direction. Jun felt her cheeks grew hot. Surely she couldn't have done that well.
"All right, neechan!" At Pham's praise Jinpei leapt to his feet and ran over to his sister's side to hug her. All the fuss only helped to make her even more self conscious than before.
Before Pham's critique could begin, Joe rose to his feet, bowed sharply to their teacher and then marched out of the room without a word.
Jun felt her heart sink.
"Do not let him bother you, child. He is only upset because you have done better than he expected." Jun stared at Pham not understanding what he meant at all.
After critiquing their performance, Pham dismissed them so they could go get ready for lunch. Jun followed her brother through the kitchen as they headed toward their rooms to change, only to find Joe waiting for them at the top of the stairs.
He had already cleaned himself and redressed. The scowl Jun had last seen on his face was still there. "I need to talk to you," he said.
"Sure." Jun averted her eyes not able to imagine what this might be about. "Jinpei, go on, I'll catch up in a minute." Her brother gave each of them a worried glance before doing as he was asked.
"Let's go back here." Joe pointed his thumb to one of the unused hallways behind him. Jun followed him into one of the rooms. Joe closed the door.
Jun felt her stomach tighten in knots. "What, what do you want to talk about?"
Joe turned to face her squarely. "You don't belong here."
Actually hearing the words told to her face brought an unimagined amount of pain. Jun refused to let it show. "We know that."
Joe gave her a cold look. "Then why do you insist on being part of things that have nothing to do with you?"
Jun stared at the floor. The pain still moved inside her. "We, we never meant to do that. But, does it really hurt so much to have us practice with you?" Didn't he realize what it meant to them?
"You have no idea on what we're doing here! It isn't right for either of you to be involved at all!" Joe's face was hard. "We're not here to play games. What we learn here could make the difference between life and death for us!"
Jun shook her head not having any idea what he was talking about.
"What has Ken told you?" It was an accusation more than a question.
"N - nothing, nothing about why you're really here."
"Hmph! That figures! Tell one too much and the others too little--typical Ken!" Joe looked even angrier than before. "Let me spell it out for you, okay? We're here to learn how to hurt people, to kill them! When we're ready, we'll be out there fighting some bastards that care nothing about anything or anyone. It won't be like it is here with Pham's little controlled scenarios. You two may look like you do okay here, but out there you wouldn't stand a chance!" His eyes locked with hers. "Have you ever watched someone die?"
Jun's reply was barely audible. "Yes. My aunt and the others..."
Joe looked away, caught off guard by her answer but only for a moment. "Then, then you know what I'm talking about. And to survive in that, we have to concentrate on our lessons, take out the distractions so we can master the lessons as best we can. We can't do that with you here, no matter how good you are! We can't let girls and babies join the team, so it doesn't do any good to have you in the lessons slowing us down!" His steel gaze met hers again. "Let Nambu find you a home. Go there, be happy! Or do you really think you'd rather make people die when you grow up? And what about your brother? Do you want him having a sister who's a killer? Would you like him to grow up to be a killer too? Maybe even watch him get killed?"
"We - we never -" Jun took a step back overwhelmed.
"Yeah, right! Who are you kidding? You think I'm blind? I've seen this happen before! Ken and I have no family, but Ryu? He liked what he saw here and despite everything he still got in. Now the two of you come along and it starts all over again. Well forget it! It's not going to happen!" He stepped forward menacingly. "Don't come to the classes anymore! Stay out of team business! Be good little guests and wait till Nambu finds you a nice, safe home and gets you out of here. You don't belong!" Joe turned to go.
A thousand questions bubbled up in Jun's mind, but one shouted out loudest of all. "Do you really hate us so much?" Her heart cried out with the pain.
Joe glanced back at her a mixed expression on his face. "You're wrong. I don't hate you at all and that's the biggest reason you've got to go."
Jun stared in total incomprehension as he opened the door and left.
Jun made her way back to her room in a foggy daze. Joe's words spun around her head as if they could find no purchase. Nambu... Nambu chose Rikaw so he could use him to kill. Ken, Joe, and Ryu as well. Why would he do that? And who were these people Joe had talked about? Surely they were killers or why would the boys have to learn how to kill? The monks had always taught them killing was not the way, that it was evil, yet... people had killed her aunt, people had killed Joe's parents. Was Nambu teaching them these things so they could stop that from happening? What did it matter! Nambu would never accept them even if it did. He would soon find them a home and they would leave here just like Joe wanted. None of it had ever been her decision to make. So why did it hurt so?
She didn't want to be a killer, but she also didn't want to leave. And Jinpei... Jinpei... How were they all really so different? Why couldn't she understand all this?
Jun snapped around to find Jinpei peeking in through the door. "Aren't you coming to lunch?"
"Y- yes, Jinpei. Be right there." She made herself hurry though she wanted nothing more than to avoid going down.
