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.