When she entered the kitchen, she looked at no one and went straight to her seat. She missed Ken's frown as he noticed her pale face as well as the fact Joe was ignoring everyone and cleaned his plate as fast as possible.
Jun ate mechanically, a deep need calling for her to do something but having no idea what.
"Jun, dear, are you all right?"
Jun forced her eyes back into focus and plastered a smile on her face for Pho's benefit. "Yes, I'm fine." She didn't miss the fact Pho traded confused glances with her husband. "I guess I just worked a little too hard today."
"I'm done." Joe pushed his chair back. "May I be excused?"
Jun bit her lip and sat still. Ken stared from his friend's tight face to Jun's and back again. Ryu and Jinpei stared at everyone not sure if something was going on.
"You've eaten enough, but what's your hurry," Pho asked.
"I'm falling behind on my studies. I need the time to catch up."
Jun flinched, accidentally dropping her fork on her plate. Ken's expression darkened. His eyes stuck to Joe like glue. Joe stared at Pho still ignoring everyone else. "May I go?"
"Yes, go ahead," she said.
Things became oddly muted after that, not that Jun really noticed. Ryu, Ken, and Pham soon left and so Jun set about cleaning the table as usual. As she stared at the few scraps on the plates, her eyes widened as an idea burst open in her head. When Jinpei and Pho weren't looking, Jun gathered some of the leftovers into a napkin and stuffed it into her pocket. She sat through the lesson afterwards trying hard to focus on it, but was heavily distracted by what she meant to do.
As soon as Pho left them in the TV room, Jun excused herself and gave Jinpei control over the remote. Quietly, she made her way through the house and out the front door. Keeping her eyes open for anyone, she made her way to the back of the estate and headed off toward the far corner. There, she found a small glade where tall trees without low branches shaded the connection of the outer walls. Critically, she stared at the site and decided it would do. She gathered what small branches and leaves she could find and stacked them in the corner to make a makeshift altar. Once she was done, she took out the rolled napkin in her pocket and set it open before it.
There were gods here, she was sure of it. And she needed their guidance and wisdom like never before. Through both her tours through Nambu's estate she hadn't seen a shrine of any type--at least not one she recognized. She'd decided to take the matter into her own hands and build her own.
Jun bowed before her offering and presented her apologies for the meagerness of it and the shrine she'd made. She begged the gods' and spirits' forgiveness for her ignorance and any errors she might make in paying homage. Then she prayed for guidance and gave promises of offerings to come.
She twisted around shocked anyone knew she was there. "Ken!" Her eyes met his and he quickly looked away.
"Sorry, I hadn't meant to intrude." He looked uncomfortable. "I, I just really needed to talk to you and I was coming to find you when I spotted you leaving the house." His sky blue eyes rose to meet hers again. "I didn't have much time or I would have waited..."
Jun quickly stood and wiped the grass nervously off her knees. "That's, that's okay." She bit her lip. "We didn't do something wrong again, did we?"
"No! Of course not." He hesitated a moment. "I thought that maybe... we had?"
Jun looked away and said nothing.
"It's Joe, isn't it?" He sounded slightly annoyed. "What did he do now?"
"N - nothing... He didn't do anything..." Jun focused her eyes on the ground. She needed, wanted guidance, answers. Could the gods have responded already and that was why he was here? Jun forced herself to look up. "But... could I ask a question?"
"Sure, go ahead."
"Is it, is it true the three of you are here to learn how to kill?"
Jun gasped at the vehemence in Ken's voice.
Ken stomped an angry foot on the grass and then looked up at her his eyes on fire. "We don't want to kill! We're here to learn how to protect the Earth from an evil group of people. If we have to kill to protect her and the people on it, we'll be prepared to do it, but it's not what we're about!" His eyes softened as he got a look at the shock on her face. "The terrorists we're going to fight want to take over our world and they'll kill everyone that stands in their way. They have to be stopped--the sooner the better! Less people will get hurt that way, people like you and Jinpei."
Jun looked away relief flooding through her. She believed him. The three of them might not be doing something the Holy One would approve of, but their reasons were right. "Jinpei and I realize that's very important. We never meant to get in the way."
"In the way...? You're not in the way at all! Why would you think such a thing?" His face abruptly darkened again. Now they both knew why. His eyes sought hers. "It's not true, okay? You're Hakase's guests, you could never be in the way. Don't pay any attention to Joe. He won't say another thing about it." He stared at her his face determined. "I swear it."
Jun didn't say anything, not sure what she should think.
"Please, just do me one favor? Don't mention to the grown ups what you know?"
Jun nodded. "I won't. I promise." She looked at him and found Ken staring intently at her. "Thank you."
He tried to smile. "So you will show up for class tomorrow? You and Jinpei?" His face was earnest. Could he really want them there? Jun found herself hoping it was so. She nodded slowly. "Great! Glad to hear it." He flashed her a wide smile. "I've got to go take care of something, so see you at dinner, okay?"
After Ken left, Jun knelt down before her shrine and thanked the gods for what they'd done.
Not long after, she made her way back into the house and rejoined her brother. When it was time, they moved on back to the kitchen for dinner and took their usual seats. Ryu and Nambu had already beaten them there. Within several minutes, Ken entered with Pham and Joe walking behind him.
Jun's eyes widened as she noticed Ken's grass stained shirt as well as cleaned cuts and scrapes on his face and arms. Joe didn't look much better. Jun felt herself grow cold as they sat down both wearing dark expressions on their faces. She got the sinking feeling somehow this had to do something with her.
Nambu frowned as he spotted them but said nothing as they sat. He sent a querying glance toward Pham, but the old man only shook his head and shrugged. Pushing his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose, Nambu locked his gaze with Ken's. "Would you mind explaining what's happened to the two of you?"
Ken looked away, his face blank but his eyes burning like coals. "I'd rather not say, Hakase."
Nambu's brow rose at the answer. His brown eyes moved toward Joe. "Would you care to enlighten me?" Joe looked over at him and shrugged. The doctor didn't look pleased. He stared from one to the other while Pho hovered in the background, dinner in hand. "I take it neither of you are going to cooperate then?" He got no answer.
"Ken, go wait in my office. Joe, you will wait in the study until I come for you. We will discuss this at length after dinner. You're dismissed."
Without a word, Ken pushed back his chair and got up to go. Joe glared at him long and hard before moving to do the same. No one dared look at either of them as they left.
"Did they hurt each other?" Nambu's eyes were hard as he passed the question to Pham.
"No. Some scrapes and bruises, nothing permanent. They came looking for me and asked me to check them, but would say nothing of what happened."
Jun glanced guiltily at her brother and saw his eyes were as big as saucers.
"Ryu, do you know anything about this?"
The hefty boy suddenly paled. "N-no, Hakase. They were fine before."
Jun bit her lip. This was her fault, she was sure of it. If the doctor asked her, should she lie? Could she? Nambu deserved better from her, but it would mean breaking her promise to Ken because surely he'd want to know all she knew. Desperately, she tried to come up with a good lie in case he asked. Luckily, he never did.
Dinner was quiet, everyone keeping their thoughts to themselves. Jun watched Nambu as he finished his meal and then quietly left the room a somber expression still on his face. Pho shooed her, Jinpei, and Ryu out of the kitchen when it looked like the three of them were going to stay.
"R- Ryu, what will Nambu Hakase do to them?" The three of them were sitting in the TV room, but no one moved to turn it on. Jun's question was barely above a whisper.
Ryu rubbed his feet uneasily against the carpet. "First, he'll try to find out what happened and then give them a lecture. If they tell him what he wants to know, he'll probably just take away their free time for a day or two. If not..." Jun found she couldn't breathe expecting something horrible. She already knew the two would never talk. "They won't get their allowance. They'll have to do chores during their free time and also all day Sunday. Nambu Hakase doesn't tolerate fighting."
Jun stared out the door of the room seriously considering going up to Nambu's office to state her blame in all this. She didn't move, unable to come up with a way to take the blame without revealing what she knew. Her dinner lay heavily in her stomach, knowing that Ken and Joe had to do without because of her.
"R-Ryu, do you, do you think Jinpei and I are in the way?"
"In the way, neechan?" Jinpei stared at her in confusion.
"Yes, I want to know if you think we're in the way of Nambu's project."
"Yes, the team project."
Ryu's mouth opened, but he said nothing. His eyes whipped frantically about the room for a moment. Jun couldn't tell if it was because he was looking for someone else to answer the question or just making sure no one else was there. "How... how did you find out? Did Ken tell you?" Jun had to lean forward to hear his words.
"Does it matter? I just want to know if you think we're in the way."
"Neechan?" Jinpei's face was a maze of confusion as he stared from one to the other of them.
"N-no. You're not in the way." A shy smile flickered on his face for a moment. "It's kinda nice having somebody around here younger than me to pick on."
Jun nodded slightly, the tension easing slightly from her shoulders. "Could I ask you something else?"
Ryu's face sobered, his eyes avoiding hers. "S-sure."
"Why are you in it? With the things you might have to do, why did you join? Or did you have no choice?" Jun waited breathlessly to see if he would answer.
Ryu rubbed absently at his legs and then looked up at her. "I'm here because I want to be here. I want to be on the team." He stared at his hands. "I'm not happy about some of the things we might have to do, but people have to be protected." He glanced at her a moment, a haunted look in his eyes. "I've seen, I've seen the kinds of things they'll do to people, the kinda things they'll do to our planet. They have to be stopped! And, and I want to do my share to make sure they are. They just can't be allowed to hurt people anymore." His whole body shook with his conviction.
"I see." All that Ken said was as true as she'd believed. They were fighting to save people, just like the knights and princes in her fairy tales.
"Neechan, I don't understand!"
Jun looked over at her brother and smiled. "Joe, Ken, and Ryu are going to do some very important work for Nambu Hakase. It's why they're learning the Art."
"Oh." His eyes lit up. "Can we help?"
Jun felt a jolt of mixed emotions at the question, but quickly stated what she knew could be the only answer. "No, that's not for us."
"Oh..." Jinpei looked crestfallen.
"Hey, you could help me beat the Evil Ant Queen though!" Ryu turned on the television and quickly brought out the video games.
Jinpei's face lit up again. "Okay!"
Jun watched them play until it was time for them to turn in. They never saw or heard anything about Ken or Joe the rest of the evening.
The next day, Jun felt tense and nervous as she and Jinpei made their way downstairs after breakfast. Ken and Joe stood on opposite sides of the room both doing their utmost to ignore each other. Jun pushed to do her best in class, wanting to make sure she did nothing that would slow the others down.
After dinner that night, Ken and Joe went off with Pham to do chores. The two glared death at each other on their way out. Jun stared at nothing as she cleared the table trying to figure out a way to fix everything. She swept scraps into a napkin and sneaked outside to pray for the boys before it got too dark outside.
Sunday, they had to leave Ken and Joe behind so they could do chores. Jun spent all her money, after badgering Ryu, on things she hoped the two would like. As soon as they returned home, she sneaked into their room and left the gifts on their beds like offerings. She bowed down and gave a quick prayer then turned to go. Her heart nearly stopped as she turned around and found a sweating Joe walking through the doorway. Their eyes met.
"What are you -"
"I'm sorry!" She tore past, her body hitting the doorframe in order to avoid touching him as she went past, and ran off down the hall. Jun felt Joe's eyes boring into her until well after she disappeared from sight.
A few days passed and everyone seemed to come to a state of quiet tolerance if not acceptance. As promised, Joe made no more comments about Jun and Jinpei not belonging but neither did he welcome them any more than before.
One day after lunch, Jun was distracted as she stacked the dishes in the sink when she noticed Pham was lingering about the kitchen. Normally, Pho's husband left along with the others as soon as he was done. From the way Pho kept sending questioning glances in his direction, Jun was sure the older woman was as distracted by the unusual event as she.
"Jun, why don't you and Jinpei go get your books so we can get started with our lessons right away?" Though she spoke to them, Pho's eyes were on her husband.
"Yes, Pho." Jun frowned as she led her brother out of the kitchen sure they'd just been sent away so that husband and wife could speak alone. Did something happen? Had they done something wrong? Jun racked her brain trying to think of what it could be but came up with nothing. Still, she couldn't get rid of the strange feeling this somehow had something to do with them.
"Jinpei, go on ahead without me. I need to ask Pho something."
Jinpei gave her a strange look and then shrugged. "Sure, neechan." He bounced up the stairs. After making sure he was going, Jun sneaked her way back to the kitchen.
She hugged the wall as she placed her ear close to the open doorway.
"And he will consider it," Pham asked.
Jun heard a deep sigh. "I don't believe so. He doesn't see what we do. He doesn't understand how they could prove to be a good balance." Pho sounded tired.
"That is a shame. I would have thought he could see what good they could be for them. To be able to be with others who are not involved."
Jun held her breath, made certain by Pham's last remark they were indeed talking about them.
"Will you speak to him of this?"
"I will, but he is stubborn, as you know. Have you asked about his efforts?"
Pho sighed again. "He has spoken to a number of institutions, but has not had good results. Finding a home for one is bad enough, but for two? At least he does understand that separating them would be wrong--especially after all they've lived through. But if he cannot find someone and he will not keep them, they will be sent to an orphanage till they come of age."
Jun suddenly found it very hard to breathe. Her chest ached and her stomach twisted inside her. An orphanage--that was what the Chunese called the monastery. Going to one would be the same as never having left Tebet at all. Suddenly, she didn't want to hear anymore. She wished with all her heart she'd not heard any of it. She forced herself to back away as silently as she came.
Nambu's promises for a home looked to be as empty as all the other promises in her life. That didn't really matter though, she didn't want a home--she'd already found one. This should be their home! She would have gone to another if she had to, but now they'd have none.
Jun knew they'd have no choice in the end but to send them to an orphanage. The gods were cruel-she didn't escaped her fate after all. And here, here there was no way for her to disguise what she was, no way to hide the shame of her birth.
What would she tell Jinpei? It was obvious he wanted to stay here even more than she did. How could she bring herself to tell him that not only were they not going to be able to stay, but that they'd get no home at all? A sob racked through her thin frame before she could stop it. Tears welled in her eyes. How?
Jun ran past the stairs and out to the foyer, trying to escape what she knew. She rushed outside, the high humidity pressing about her. What could she do? Where could she go? There was nothing--nowhere. Bitter tears ran down her cheeks. The gods couldn't desert them. Not now! She ran blindly down the path around the house toward her shrine. She fell breathless to her knees before it, her tears burning her cheeks.
She prayed to the spirits and gods of this place for mercy, but part of her insisted all of it was in vain, that she deserved no better. Everything before her became a green and brown blur and felt incredibly alien to her. -- they don't belong -- Another painful sob racked through her. It was over. It had all been for nothing. She wouldn't be able to escape her fate after all. She covered her face with her hands and cried.
"Jun? Are you out here?"
She froze, like a doe dazzled by headlights, at the sound of Ken's worried voice. What was he doing out here? Had he seen her? Jun scrambled behind the closest tree not wanting him to see her behaving like a child. She'd tried so hard to prove she was strong, that she'd never do anything to hold them back. Were the spirits so angry they'd take this from her too? Jun shut her eyes and drew up her knees, hoping against hope that Ken wouldn't find her. She tensed as she heard his footsteps enter the grove. No, please, no!
"I know you come here everyday." His voice fluctuated as he looked for her. "I, I saw you run out." Jun tried to make herself even smaller. "I just want to make sure you're okay."
Go away! Go away!
"Jun, what's wrong?"
She groaned and turned her body away from the sound of his voice as she realized he'd found her after all. "N- nothing."
"You don't really expect me to believe that, do you?"
Jun flinched, hearing Ken kneel down beside her, his worry pummeling her with full force. She'd have run, embarrassed and ashamed, but she had no idea where to go.
"Did Joe do something?" His voice was tight.
"No!" Jun stood up quickly still keeping her back to him. "Please, I'm all right." She shook as she tried to regain some control.
"You don't look all right." Jun felt a tingle run through her as Ken gently placed his hand on her shoulder. The tears fell again even more strongly than before.
Family... Jinpei had wanted Ken and Ryu to become part of their family. It was so unfair! If only they could stay. Why had she been born this way? What had been the point? "We don't want to go!"
"Go? Go where?"
Jun bit her lip never having meant to say the thought out loud. She took a step away from him, wishing fervently for a way to take it back. "It's not--it's not important. I'm just being ungrateful. It's nothing to worry--about." Jun quickly wiped the falling tears from her face and tried to calm herself. She was being ungrateful--it was true. They'd already been given so much by Nambu, she had no right to expect more. Her fate was her own and was no one's fault but hers.
"They've found you a home.... That's it, isn't it."
Jun glanced back at him, more surprised by the dead tone in his voice than by the fact he'd come so close to guessing what was wrong. Why would he care about what happened to them? She looked away not understanding. "No... They haven't. There are--problems. But we will have to go to an, to an orphanage soon if they can't." I will soon be picked up and forced into service and I will never see my brother again. Jun stared unseeing at the ground beneath her.
Jun tensed, confused by the determination echoing in that one word. But why? Did it feel to him too that they belonged? Did he want them to stay? Jun squelched the thought and the feelings rising with it. There was no hope. Her fate was sealed. "We--we don't belong here. We aren't what Nambu Hakase is looking for. We're not part of his project. We have no right to ask for more."
"You won't be leaving." His voice was close. "I won't let you. You don't belong in an orphanage. You need a family."
Jun turned around and looked at him. Though she knew better, a warm feeling spread through her at his words nevertheless. She would be grateful to him forever for those words, but knew better than to believe them. She shook her head. "You can't fight fate... But, thank you." She tried hard to smile.
"I meant what I said." Ken's sky blue eyes locked with hers. "You'll see."
Before Jun could say anything, he turned away and went back into the house. She stared after him, her chest tight, as the picture of his determined face played itself over and over again in her mind.
By the time she went back into the house, Jun had dried her tears and started to feel more like her normal self. Walking quickly, she headed for the kitchen, sure Jinpei had long beaten her there and that Pho would be wondering where she was.
"Neechan! There you are. Where were you?" Jinpei pushed some blank writing paper to her place at the table.
She stared at her hands wondering if her brother told Pho she'd supposedly come back to talk to her. "I - I was talking to Ken. I got distracted. I'm sorry."
"That's all right." Pho smiled at her, but there seemed to be a slightly puzzled look in her eyes.
They started in on their lessons, but Jun found it hard to keep her mind focused on the task. Ken's words and the utter determination she'd seen on his face kept intruding on her thoughts. What did he think he could possibly do? The more she tried to put it out of her mind, the more insistent it became.
They gathered up their things as Pho prepared supper. Jun grew ever more nervous as the question of what Ken might do and Nambu's arrival from work loomed ever closer.
When the time for dinner arrived, the three boys joined them, seeming a lot more subdued than usual. Jun kept her eyes on her own plate not wanting to even accidentally glance at Ken, afraid of what she might see. She missed Ryu's sad eyes and Joe's tight face, though Ken's own features were clear. Jinpei didn't seem to notice anything was amiss and happily filled in any voids in the conversation. He even captured Nambu's attention and drew the new kanji they learned for him in the air.
The food vanished quickly yet no one made a move to leave when Pho stopped pushing food on them.
Jun dared to peek in Ken's direction, a tight feeling in her stomach telling her something was up. She felt herself grow cold all over as she spotted him staring intently at Nambu.
"Hakase, there's a matter I'd like to talk to you about."
Nambu gave Ken his full attention, his brow rising at the boy's tight tone. "Sure, Ken. What is it?"
He was going to do it! Jun heart jumped into her throat. Don't do it! Don't!
"Hakase, I've spoken with the others... and we'd like you to let Jun and Jinpei stay." Ken's serious expression made him look older than his years. "They're capable and have proved trustworthy. We want them to stay."
Nambu's brow rose again. "Perhaps this would be something better discussed in private."
Jun felt her chest tighten. Nambu didn't sound pleased.
"Everyone here is involved, Hakase."
"Ken... You know it isn't as simple as that."
Ken's face grew determined. Jun was positive he wouldn't let this go.
"Hakase, it's not right to send them to an orphanage. And they do have skills we could learn from both of them. They can help us hone our talents, give us different people to practice with other than just ourselves."
"How do you-- ?"
Pham chose that moment to speak. "The children have been practicing with us during the morning sessions."
"Ken--" Nambu's tone had grown even more displeased.
"I had nothing to do with it this time, Hakase. They found the lower levels on their own."
"And, since they made it that far, I saw no harm in having them join us." Pham stared at Nambu a knowing look on his face. "Kozaburo, they are quite good. It would take others years to learn what they already know."
Jun saw Nambu's gaze stray toward her and she quickly averted her eyes to her lap. She knew what he would say--there'd never been another choice. Her fate was hers.
"I don't recall making decisions that affect the team an open forum." Nambu's tone was cold. -- They don't belong -- It sent chills running down Jun's spine. "Ken, we will continue this in my office--in private." The doctor stood up his eyes hard.
"But, Hakase --"
"In my office or not at all." His tone left no room for argument.
"Yes, sir." Ken stood up to follow him.
Jun tried to catch his attention, to think up of some way to try to dissuade him from his chosen course, but he never looked her way his face as determined as ever. She watched helplessly as they left the room.
"Ne - neechan, what's going on?"
Jun opened her mouth to answer her brother but no words came out.
"They're only trying to figure out if you should take more classes with the boys, dear." Pho smiled easily at Jinpei, yet her eyes were dark. "Help me with the dishes, won't you?"
"Okay!" Jinpei bounced out of his chair to help.
"Ken will take care of it. He got me in." Ryu leaned over to whisper this to her, his eyes on the doorway. Jun glanced over in Joe's direction, having heard nothing from him so far. She looked away as she found the doubt of the outcome written all over his face.
"Boys, come with me. I need help with a couple of chores," Pham said.
"Come along. This business does not concern you." Pham got up and made sure they followed him to the kitchen's back door.
"Jun dear, don't you think you should get upstairs? I believe something is happening there that might interest you."
Jun stared at the old woman in surprise, realizing what it was she was telling her to do. Did she guess that was what she'd done earlier? "I--"
"Go, child, go. Even Kozaburo cannot deny fate."
She left the kitchen, her mind a swirl of confusion. Fate--that was why she felt this would never work. Yet this was the second time Pho had mentioned that Nambu could not deny it. Did she know something Jun didn't? Didn't she realize why this could never be?
Jun ran up the third floor and gingerly approached Nambu's closed office door. She put her ear to the dark wood and jumped back as Nambu's voice boomed through.
"Ken, you're being unreasonable!"
Shaken by the outburst, she still came back when she couldn't hear Ken's reply. Her fingers trembled as she made herself reach out and gently twist the knob on the door. With great care, she cracked the door open just enough to take a peek inside.
Nambu was standing at his desk, his hands on top of it as he leaned forward over it. Ken stood on the desk's other side, his body tense and tight.
"You know it's not as easy as that. I'm not saying I mistrust your judgment, but I don't think you're looking at the full picture." Nambu suddenly sighed and sat down. Ken continued facing him, his determination not waning in the least. When Nambu spoke again, his tone was more subdued.
"Though it's never looked it, this house is a top secret installation. It is a place of secrets and danger. It isn't a place for children. It's not a home. Their lives haven't been kind. Yet now they have an opportunity to start over, to have better, more normal lives. They wouldn't have that here."
"Being sent to an orphanage is a better life?"
Nambu's brow rose. "There's no reason to think it will come to that. And even if it did, yes, it still would be better."
"But they want to stay, Hakase."
The doctor nodded. "That may be so, but as we both know, they don't understand what it means."
Ken hesitated. Jun held her breath, waiting to hear what he'd say next. "Can't we at least explain it to them? Let them decide on their own, once they have all the facts, whether they'd like to stay or not? We need them."
Nambu looked away and stared at the file cabinets around him deep in thought. Ken shifted uneasily where he stood as he waited. Jun stared at them both, her heart pounding in her chest. After a minute or so, Nambu looked over and locked his gaze with Ken's.
"No. The security risk is too great. And even if I explained it, I doubt they would understand. This isn't right for them. They don't belong."
-- They don't belong --
Jun's eyes filled with pain filled tears as she backed away. It was as she'd expected--Ken would never win. It was over....
No! She wouldn't let Jinpei and herself be sent to an orphanage. She wouldn't lose all that she had gained! She would just go on and carry through with her original plan, even if the gods and spirits had decided to desert them. The two of them would make it on their own. She wouldn't go back!
Jun rushed back to her room and stared at their recently gained possessions. All this had been given to them by Nambu. And with him they would remain, except for... Jun snatched a blanket from her bed and folded it neatly before tucking it under her arm. She gave the room one long last look, a feeling of loss coming over her. She stared longingly at her books knowing they couldn't come with her and made herself go out the door.
She sped down the stairs but slowed as she reached the first floor landing. From there, she made her way quietly toward the kitchen. Peeking in through the doorway, she spotted Jinpei passing a wet rag over the table as Pho hummed at the sink cleaning the last of the dishes. Keeping half an eye on the spry old woman in case she moved, Jun waved at her brother to come and then moved back out into the hall.
When he joined her, she made a shushing motion as he opened his mouth. Jun took his hand in hers and led him quickly away. They headed toward the front of the house.
"Neechan? What are we doing?"
Jun put her finger to her lips and didn't answer his question until they made it outside. "Jinpei, we're leaving."
"Leaving? But aniki said--" He came to an abrupt stop.
"Nambu Hakase will not let us stay. We don't belong here. We've overstayed our welcome and it's time to go." She pulled on his hand to get him moving again but he resisted.
"I want to stay here, neechan."
"We can't! Now come!" She yanked on his arm and moved down the drive. Jun didn't look at him as she heard him quietly crying at her side. She kept her eyes on the gravel road as they went on, not wanting to see the plants and trees that had brought her such joy before. They would make it on their own. Thinking of what they were losing would get her nowhere at all.
"And where do you think you're going?"
Jun looked to the side, startled by the voice on their left. Joe stared at them, as he stood behind a partially mangled bush with a large pair of shears. Jun looked away and continued to lead her brother down the drive.
"Hey, I asked you a question!"
She ignored the outburst, only to find Joe suddenly jumping before them to impede their way. "Leave us alone!"
Jun dragged Jinpei to the right to go around him. Joe moved to block their way until she was forced onto the grass. "You're not going anywhere until you answer my question."
She glared at him--angry he was in their way, angry they had to go, angry her fate was hers. "We're leaving! We don't belong here and we don't wish to stay where we're not wanted."
Jun moved to get past him again but Joe cut her off. "You can't do that."
"Leave us alone!" She dropped down to sweep Joe's legs out from under him, but this time the older boy was ready for her and jumped back out of the way.
"Is that what you use to solve all your problems? Well, it won't help you for long out there." He pointed over his shoulder toward the outside.
"What do you care? You should be happy we're leaving!" There had to be a way she could get around him.
"Neechan..." Jinpei wiped at his face, staring at the two of them with widening eyes.
"Happy? No. Besides, how are you expecting to survive out there? You don't have money. You don't know anyone. How are you expecting to get food? Where are you going to sleep?"
"It's not your problem!" Jun dashed forward fully expecting Joe to try and block her way. She made a faint to the right and then tried to trip him, dodging suddenly to the left. Joe's foot swung out from under him but on his way down his hands grabbed hold of her arms and took her down with him.
They rolled in the grass even as Jun struggled to disentangle herself from him. Joe kept his hold on her arms and used his greater weight to pin her on the ground. "Let go of me!"
"And here I thought I was stubborn." Joe grinned as Jun bucked beneath him trying all she could to throw him off. "You know, for somebody who wants to stay, you sure seem to be trying awfully hard to leave."
"We're not going to an orphanage," she screamed.
Jinpei stared from one to the other not sure what he should do.
Jun stopped thrashing, unsure as to what Joe was up to. "You don't want us here."
"I don't want you slowing us down. There's a difference!" His eyes softened. "I also thought Nambu could find you a home. Guess I was wrong."
"So what? It doesn't change anything."
"Maybe. Maybe not." His gaze locked with hers. "What will you do if I stop you and they do send you to an orphanage?"
Jun looked away, the thought sending fear shooting through her. Her fate dictated the orphanage was where she should go--but it was wrong. She glanced over at her brother, where he'd sat down on the grass, confusion staining his drying face. Jinpei--he meant everything to her. She would never bow down and lose him. "We would find a way to escape. We've done it before and we can do it again."
Jun wrenched hard to the right, catching Joe off guard. "Jinpei, run to the gate!" He didn't move.
Before she could make it to her feet, Joe tackled her from behind bringing the two of them down again. "Let go!"
Joe pinned her on her stomach.
"Gee it really does look like you put an awful lot of effort into leaving. With so much gumption, why aren't you fighting to stay instead? Ken's up there right now fighting for you. Why don't you go up there and help him?" He suddenly let go of her and stood up. "Maybe you really don't want to stay." His eyes were bright.
Jun sat up and turned burning eyes in his direction. "We've no right to demand more from him. He's done more than he ever had to do for us! And he's already made up his mind."
"I've never let any of that stop me, so why should you?" He gave her a disbelieving sniff. "You just don't want to stay."
"Then do something about it! Come with me back to the house and talk to Nambu right now!"
Jun stared at him trying to read his face. All this time, Joe had been the one pushing the fact they didn't belong. Could only the reason they would be sent to an orphanage change his mind? It made no sense! "But you don't want us to stay."
"Oh, and is what I want so important? What about what you want?"
Jun looked away. What did she want? She wanted to stay. Wanted it more than anything. They'd gone through so much to get this far. If the gods were angry with them, how much more did she really have to lose though? A strange sense of calm drifted through her. She slowly got up to her feet. "O - okay, I'll fight."
Joe grinned from ear to ear. "Great! Ladies first." He swept his hand back the way they came.
Jun walked over to her brother and picked him up. Jinpei didn't say anything as he kept his eyes riveted on Joe. He walked behind them as they went up the drive making sure she had no second thoughts.
"Ryu! Hey, Ryu!"
"Whazzit?" The large came out from a set of bushes on the far side of the house.
"Come on, we're going to go talk to Nambu. Give Ken some help."
Ryu looked momentarily baffled but then nodded and ran to join them.
Jun put Jinpei down as they started up the stairs. She felt a coil of nervousness grab hold for what she was about to do, but at the same time felt strangely comforted by the presence of those coming with her.
All seemed peculiarly quiet as they approached Nambu's door. A final jolt of apprehension sliced through her as she reached for the doorknob. Opening it, the first thing she spotted was Ken, standing close to Nambu's desk, his shoulders slumped as if in defeat. Nambu's chair was turned away from him, the latter's voice low as he spoke to someone on the telephone. Jun felt her blood suddenly go cold. She had to force herself to step inside.
Ken heard her and the others as they came in. After a look of initial surprise, he suddenly smiled. A glimmer of warmth filled Jun's heart at the welcoming sight. For the first time, it truly felt like she really wasn't alone in this. She smiled back and then moved to stand mostly beside him, just a step closer to Nambu's desk.
The others moved up behind her, silent as cats. They waited tense and quiet while Nambu remained turned away from them on the phone.
Jun felt a jolt speed through her as Nambu said goodbye and hung up the phone. As soon as his chair turned, he spotted the five of them. His brows rose high. Jun made herself speak out before the doctor had a chance to.
"Hakase, Jinpei and I want to stay. If we can't, we'll run away rather than go to an orphanage." Her gaze locked with his. "You know we can do that. But we'd rather stay. We wouldn't be a burden. We'd work to pay our way." She tried not to sound as desperate as she felt.
Nambu shook his head.
"Ask of us whatever you will," Jun insisted. "We'll eat less. We'll wear our clothes till they're gone. Work for you night and day." She searched for what else she could say. "We won't get in the way of the project."
Nambu's brow rose.
Jun swallowed hard, her chest tight, and forced herself to give the only other thing she could. "If you let us stay, I'll, I'll willingly share your bed." The doctor's eyes grew wide. She pushed on. "I'd rather give myself to you than be taken by a stranger and dragged away from my brother." She put her soul into her words. "I promise not to fight you or cry. Please, just let us stay!"
Nambu's mouth moved but no words came. He looked away, his cheeks darkening considerably. Ken stepped forward. "I'll forfeit my allowance and work during my free time if they're allowed to stay."
"Me too, Hakase!" Ryu stepped forward as well.
Jinpei stepped forward, caught in the moment. "Me three!"
Nambu frowned, his eyes going from one to the other of them. "This, this is highly irregular..."
Joe stepped forward. "Count me in too. What the hell." He shrugged and then threw a glance at Jun, a small grin tugging at the side of his mouth.
Whether Nambu decided to let them stay or not, she would never forget this moment. She had never felt happier in her entire life. For this one moment she felt that she belonged.
"You're all determined to do this?"
Nambu received five simultaneous nods.
"It's what we want, Hakase. It's what's right," Ken said.
Nambu was silent for a time, once more staring into their eager faces. Jun felt her heart hammering inside her chest as she didn't dare to hope, wishing somehow she could freeze this moment forever if Nambu's answer was anything but what they wanted.
The doctor sighed softly and then nodded. "They can stay."
Jun found herself lifted off her feet in a death hug with her brother and was swung around with wild abandon by Ryu.
It wasn't until he finally put them down, dizzy and breathless, that Jun realized what they were just told. They were going to stay!
Ken and Joe crowded close congratulations flying at her. Tears coursed down her face but unlike those before, these were filled with joy. They'd finally found a place to belong!